The Empirical River

by Clayton Garrett

view of small town in Canada from the Saguenay River

The window above my kitchen sink faces the street. On summer evenings, as I am washing dishes after dinner, I watch people from the neighbourhood walk toward the river. The public beach at the end of the road is not large, but it is beautiful. The shoreline faces a pristine wilderness on the opposite bank, and the water stretches two or three kilometres wide. Its expanse is dotted with islands, most of which are only a couple dozen metres across. The corridor of old-growth forest that separates the town from the river has been divided up into acre-lots, each lot having a clear cut pocket in the trees in order to make room for the beautiful homes of the town’s older, more affluent residents.

The families that pass by my window are usually quite young and full of energy when compared to the established home owners who live along the riverbank. The young families bring wagons, floaty toys, coolers, collapsible chairs, toddlers, pre-teens, teens, in-laws, blood-relatives, fireworks, volley ball nets, marijuana, the cheap plastic masonry tools required to build sand castles, nerf footballs, snorkelling equipment and all kinds of other paraphernalia one might need on a small beach in a quiet country town. Occasionally, a young married couple will portage a canoe past my driveway as they trek to the river.

The lively particularity of the beach-goers certainly makes them more exciting than the sedentary old folks, but even their transient energy seems inconsequential when compared to the ancient and stoic river. It sits in the lowlands of a rift valley formed by two of the earth’s largest fault lines. The tectonics of the last 175 million years have formed a riverbed that stretches over a thousand kilometres long, at times very deep, and often very wide. It trends generally northwest to southeast, carrying bitingly cold water from the top of the province. It is a serpentine pattern of raging white water interspersed amongst broad basins of deceptive stillness – deceptive because the still water is rapid-locked and thus conceals a violent undercurrent. Also misleading are the verdured river banks. When viewed from the water, they lead one to believe that the surrounding topography is a lush and static woodland. In actuality, the gallery forest obscures huge swaths of rolling farmland, the result of hundreds of years of logging and aggressive commercial interest in the primeval forests that once surrounded the river.

However, the families are not concerned with the river’s abiding or ambiguous qualities when they return to the beach night after night, year after year. They are attracted to the river’s flowing energy. Their interest is not without precedent. Heraclitus, a philosopher who worked sometime around 500 B.C., while trying to describe the ultimate nature of reality as a flux that cannot be pinpointed in time, said we cannot step into the same river twice. The ancient Greek poets, starting with Hesiod, believed that in order to enter the underworld, the dead had to drink from the river of forgetfulness; and Virgil, in the Aeneid, argued that until the souls did so, they could not be re-incarnated. Joseph Conrad, in Heart of Darkness, began his tale on the Thames River and recounted Marlow’s journey into the depths of madness and human evil while travelling down the Congo River. Mark Twain built his career out of his experiences on the Mississippi River, setting his most famous creations, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, on those waters. George Orwell, at the time of his death, was planning a trip down the Mississippi because he loved Twain’s descriptions of it so much.

My neighbourhood resembles Twain’s descriptions of the small towns that sprang up along the Mississippi, except it is populated by the people of my time and not the characters of the author’s great novels. They train for triathlons with waterproof iPods, and perform figure eights on jet skis that offend many of the town’s older citizens. Sometimes, while I prepare to go to sleep, I listen to the teenagers as they return from the beach. I will walk out of the bathroom as I brush my teeth and stand in front of the largest window facing the street, while they proclaim their love for the river loudly into the night and throw beer cans on my neighbour’s lawn. They remind me of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.

small farms and houses along riverThe energy of the river appears majestic when considered in its social, historical, geologic, and literary dimensions; it binds families, animates the young, and motivates retirees to settle down on the acre lots. But it can also be destructive. There has been a growing field of study in Canada called hydrology, because the continual flooding of large rivers in several provinces regularly claims entire towns. The earth has a hydrological cycle: drainage basins collect surface run-off that forms as a result of precipitation and condensation caused by temperature changes. In the high-country, those basins then pool and eventually the water moves itself over the land. That energy can destroy rock and power hydro-electric dams. It can also make my elderly neighbour enter into yelling matches with drunk teenagers. It is both sublime and commonplace.

Clayton Garrett is an aspiring writer originally from Toronto, who has spent the last ten years living in remote regions of Canada. In keeping with the conventions of publishing, he always writes his author bio in the third person but can be reached in the first person at

Photo 1 by Sylvie Bouchard

Photo 2 by Senorgogo

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