I was twenty-two years old the first time I saw the Mississippi River, twenty-six the second time, twenty-nine the third, forty-eight the fourth. On this trip, I am fifty-five. And every time I see the Mississippi River, I see it for the first time.
I acknowledge Heraclitus. I acknowledge the relentless influence of time—of the river in time, of the self in time—but I mean something bigger. The Mississippi River is immense and heart-rending, a churn of muscle and movement and promise and threat and raw, incalculable beauty so huge it’s impossible to hold in mind after I have turned away. Later, remembering, I resort to language, and even then to the broadest possible words: Water. Light. Motion. Sky. As though I am remembering only my own impression of the river and not the river itself.
I try to imagine what it must have been like for the first human beings to move toward that light through the dark forest for the first time, to glimpse a flare of light on moving water, to step out of the trees and see the light of the sun on that broad, flashing river. All those close trees, the shadows of the close trees—to step out of the shadows and see the sky for the first time as it settles on the river, connects with the water, so that air and water and light are conjoined in a blaze of something magnificent. For that first instant it was surely something that could not be fathomed, the way waking into darkness means for an instant not knowing if your eyes are open or closed.
For that instant, it is not the life-giving source of water and fish and passage. For that instant, it is not the roiling fury that can swallow whole any land-walking, air-breathing creature. It is only itself, unlike any other thing. It was here long before we were here, and it will be here after we are gone. It will erase all trace of us—without malice, without even recognition. And when we are gone to ground and all our structures have crumbled back to dust, the river will become again just the place where light and water and sky find each other among the trees.