From Above the Frozen Potomac

We are standing on a flood-scoured tongue of rock that juts down from the banks of the Potomac River, a mile or so below the mouth of the river’s great gorge, a gorge headed by the mighty Great Falls. The cries of geese settling down into an open basin of water within the ice-choked river overwhelm the distant hum of the interstate. That hum is the only indication of how close we are to ‘civilization,’ and to the very seat of the American imperium. The sprawling organs of that state are but a few miles downstream, but here—here the broad river is silent under sheets of ice, melt-water pooling here and there as the temperature has risen a bit above freezing the last couple of days. Beneath the ice the river is strong, is pure power and energy, surging towards the sea. It bubbles up from under the ice in the oval basin where the geese have found refuge, and here and there in riffles and surges. I scan the sprawling sheets of ice, multicoloured, sinuous, maps to other worlds that intertwine with ours but will always lie out of our grasping reach. Near the river’s right bank—the Maryland side, though this is a designation that lies so lightly on the land, and will one day pass away—my eyes fall upon a scuttling, flapping black mass. A circle of black vultures, gathered around some victim of the river’s ice, stark and brilliant against the pale grays, blues, and whites. Overhead, a grey sky hangs heavy and cold, reaching down into the ghostly limbs of the sycamores that rise above the river’s banks, seeps into the ancient stone.

I shift upon the river-scoured stone, witness to the last great age of ice, when the decaying continental ice sheets unleashed world-shaking floods on this stretch of river, and cut across and down into the incredibly ancient metamorphic rock that jaggedly breaks upon the earth’s surface here. The cold rises up from the frozen river’s surface. I check to make sure my little son—tomorrow is his tenth month birthday—is warm, his face turned inwards to my chest, snuggled and asleep for now. Later, by the lively river rapids further down he will wake back up and take in the mighty beauty, but at the moment he sleeps against me, warm and peaceful. There are no other humans in sight from here. At points along the river, outside of the Park Service domains, mansions of the rich leer down, but from where we are standing they are invisible, cloaked by hill and stone and tree.

For a moment I think of the halls of power downstream. The river’s waters will flow past them soon, but they will pay the halls and the mighty men and women and the monuments and the sprawling buildings and high-rises no heed. I think: one day, perhaps soon, perhaps in the far distant future if the Eschaton tarries, the monuments will crumble, the detritus of empire will accumulate out in the Potomac’s outflow into the Chesapeake. The river will still be here. The ice will spread across the river, the vultures will gather and enact their age-old somber and joyous dance, turning death back into life. Perhaps the ravens and bears will have come down from the mountains by then, adding their gronks to the cold air, their tracks over the snow. The works of men will perish, thank God. There is a strange comfort in the thought, and comfort in our sharing in this moment and space of the wild, the sublime and the beautiful, so close to so much that is not beautiful, that is destructive and terrible and which lays waste to the earth, to the soul, to the good. I cannot dislodge the systems and powers downstream, and I do not love to think that my son will inherit a world marked by the same or similar ones. I do not know what the ecologies and landscapes that I love and that I hope he will love, too, will be like in ten or twenty years. But while nothing is certain, I am hopeful that places like this, moments like this, will remain, that one day he can stand above a frozen river in the depths of January, perhaps with a germ of memory of this very day, and breath in the wild, feel the charge of—yes—holiness, of the grandeur of God, and the impermanence of the works of man, good and bad, and listen to the silence of the ice, the faint rustle of the river oats, the power of the river in motion, and to be present in it.

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