On Indifference: Walking the Willamette at River Mile 21

Rain falls, and I watch the river rise. It’s like witnessing an act of creation.

The surface moves faster than I can walk, sapping banks and kidnapping whole trees, running away with them down the winterwild flow. Wave crests trip on their zeal, collapse into lines of whirlpool. Pearls of chaos on a string about to snap.

At the level of the river, I listen to its hunger, but it takes a moment to recognize the sound. It’s not like water I know. Eyes closed, I recognize a fierce and ruthless wind. The voice behind is nothing still or small.

Why did I say ‘creation?’ If life on our world was born in the primal mud and wet, this is as close as I can come to that long-ago, that soon-to-be edge.


I begin my days beside this river. Or end them, or take a break in the middle. It is my great fortune to have such a presence within easy walking distance. I visit so often, I begin to think of this presence as friendly. I forget.


It has been a year for fine sunrises. I say this as if that’s unusual, and that’s the wrong impression. But it is remarkable. Every day the same event, never the same. 


There was a pattern to this early winter, though. I found it in the colors, the angle of light, the notes and rests of morning winter-bare.


Monday: Pastel streaks of cloud in quiet water. Gulls and a single heron sweep silently downriver. Mallards gather at river’s edge, not silent.

Thursday: Orange slick on grey water, smoldering. A hundred tiny puffs of hovering fog. A single song sparrow throws out his feathered chest, and shouts a challenge that pierces not only the morning.

Saturday: Creamy fire in the eastern sky; darkness on the face of the waters. A great blue heron lands heavily at the confluence of creek and river. She drops hard, full in the water, untangles herself and lifts ponderously off again. I watch a long time, to see if it really happened.

Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday...etcetera.

We use that phrase dismissively, et cetera, translating it as a hand wave “...and the rest.” But repetition may be also beautiful, reassuring. Disarming.


I like to sit on the rocks here, and eavesdrop on the birds. Sunset is good too; sunrise is best. I’m not sure if it’s true that wild animals will forget your presence if you sit still long enough, but certainly they worry less, talk more.

Our crows and mallards, gulls and songbirds are enthusiastic communicators. Are they arranging their days, talking about the fishing or the best place to pick up some seeds? Complaining about the off taste of the water as the sewers back up, again, in winter rains, as spring fertilizers encourage algal blooms? Maybe just greeting each other, calling out names.

These mornings are busy, but they are silent in the natural sense; they are still. Sometimes ice crunches beneath my boots when I step off the paved boat ramp; sometimes a soft rain falls. Cottonwood leaves - green, then yellow, then the last orange clinging flags - sigh from their branches and settle, briefly, at my feet. In long crouching moments at river’s edge, I seem to disappear. Of course I’m the only one under that delusion.


For as much as I matter to the river, it might as well be truth. That’s finally obvious today, with
the boiling torrent inches from my boots, and even the sunrise drowned. The beach is gone, the
birds gather or shelter elsewhere. Upstream, a sound of ripping, as of heavy canvas, and in a
moment I watch the water surge and swell.

I could stand here, still as a hunting heron, for another hour, a day. The river might forget I was
there. Or not. Either way, it would swallow me.

Tara K. Shepersky is an Oregon-based taxonomist, poet, essayist, and landscape enthusiast, with tangled roots in half a dozen soils. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cascadia Rising Review, Empty Mirror, The Yearbook Office, and the Columbia Land Trust blog. Find her on Twitter @pdxpersky, and at pdxpersky.com.