Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Down to the River

A gentle rain dimples the surface of the river as I slither down the steep bank, bag of supplies in hand. The path, nearly overgrown with poison ivy, has not yet been soaked, so the dirt and loose stones shift under my feet. The leaves of oak, maple and ash trees gather the raindrops together before letting them sheet off; the rhythm of the rain under the canopy differs from what I see on the open water. Larger, more sporadic splashes land on my head and shoulders. Somehow this secondhand rain feels colder than the just-more-than-drizzle that falls on the river.

Every other week, June to September, I join a bevy of water testers to take samples on the Souhegan, Nashua and Merrimack Rivers. It’s a discreet bevy; each of us treks to a separate site, draws a few ounces of water, and delivers them to our assigned test lab. We’re lay scientists, if you will, volunteers in the ongoing study of pollution and nutrients in the environment. Our samples are pixels in the long-term image of the watershed, and we’ve had some success: the three rivers are much cleaner, and wild salmon are returning.
I undertake this minor inconvenience for the sake of the river, of course. It shouldn’t and doesn’t have to be our septic system. And I do it for selfish, human reasons. Better ways exist to handle all our wastes than mindlessly dumping them in the water we then drink. Water treatment costs have come down since the sampling and cleanup began; fewer swimmers get sick; more boaters, fishermen and hikers enjoy the river. Osprey, bald eagles, otters and other critters visit more often, delighting wildlife watchers.
But the real reason I get up early one morning every two weeks is for the brief, precious moments of communing with the river. The actual sampling takes only a couple of minutes, the routine observations of the area very little more. Nonetheless, I often spend half an hour or more at my site, noting things that don’t go into my report—the fall of sunlight on the leaves, the pattern of the ripples, the singing of the water over the rocks. I watch the progression of leaf to flower to fruit, sweet flag to meadowsweet to goldenrod. Sometimes raccoons, otters, or weasels leave their tracks.
On this rainy day I don’t linger. The rain is mild but soon seeps through my t-shirt; the river feels warmer than the air. I peer downstream toward the bridge, unseen in the rising mist. Shivering now, I climb back to my car and deliver my samples to the lab.
But when I get home, my clothes and my hair smell of the river. Perhaps tomorrow I’ll visit again.