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A River’s Own Name

Cameron Keller Scott  /  8 Min Read  /  Fly Fishing

Attended by migratory Bonaparte’s gulls, an uprooted cedar tree drifts through the Alice Arm Estuary. Alaska–British Columbia border. Photo: Agathe Bernard

Poet Cameron Keller Scott reads an excerpt from his piece, A River’s Own Name

Transcript

I. Valley Maker

Suppose one day we were to wake up and understand
the name of a river. Not the names we’ve given,
but the name it asks us to give.

Pacific rivers of fir needles and moss, dripping rain
through devil’s club, clouds as dark and heavy
as cedar, an ocean sliding in.
Slopes of ferns that snap beneath footsteps.
Impassible snarls of salal and alder. Scoured deadfall.
Eucalyptus on sunbaked slopes.
Blackberries choking feeder springs.

Soft enough for emerging mayflies
whose wings dry as bodies drift.

Hard enough to carve through rock,
smooth the fractured edges of each stone,
and deposit them like words across the valley floor.

Rocky rivers of High Plains sage,
beaver dams and wild mint. Willow sap
and lightning strikes, mountains lifting toward the sky.
Thickets of grass, pine pitch. Canyons dropping down
through light and air. Juniper berries,
bitter-fresh, hints of bark. Prickly pear.

Written in the branches of each watershed, these names.

Bedrock rivers of rhododendron leaves,
Driftless limestone, tea stained.
Sandbars, spring-fed watercress.
Coal seams snaking all the way down
to low country sloughs, estuaries, eelgrass,
brackish rivers pulled by the moon.

These names the sky gives
each time a river evaporates back into breath.

How we always think of a river as descending,
what if it does not think of itself in descent at all?

II. Home Water

Big Muddy. Little Sandy. Cataract. Oxbow. Dug Bar.
Two Rocks. Deep Bend. Slide Pool. Logjam. Chutes.
The Braids. The Curves. The Flats. Deadman’s.
Deadfall. Rattlesnake. Huckleberry.
Hidden Springs. Red Rock. Cow Creek. West Fork.

To move the way a river moves, carve like a river carves.
Which is to say eventually. Which is to say episodically.
Which is to say hungrily, gravitationally, sinuously.

Blindfolded, can you name your home water,
open your palms to the biting cold of January,
hold steady against June’s runoff,
as rocks and boulders bound away?

Because of the time the river pinned you to the bottom.
Because of the great horned owl
flying above in a corridor of cottonwoods.
The beaver’s tail-slap. The otter’s sudden appearance.
All of the mornings still as a heron.
All of the ospreys plummeting at noon.

Can you name the river that presses against your hips
gently as a horse’s nose? The one that runs past burger joints,
banks, apartment complexes and asphalt parking lots.
The one that used to gallop but limps like a ghost
through pastureland. Fractions of river
divided among thousands of miles of crops.
Domesticated, let go in increments.

Can you name the river, the one impounded,
that lights the darkness of our nights?

III. A River’s Own Name

Do you call a river by the name it is given?
The Green. The Red. The Blue. The Black. The White.

Do you call a river
after the name its first peoples used?
Walla Walla, Atchafalaya, Merrimack.

On their journey west, Lewis and Clark renamed
the Cut-tuh-o’-gwa (swift water) the Gallatin,
after Jefferson’s secretary of the treasury.

The Gibbon River was named
after the colonel who slaughtered Nez Percé families
as they tried to escape to Canada.

One: No name shall be given to a river
that is dishonorable.

Two: An unimpeded water flow, being necessary
to all inhabitants of a river, shall not be infringed upon;
nor irrigation ditches, in times of drought,
take water away.

Three: A river shall not be unlawfully moved.

Four: A river shall not be chemically
dumped in, or its contents unlawfully seized.

Five: A river shall not be deprived of life,
liberty, or property without due process of law;
nor shall it be lawfully deprived without just compensation.

Six: A river may obtain witnesses in its favor
and the assistance of counsel for its defense.

Seven: A river shall have the right of trial by jury.

Eight: Development shall not be allowed
within a flood zone, or within
one hundred feet of moving water.

Nine: A river shall not be denied rights laid bare
by the basic tenets of natural law.

Ten: No name shall be given to a river
that a river will outlast.

Between canyon walls: birdsong, babble, buds.

Broken open: each signature of stone,
lesser signatures of shade, soft green shoots.

Breaking away: blue sky, clouds,
rock from rim, white water from each
boulder, cottonwoods from bank.

Blood, guts, bone, sinew:
Just one-third of the world’s longest rivers
remain free-flowing. How does a dam
alter a river’s name? A body split into parts.

A breath cut short. As a tree breaks
into leaves, so too during runoff
the branches of river break into blossom.

IV. Basin and Range

Cut back the dead branches late afternoon.
Picked a dandelion growing near a dry
irrigation ditch. Bitter as drought.
Lawns burned to dirt,  roves of cedar
the color of brick. Endless stretches of days
turned months too hot reveal the insides
of the river, where the insides of the river
should have been. All its hidden structures
exposed, its deepest secrets an emptiness within.

Rivers that run beside freeways,
dry-washed rivers made of sand.

Barren banks of riprap, desertified
channels. Rivers that never began.

Rivers that end short of endings;
ditches to fields, pumps to sprinklers.

Tunneled rivers. Rivers to reservoirs
to sinks, hidden by levees and dams.

Wet slope to dry slope. Underground
rivers pumped dry from insatiable thirst.

Rowing through air thick with smoke,
cooling off in water too warm to cool.
Each sculpin cupped white against rocks.
Trout the color and stiffness of driftwood
scattered belly-up in the tails of pools.
Each day snaps mountain peaks like a whip.
Whole ranges move through summer, aflame
with thirst; creeks, turned wallows, turned dust.

Which is to say nothing of deer, skittering across
river bottoms, hooves clacking the bleached
rock bones of braids, searching for remnants
of water. Infinitesimal, radiant heat spills
on pine duff and sand, air a ransom of clouds.

Rivers like scars. Rivers like the mend
of bone. Broken edges where rivers
once flowed: dry canyons, sharp-edged
buttes, scabland from rolling prairie.

Intermittent rivers of decks,
porches, seats, swings, tree lines.

Rivers of driveways, of towns.
Of haves and have-nots.

Of eternities and afterthoughts.
Rivers of forests, like watersheds, ground down.

The rich smell of die-back and decomposition,
husks of bugs, last fall’s pinned leaves
turned to mud. The rusting hulks of crushed steel
too hot to touch, scaffolding the river’s edge.
Creosote from railroad-ties. An oar, a net,
a lost felt sole, left out to dry in the sun.

V. Above All Things

Today when I rested my hand on your mother’s belly

you kicked and danced in the drought of summer,
for the deer wandering through the yard, more

or less like petals falling early from fruit trees,
memory of stoneflies skittering across surfaces.

What if the world you are growing into is outgrowing us?
What if we are outgrowing the world?

I watched the moon for a long time, felt the softness of your
mother’s skin, your foot kicking out to meet the heat

of my palm. A raft of dreams to carry you among
the boulders: here is the lean bar, here is the dry box,

here is the green room between waves.
Just this spring a young deputy two counties over

was pinned against a boulder and drowned,
his wife washed free on a raft of sorrow,

their newborn, left waiting back home.
My hand presses against your own tributaries

where time disappears like snowmelt into ravines,
crashes through the undergrowth like a herd of elk.

Tomorrow is a river that will carry us.
Be humble to its cycles. Know the webs it weaves,

the lives it supports. Tomorrow falls in sequence
after today. Today is a river, yesterday was a river,

tomorrow must be that which was mentioned in a show
of hands. In favor, aye. Opposed, nay.

Motion passes into motion as gravity leads the way.

VI. Ultramarine

Did you find the river you were looking for,
braced against your legs in the afternoon light?

And what did you call it?
And what of the river’s true name, did you find it?

How often have you sung back to the river
pushing against your legs? As often as a rock,
boulder, logjam, sweeper splitting the current.

How does a sweeper sing?
With a constant vibrating thrum.

How does a rock sing?
Throw the rock in the river,
the river will bury it in song.

One: hold a large rock across your chest.

Two: dive into a river.

Three: not vertigo, not vagrancy, but

Four: vacancy.

And then:
wait until the river pulls you free.

In the searing light and air
the river inside.

Finally, the river within.

View a video excerpt of A River’s Own Name at the link below.

I. Valley Maker

Suppose one day we were to wake up and understand
the name of a river. Not the names we’ve given,
but the name it asks us to give.

Pacific rivers of fir needles and moss, dripping rain
through devil’s club, clouds as dark and heavy
as cedar, an ocean sliding in.
Slopes of ferns that snap beneath footsteps.
Impassible snarls of salal and alder. Scoured deadfall.
Eucalyptus on sunbaked slopes.
Blackberries choking feeder springs.

Soft enough for emerging mayflies
whose wings dry as bodies drift.

Hard enough to carve through rock,
smooth the fractured edges of each stone,
and deposit them like words across the valley floor.

Rocky rivers of High Plains sage,
beaver dams and wild mint. Willow sap
and lightning strikes, mountains lifting toward the sky.
Thickets of grass, pine pitch. Canyons dropping down
through light and air. Juniper berries,
bitter-fresh, hints of bark. Prickly pear.

Written in the branches of each watershed, these names.

Bedrock rivers of rhododendron leaves,
Driftless limestone, tea stained.
Sandbars, spring-fed watercress.
Coal seams snaking all the way down
to low country sloughs, estuaries, eelgrass,
brackish rivers pulled by the moon.

These names the sky gives
each time a river evaporates back into breath.

How we always think of a river as descending,
what if it does not think of itself in descent at all?

II. Home Water

Big Muddy. Little Sandy. Cataract. Oxbow. Dug Bar.
Two Rocks. Deep Bend. Slide Pool. Logjam. Chutes.
The Braids. The Curves. The Flats. Deadman’s.
Deadfall. Rattlesnake. Huckleberry.
Hidden Springs. Red Rock. Cow Creek. West Fork.

To move the way a river moves, carve like a river carves.
Which is to say eventually. Which is to say episodically.
Which is to say hungrily, gravitationally, sinuously.

Blindfolded, can you name your home water,
open your palms to the biting cold of January,
hold steady against June’s runoff,
as rocks and boulders bound away?

Because of the time the river pinned you to the bottom.
Because of the great horned owl
flying above in a corridor of cottonwoods.
The beaver’s tail-slap. The otter’s sudden appearance.
All of the mornings still as a heron.
All of the ospreys plummeting at noon.

Can you name the river that presses against your hips
gently as a horse’s nose? The one that runs past burger joints,
banks, apartment complexes and asphalt parking lots.
The one that used to gallop but limps like a ghost
through pastureland. Fractions of river
divided among thousands of miles of crops.
Domesticated, let go in increments.

Can you name the river, the one impounded,
that lights the darkness of our nights?

III. A River’s Own Name

Do you call a river by the name it is given?
The Green. The Red. The Blue. The Black. The White.

Do you call a river
after the name its first peoples used?
Walla Walla, Atchafalaya, Merrimack.

On their journey west, Lewis and Clark renamed
the Cut-tuh-o’-gwa (swift water) the Gallatin,
after Jefferson’s secretary of the treasury.

The Gibbon River was named
after the colonel who slaughtered Nez Percé families
as they tried to escape to Canada.

One: No name shall be given to a river
that is dishonorable.

Two: An unimpeded water flow, being necessary
to all inhabitants of a river, shall not be infringed upon;
nor irrigation ditches, in times of drought,
take water away.

Three: A river shall not be unlawfully moved.

Four: A river shall not be chemically
dumped in, or its contents unlawfully seized.

Five: A river shall not be deprived of life,
liberty, or property without due process of law;
nor shall it be lawfully deprived without just compensation.

Six: A river may obtain witnesses in its favor
and the assistance of counsel for its defense.

Seven: A river shall have the right of trial by jury.

Eight: Development shall not be allowed
within a flood zone, or within
one hundred feet of moving water.

Nine: A river shall not be denied rights laid bare
by the basic tenets of natural law.

Ten: No name shall be given to a river
that a river will outlast.

Between canyon walls: birdsong, babble, buds.

Broken open: each signature of stone,
lesser signatures of shade, soft green shoots.

Breaking away: blue sky, clouds,
rock from rim, white water from each
boulder, cottonwoods from bank.

Blood, guts, bone, sinew:
Just one-third of the world’s longest rivers
remain free-flowing. How does a dam
alter a river’s name? A body split into parts.

A breath cut short. As a tree breaks
into leaves, so too during runoff
the branches of river break into blossom.

IV. Basin and Range

Cut back the dead branches late afternoon.
Picked a dandelion growing near a dry
irrigation ditch. Bitter as drought.
Lawns burned to dirt,  roves of cedar
the color of brick. Endless stretches of days
turned months too hot reveal the insides
of the river, where the insides of the river
should have been. All its hidden structures
exposed, its deepest secrets an emptiness within.

Rivers that run beside freeways,
dry-washed rivers made of sand.

Barren banks of riprap, desertified
channels. Rivers that never began.

Rivers that end short of endings;
ditches to fields, pumps to sprinklers.

Tunneled rivers. Rivers to reservoirs
to sinks, hidden by levees and dams.

Wet slope to dry slope. Underground
rivers pumped dry from insatiable thirst.

Rowing through air thick with smoke,
cooling off in water too warm to cool.
Each sculpin cupped white against rocks.
Trout the color and stiffness of driftwood
scattered belly-up in the tails of pools.
Each day snaps mountain peaks like a whip.
Whole ranges move through summer, aflame
with thirst; creeks, turned wallows, turned dust.

Which is to say nothing of deer, skittering across
river bottoms, hooves clacking the bleached
rock bones of braids, searching for remnants
of water. Infinitesimal, radiant heat spills
on pine duff and sand, air a ransom of clouds.

Rivers like scars. Rivers like the mend
of bone. Broken edges where rivers
once flowed: dry canyons, sharp-edged
buttes, scabland from rolling prairie.

Intermittent rivers of decks,
porches, seats, swings, tree lines.

Rivers of driveways, of towns.
Of haves and have-nots.

Of eternities and afterthoughts.
Rivers of forests, like watersheds, ground down.

The rich smell of die-back and decomposition,
husks of bugs, last fall’s pinned leaves
turned to mud. The rusting hulks of crushed steel
too hot to touch, scaffolding the river’s edge.
Creosote from railroad-ties. An oar, a net,
a lost felt sole, left out to dry in the sun.

V. Above All Things

Today when I rested my hand on your mother’s belly

you kicked and danced in the drought of summer,
for the deer wandering through the yard, more

or less like petals falling early from fruit trees,
memory of stoneflies skittering across surfaces.

What if the world you are growing into is outgrowing us?
What if we are outgrowing the world?

I watched the moon for a long time, felt the softness of your
mother’s skin, your foot kicking out to meet the heat

of my palm. A raft of dreams to carry you among
the boulders: here is the lean bar, here is the dry box,

here is the green room between waves.
Just this spring a young deputy two counties over

was pinned against a boulder and drowned,
his wife washed free on a raft of sorrow,

their newborn, left waiting back home.
My hand presses against your own tributaries

where time disappears like snowmelt into ravines,
crashes through the undergrowth like a herd of elk.

Tomorrow is a river that will carry us.
Be humble to its cycles. Know the webs it weaves,

the lives it supports. Tomorrow falls in sequence
after today. Today is a river, yesterday was a river,

tomorrow must be that which was mentioned in a show
of hands. In favor, aye. Opposed, nay.

Motion passes into motion as gravity leads the way.

VI. Ultramarine

Did you find the river you were looking for,
braced against your legs in the afternoon light?

And what did you call it?
And what of the river’s true name, did you find it?

How often have you sung back to the river
pushing against your legs? As often as a rock,
boulder, logjam, sweeper splitting the current.

How does a sweeper sing?
With a constant vibrating thrum.

How does a rock sing?
Throw the rock in the river,
the river will bury it in song.

One: hold a large rock across your chest.

Two: dive into a river.

Three: not vertigo, not vagrancy, but

Four: vacancy.

And then:
wait until the river pulls you free.

In the searing light and air
the river inside.

Finally, the river within.


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