Reading About the River

Some books are just “too good to put down,” although all too often we have to do just that. On the other hand, the extra time we spend in such books lends itself to savoring. Consider this description of Mr Crow’s river:

No matter how much it may be used by towing companies and water companies and commercial fishermen and trappers and the like, the river doesn’t belong to the workaday world. And no matter how much it is used by pleasure boaters and water-skiers and the like, it doesn’t belong to the vacation world either. It is never concerned, if you can see what I mean. Nothing keeps to its own way more than the river does.

Sometimes, living right beside it, I forget it. Going about my various tasks, I don’t think about it. And then it seems just to flow back into my mind. I stop and look at it. I think of its parallel, never-meeting banks, which yet never part. I think of it lying there in its long hollow, at the foot of all the landscape, a single opening from its springs in the mountains all the way to its mouth. It is a beautiful thought, one of the most beautiful of all thoughts. I think it not in my brain only, but in my heart and in all the lengths of my bones.[i]

I’ve nearly finished the life story of the barber of Port William. His shop and its surrounds have been more than a summer’s literary distraction. He writes of the country of my own extended family: the slopes of the hills and culverts are familiar, as are the town shops and benches in which and on which the talk of the town, and thus its very life, is shared. I was young and raised away from the rural farms of my parents,  but I still witnessed what the steady pressure of modernity brought upon these unsuspecting places. On a macro-scale we might say towns were bypassed. On a microscale, it meant the loss of buying a Nehi at the general store and forested dells sectioned forever by the progressive ribbons of “interstate highway.”

But today I want to share the joy in Jayber Crow’s friendship with Burley Coulter. Burley is often wandering and hunting in the woods and then seen doing others good and setting people to rights. He goes out of his way to set up and befriend Jayber, for instance, and their “membership” with one another, along with a few others in Port William, extends some 40 years.

“He was a man aboundingly evident, and yet one who belonged in some part to mystery, who lived the life of the place in a way that none of us entirely knew.” Jayber’s words describing Burley echo off the pages and take me down the years. I fly out of line in the Cambridge coffee shop and off to the River, to Jayber’s cabin. And when Jayber asks Burley’s son Danny about leasing this heavenly spot, because “…I want to be square with you, now,” and your eyes move to the final sentence there on page 319… you’ll forgive me, won’t you,  for whipping out my sunglasses so no one in line can see my tears?

Or perhaps not.  Perhaps I should let them fall. Burley’s gone, after a full, full life I remind myself. Besides, in this particular moment is it so unusual to cry for a man I don’t know and a place I haven’t been? But that’s not right,  I think as I leave the shop. I have known Burley, and I have been to that place.

Wendell Berry has taken me there.


[i] Berry, Wendel. Jayber Crow. Berkeley, Counterpoint, 2000, page 310.


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