If Time is a River

Can it have been three weeks already? If Time is a River, I’ve slipped my little canoe into a back channel or slough, some fertile backwater away from the current’s strong pull. How did that classic rock song go? Time keeps on slipping into the future.


A week ago, I paddled down the St. Croix River (many thanks to Sharon and Todd of the SCWRS who made sure that I had a shuttle ride back from Stillwater) and subsequently spent many hours looking at the water samples I gathered along my route, viewing their contents through a microscope. I gave a poetry reading in St. Croix Falls with Dale Cox, a poet and interpretive ranger working with the National Park Service. Note to self – best of both job worlds!

I’ve been hiking, sketching, reading, and writing — poems are flowing too!


Earlier this week, I went up north with Jill Coleman Wasik, the lab manager at St Croix Watershed Research Station, and her assistant Will, to observe field research in a bog at the Marcell Experimental Forest. This project looks at the relationship between sulfates (food for bog bacteria) and the production or cycling of methyl mercury, which is the bad sort of Hg that bio-accumulates in the food chain. A complicated, intriguing relationship exists between the various chemical and biological components of the bog environment! Hard to explain but as usual,it seems there are a myriad hidden connections between everything — the world is stitched together in the most complex pattern!

It is unusual, perhaps, to report: “I woke at dawn and spent a lovely day slogging around a bog” but I did, and it was beautiful, despite the treacherous footing. The researchers have a small wooden palette or platform to kneel on at each site, as they take the water samples — but the sites are strung out in several loops or labyrinths. There is a control section, a recovery section, and an active experimental section — all in the heart of the peatland, which is a narrow strip bordered by tag alder so thick you could hardly push through. They have crude trails through the bog (walking disrupts the bog so they use the same trail over and over) to walk from platform to platform, carrying all their equipment, while wearing chest-waders — the bog is very spongy and uneven, and the groundwater level is pretty much just below the surface of the moss. Invariably, there are “whoa!” events where a foot drops into a hole hidden under the sphagnum moss-soup, and you drop in up to your knee or worse. I wore knee-high waders and still ended up getting both feet wet in the mire. It was also very buggy — I wore a bug net over my head for the first time this summer, during the morning — but the bog was so otherworldly, so layered and lushly green, and silent except for frogs, insect hum, and the haunting song of the hermit thrush. It was easy to fall into “deep time” — not aware of time passing at all. How old is the bog? It used to be a lake. The moss filled from the edges, and now it grows over itself, slowly becoming convex at the center, a timeless mound of moss where black spruce and tamarack sprout from hummocks, and die, and become hummock-mounds themselves.

I have been fascinated by insects during the past several weeks.: quite a paradigm-shift from living the Twin Cities, where authorities-that-be spray the lakes and wetlands to minimize mosquitos. At night, midges, mosquitoes and moths fall in love with my cabin lights. Spiders race up and down the screens (yes, on both sides), pouncing or repairing webs, according to their type. According to my handbook on spiders, many of them actually eat their old webs and recycle the material every day. On the riverbank and high up in the trees, the lightning bugs flicker on and off. Beyond the screens, I hear the leathery zoom-whoosh of bats, and at the very edge of vision, several huge, ghostly types of moths — enormous, fleshy bodies darting about on ethereal, luminous wings. Some, I assume, must be feeding at my buffet-line of gnats and midges, while others are drawn to the light themselves.

I’ve also had many beetles visit, including several *ginormous* examples. Yesterday, I found what Jill referred to as an “assassin bug” — hopefully that is just a nickname. A giant stag-type beetle was thudding around in my bedroom last night. Another HUGE beetle was discovered while I was taking a bath: I did the best I could under the circumstances by humanely trapping it in a big plastic zip-lock baggie (with the idea of bringing the poor monster outside after I was finished with my bath). It repaid my kind gesture by promptly shredding the zip-lock bag (!) and hiding by the fireplace! Yowza.


For long hours, I have been experiencing what Mihaly Csiksczentmihalyi, in a recent Smithsonian article on Samuel Johnson, referred to as the experience of “autotelic flow” — this is what artists and authors know as that place we go in our heads/hearts when everything is connecting. It is such a joy to feel lost or given over to process, completely engaged in the present moment, a studio work mode that is creative, productive, meaning-producing.

Not the article from Smithsonian, but another article in which Mihaly discusses flow:

“Sense of time is altered – hours pass by in minutes.”

And the minutes dance with hours.


It takes hours to upload images at the end of each week, as the research station has a fairly slow internet connection.

How many days have I been here?

How long did it take the river to carve this valley?

The adult mayfly, I have learned, hatches with the sole purpose of procreation: a day of bliss (one hopes), then it dies. It doesn’t even have working mouth-parts.

Last night, or was it last month?, my friend asked me how many drafts a particular poem went through, and I said two, a first & a second — but maybe I’ve forgotten. How long were the words in my thoughts, before I set them down? The water takes two weeks to flow through Lake St. Croix. Mercury particles last approximately a year in the atmosphere before they rain down. Maybe it has taken me my whole life, right up to this moment, to finish this first draft.

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