Visiting the Poudre River

Visiting the Poudre River

As many of you know, I began my graduate studies this fall at Colorado State University in creative writing. An assignment in one of my classes required that I choose an outdoor “site,” which I am to visit on a regular basis, take notes, and then journal about it later. I’ve been visiting the Cache la Poudre River, which runs through Fort Collins, via the city-owned Poudre Trail, for a little over a month now. On my last visit, Friday September 30th, I took my camera along with me. Here are some excerpts from journal so far, along with a few photos.

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A sign for the Poudre Trail via Lee Martinez Park in Fort Collins, CO

August 20

I arrived at my site at 3:20PM. It was 86° Fahrenheit and mostly sunny, with puffy white cumulonimbus clouds in the north. I was sitting on the south bank of the river, the water flowing east. The river appeared almost a copper color because of the stones in its bed. The current was rather swift –as I could tell by the passing inner tube floaters—like a slow jog. According to the markings on the underside of the Poudre Trail pedestrian bridge over the river, the water was just under three feet deep.

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Willows and cottonwoods on the Poudre’s north bank

All around me were dogs, children swimming, and more people walking, running, or biking on the paved trail. Through the trees and over the sound of rushing water I could hear people cheering, laughing, and chatting. There was a constant sound of crickets chirping, and an occasional whisper of breeze through foliage.

In the water, a fresh four-foot Russian Olive branch with all its leaves floated by. I noticed stray, straight spider-silk threads in the grass and in the elm branches above me. Slowly a dragonfly flew by me toward the east. Some individual sparrows crossed the river as well. Dogs barked in the distance, and thunder could be heard coming from the north; the clouds grew darker across the river.

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September 12

I always thought the Poudre River was named after snow powder, especially since it drops 7,000 feet in elevation from the Rockies through a narrow, chiseled canyon, to conjoin with the South Platte River east of Greeley, Colorado. It actually refers to French Canadian trappers, in the early 1800’s, hiding their cache of gunpowder there during a particularly bad blizzard. The Poudre River is Colorado’s only nationally recognized “Wild & Scenic River.”

Behind me, a woman running west clears her throat. Two bikes tick east. The sun clouds over.

September 17

Today the Cache la Poudre River is just over one foot tall, the pedestrian bridge informs me.

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This means about 775 gallons of river water, of Rocky Mountain snowmelt, are flowing beneath that bridge every second. What seems like a humble stream to the eye—especially with monumental rivers in my mind, the Colorado and Snake nearby, the New and Mississippi and Chattanooga out east—is really a powerhouse, always on the move. Small yellow leaves are floating downstream, to the east, away from the Rocky Mountains and toward the South Platte River, toward the heartland. I read that brown trout spawn here in the fall, but I see no fish in the clear water down to the copper-y bottom, littered with round granite stones. Sometimes I hear the fish—a sudden catch of water, white flash slap above the surface.

Along the bank two blue jays stutter squawks at one another. One flies into view and lands on a yellowing cottonwood branch. His body is a jewel blue and he wears a white collar just above his breast, beneath a blue cockscomb. Later I learn this is the edge of the blue jay’s livable range, as far as they come; the foothills of the Rocky Mountains halt them the way they halted railroads, the way they still halt clouds and precipitation.

I think about the river, about the trout. What would it feel like to live in water constantly flowing in one direction? Not like an ocean where the tide is a rhythm of give and take, but always east, the way our ancestors felt pulled westward continually. I ask a fisher friend about the trout—the brown, the rainbow, the cutthroat. He says you can often go back to the same spot on the Poudre or Snake or wherever, the same hole or stone, and catch the very same fish—they don’t stray too far. My concept of fish life has been shaped mostly by the story of spawning salmon and—let’s face it—Finding Nemo, so this was news to me, that fish don’t drift or migrate or explore in spite of the debris that floats right by, that the river doesn’t become their timeline on which to travel. I thought a good metaphor might be that little conveyor belt in sushi restaurants that slowly slides enticing sashimi and rolls right before your eyes, for the taking. I guess a river might feel more like that to a fish—food constantly coming and going all day, all night, abundance set spinning by the engine of gravity, by the churning of season, of freeze and thaw.

September 22

I count thirty-five bleats of train horn in the span of several minutes. A helicopter hovers somewhere to the south and car engines rumble to the east. Behind me, bikes pass and dog leashes jingle. Occasional bits of conversation slip through the weeds—two students stressed about the new semester, a mother making safety-related requests of her young child on a miniature bicycle, two middle-aged women building each other up. A propeller plane’s engine rattles from above, behind cover of low, gray clouds.

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Cottonwoods framing the Poudre River Trail

I have just heard how little land in this country remains untouched by human-generated noise. If not an interstate, then a highway. If not a highway, then a railroad. If not a railroad, then trails for ATVs or snowmobiles. If not a trail, then a reservoir with a marina. And if no marina, then planes etching their contrails above, or helicopters leading rescues of people lost in the wilderness. Silence deserts. The scarceness of silence. This must have devastating effects on animals, especially those who rely on their hearing to find prey, to hunt, to stay safe, to not become prey, to survive.

When I hear a sound—a splash of water, birdsong, crackle of twigs or dry grass—I hope for a sighting of an animal—a trout, a blue jay, a crow, a grasshopper. When animals hear our omnipresent noise—engines whirring, tires squealing, horns honking—what do they hope for?

September 30

All the vegetation and leaves are more yellowing today, rustier—oxidized colors. There was a light drizzle all morning. My field notes are speckled with the occasional raindrop ink-stain. The Poudre River was measured at two feet high, higher than my last visit because it’s been raining up in the mountains, to the west.

Little white wildflowers upstream catch my eye. I walk over unsteady pebbles and a large cottonwood root to get to them. The root is far enough away from any trees that it’s impossible for me to tell to which it belongs. Each flower is in various stages of unfurling—some are fully open, dripping their petals into their watery reflections.

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As best as I can tell, the flower is Carolina Bugbane, or Trautvetteria Caroliniensis, which is native to this area

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Carolina Bugbane is in the Rananculaceae family, or the buttercup family, and seems to prefer wetter habitats

I find myself thinking how it would feel to live in a river that can get as low as one foot deep—to have distance infinitely available to you (seemingly), but know your explorations, your knowledge, were all limited to one foot by the width of the river by its length. I suppose human life, until the inventions of the airplane and rocket-ship, is fairly limited in that way as well—we’re basically stuck to the earth’s surface, most of us. This, I think, is the origin of the desire to fly, our envy of birds. We can’t see the earth’s rotund nature from our limited depth, the slice of air in which we live. We’ve had to escape this space to see the world for what it really is—a sphere remarkably like and unlike any other.

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Beauty is “of the soul”

Back when I was in college, one English professor assigned us all of Edgar Allan Poe’s collected works to read. Most people are familiar with “The Raven” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” thanks to our public school system and Halloween, but I don’t think many have exposure to Poe’s essays. If I were to list the most life-changing works I’ve ever read, Poe’s essays would absolutely be among them.

Actually, here they are – since people often ask me about my favorites anyhow:

  • Alfred Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam is a collection of poetry he wrote while mourning his best friend’s sudden death. Probably the most famous excerpt is “‘Tis better to have loved and lost/ Than never to have loved at all.” This was one of the first books I read that I felt dealt honestly with the hardships of faith, particularly in times of great tragedy. One of my favorite sections, which I tried very hard to memorize, follows:
    I falter where I firmly trod,
    And falling with my weight of cares
    Upon the great world’s altar-stairs
    That slope thro’ darkness up to God,
    I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
    And gather dust and chaff, and call
    To what I feel is Lord of all,
    And faintly trust the larger hope.
  • Rainer Maria Rilke’s Book of Hours is also poetry though it really functions as one long poem, originally in German but many translations are now widely available. Rilke didn’t see much artistic success during his lifetime, and suffered from both health problems and severe dry spells in his writing. If I recall correctly, he wrote the entirety of Book of Hours in the span of just a couple short weeks. The poems are from the perspective of a monk, speaking directly to God. Perhaps the best indicator of the tone of these poems is the quote, “What will you do, God, when I die?” [“Was wirst du tun, Gott, wenn ich sterbe?”] There is so much beautiful, timeless imagery throughout! Below is definitely one of my favorite sections:
    I live my life in widening circles
    that reach out across the world.
    I may not complete this last one
    but I give myself to it.
    I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
    I’ve been circling for thousands of years
    and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
    a storm, or a great song?
  • Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a novel, translated into many languages from the original Czech. Similar to Updike’s novel, which I list next, the text is largely concerned with love and lust as it occurs between men and women, and how heavy these things weigh in our human lives. There are so many lovely, intensely internal passages throughout. The below is underlined in my copy:
    “The young woman smiled dreamily as she went on about the storm, and he looked at her in amazement and something akin to shame: she had experienced something beautiful, and he had failed to experience it with her. The two ways in which their memories reacted to the evening storm sharply delimit love and nonlove.”
  • John Updike’s Marry Me I mentioned above. Updike wrote so much that it’s hard to choose just one, but it helps that I haven’t read all of them! The plot consists of two married couples, neighbors, who begin affairs with one another, at first unbeknownst to one another.
    “‘Don’t be silly. We’re all depending on your sanity.’ Jerry was always saying things like that, compliments that cut like insults, thrown to trip her mind, which never failed to stop and puzzle over what was meant. For he did not invariably mean the opposite of what was said. In this instance she suspected it was true, they were all in their craziness and infatuation and self-deception depending  on her sad, defeated sanity to hold them back from disaster.”
  • To continue with the theme of interpersonal relations, particularly those which involve some derivative of love, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. This novel demonstrates that love and hate are not at all opposites, and in fact have much more in common with one another than most are willing to admit. Below is a passage where Mr. Heathcliff is discussing his love for Catherine:
    “‘…for what is not connected with her to me? and what does not recall her? I cannot look down to this floor, but her features are shaped on the flags! In every cloud, in every tree – filling the air at night, and caught by glimpses in every object by day, I am surrounded with her image! The most ordinary faces of men and women – my own features – mock me with a resemblance. The entire world is a dreadful collection of memoranda that she did exist, and that I have lost her!'”
  • Last is J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, which I must thank my friend Makaiya for forcing me to read while we were barricaded in her West Village apartment during Hurricane Sandy.  The character Zooey becomes obsessed with the meditative ideal of praying without ceasing, which she encounters in a book about a pilgrim. This obsession coincides with a breakdown of sorts. In the passage below, she is describing the concept:
    “‘Well, the starets tells him about the Jesus Prayer first of all. “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” I mean that’s what it is. And he explains to him that those are the best words to use when you pray. Especially the word “mercy,” because it’s such a really enormous word and can mean so many things. I mean it doesn’t just have to mean mercy…. Anyway,’ she went on, ‘the starets tells the pilgrim that if you keep saying that prayer over and over again – you only have to just do it with your lips at first – then eventually what happens, the prayer becomes self-active. Something happens after a while. I don’t know what, but something happens, and the words get synchronized with the person’s heartbeats, and then you’re actually praying without ceasing. Which  has a really tremendous, mystical effect on your whole outlook. I mean that’s the whole point of it, more or less. I mean you do it to purify your whole outlook and get an absolutely new conception of what everything’s about.'”

So obviously I wholeheartedly recommend the above books, that is if you’re in the market for a paradigm shift. Anyway, back to the original point of this post, which was to highlight Poe’s essays and their affect.

There is an ongoing argument among artists about the function and purpose of art, which coincides with the well-worn argument about art for the artist (e.g. Emily Dickinson) or art for the people (e.g. Diego Rivera). Poe sees the former as 1) poetry to attain truth/passion, or 2) poetry to attain beauty. He adamantly falls into the second camp:

“…the point, I mean, that Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem…. That pleasure which is at once the most intense, the most elevating, and the most pure is, I believe, found in the contemplation of the beautiful. When, indeed, men speak of Beauty, they mean, precisely, not a quality, as is supposed, but an effect – they refer, in short, just to that intense and pure elevation of the soul – not of intellect, or of heart – upon which I have commented, and which is experienced in consequence of contemplating ‘the beautiful.’ …Now the object, Truth, or the satisfaction of the intellect, and the object Passion, or the excitement of the heart, are, although attainable, to a certain extent, in poetry, far more readily attainable in prose. Truth, in fact, demands a precision, and Passion a homeliness (the truly passionate will comprehend me) which are absolutely antagonistic to that Beauty which, I maintain, is the excitement, or pleasurable elevation, of the soul.”

Poe then goes on to discuss how, in technical poetic particulars, he strives toward Beauty in “The Raven.” At the time, as an undergraduate, this concept blew my mind. That “aaahhh” feeling I got from reading a really excellent poem was actually my soul’s reaction to experiencing Beauty. And this is exactly why I don’t find it frivolous to both seek out and value beauty as it occurs in our daily lives. In fact, Milan Kundera has a passage in The Unbearable Lightness of Being where he admonishes the public for not recognizing ordinary moments of beauty, particularly in the occurrence of coincidences.

Let’s see, examples of ways you could seek out beauty today:

  1. Take a long walk
  2. Thank someone; express your gratitude (it will make you happier!)
  3. Read a poem (this one is a lovely example of Beauty)
  4. Make something, whether on the page, in the kitchen, between two knitting needles…
  5. Frame a few of those Facebook photographs you always find yourself going back to
  6. Pray
  7. Buy some flowers and arrange them at home

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How do you value beauty in your daily life?