Canoeing with the Eternal

Sunday, July 6, 2014 - 7:45am

Canoeing with the Eternal

Since I’ve canoed on our nation's biggest rivers I’ve been asked repeatedly: Why? My answer has always been the same: I love nature, boating, sleeping under the stars, camp fires, and solitude immersed in beauty.

That answer has not satisfied many with whom I’ve spoken. I often get a responses like, “That’s not for me.” Or, “Too many bugs.” This is understandable. I have often written that I’ve had to become a river rat in order to complete a trip. A river rat is someone who not only endures weather, dirt, deprivation, and fear but also learns to love it.

Recently, I found another canoer who shares my views. His concepts have brought me closer to my own truth. I believe he has found the essence of the outdoors. Here is a paraphrased glimpse of those thoughts about nature from my friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

"There are days which occur, wherein the world reaches its perfection when the air, the heavenly bodies and the earth, make a harmony, as if nature indulges its offspring.

At the gates of the forest the surprised man of the world is forced to leave his city estimates of great and small, wise and foolish. The knapsack of custom falls off his back with the first step he takes into these precincts. Here is sanctity which shames our religions, and reality which discredits our heroes. Here we find Nature to be the circumstance which dwarfs every other circumstance, and judges all men who come to her. How willingly we escape the sophistication and suffer nature to entrance us. The tempered light of the woods is like a perpetual morning, and is stimulating and heroic. The anciently-reported spells of these places creep in on us. The stems of the pines, hemlocks, and oaks gleam to the excited eye. The incommunicable trees begin to persuade us to live with them, and quit our life of solemn trifles. Here no history, or church, or state, is interpolated on the divine sky and the immortal year. How easily we walk into the opening landscape, absorbed by thoughts fast succeeding each other, until by degrees the recollection of home is crowded out of the mind, all memory obliterated by the beauty of the present.

These enchantments are medicinal, they sober and heal us. These are plain pleasures, native to us which shame us out of our nonsense. Cities don’t give the human sense enough space. We go out daily to feed the eyes on the horizon. We nestle in nature, and draw our living from her. We receive glances from the heavenly bodies, which call us to solitude. The blue zenith is the point in which romance and reality meet."

Reading Emerson reminds me that every magnificent piece of art, sculpture, music, and much of science is only an attempt to discover or recreate nature.

With each paddle stroke and rest stop along the banks of a vast river system, I am overwhelmed by the natural beauty if I let myself be bathed in quiet solitude. I revel in that ineffable experience never found among concrete, hotels, or hordes.

I have no doubt why I meditate yet I offer no proofs. I’m convinced there are as many paths to a higher consciousness as there are human beings. Places where the power poles cease will be for me a gazing at the blue zenith and happily sitting at the point where romance and reality meet.


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Rick LaValley

is a retired teacher/firefighter/medic. He lives in Davie, Florida.

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Some of the poems of Wendell Berry have the same theme, though usually without a canoe.

Thank you for bring back memories of a few paddle trips I was part of in the far north and watching the moon rise and the sun set is jaw dropping.

I live in the country, the northern most reaches of Nebraska along the Missouri River, so I don't have to deal with the true metropolis. Every day I drive to work 15 miles to the nearby town of Yankton, a town of 14,000 people, and even in such a small city, the people are burdened with many of the same mental and spiritual ills I read about in venues originating from larger cities. My solution boils down to taking time to notice the beauty of small moments. I posted the following two paragraphs on my Facebook account last week, recounting one of my own moments:

Yesterday, after I had driven home and tucked the car in the garage, the cloudy day was beginning to break up, and the sun had slid below the cloud cover, filling the space around me with a warm, yellow light that intensified the landscape's verdant green hills of crops, grass and trees. It was like looking at the world from inside an amber gem. The beauty of the world whispered in my mind and reassured me – that life is good overall and not to worry so much about what's beyond my control. I took it in and let the loveliness soothe me like a balm.

Instead of waiting for the big things to happen – marriage, kids, big promotion, winning the lottery – I urge you all to find happiness in the small things that happen every day. Little things like having a quiet cup of coffee in the early morning, or the delicious taste and smell of a homemade meal, or the pleasure of sharing something you enjoy with someone else, or holding hands with your partner. Noticing these small pleasures on a daily basis makes a big difference in the quality of your life.

Thanks for your note. You mentioned Yankton. After I canoed the upper Mississippi in 2009 to St Louis I went to Yankton to canoe the Missouri. I only made Omaha and hitched back for my car. Then cast off again at KC and tried to make St Louis. I only got a hundred miles. But the Missouri sure is nice and fast, fu and wide open. Rick