Thursday, March 26, 2015
One warm summer night a long time ago, I slipped into the midnight water of an Oklahoma farm pond near the city where I grew up. I remember, for many reasons, that particular night among the countless similar nights spent chasing fish. I remember it for the peculiar, ghostly quality of the crescent moonlight shimmering on the gin-clear water, and for the solitude, always the solitude. I remember it for the inky velvet sky that seemed so close above me, for the way the water transformed into brilliant sprays of molten silver every time a hooked bass broke the surface. I remember the slap of the beaver's tail, the tympanic chorus of the bullfrogs, the wonder I felt at the countless unseen life-and-death struggles taking place in the space around and below me as I floated on the water's surface. But most of all, I remember that night for the exquisite rightness of it all, the synchronicity of place and moment, the sense that this was exactly where I was supposed to be and what I supposed to be doing in this place at this time. Nowhere else but here. Nothing else but this. Nothing. Such moments are not sustainable, of course, but their memory is what sustains us.
I caught a number of bass that night, but I specifically remember only one. It was not particularly large, maybe three pounds, but so vividly and deeply marked that after I brought it to the float tube and unhooked it, I held it there on its side in the water before me, marveling at its color, its pulsing, primordial aliveness. It remains, to this day, one of the most beautiful fish I have ever caught. And as I floated there in the warm water, half in my world, half in its, I slowly released that bass from my hands. It hovered there for a second or two, suspended in the celestial waters, its pectoral fins sweeping back and forth, before disappearing into the luminous depths somewhere between the moon and the stars. I have never forgotten the memory of that bass and that moment and that place.
I fished the pond many times after that night. I hunted it, too, watched my first chessie, now long dead, retrieve ducks from its waters. But that moment stayed with me. Eventually, however, I moved away and those experiences turned to memories, which in turn were overlaid with other, newer memories tethered to other, newer places.
But not long ago, and twenty years since the above picture was taken on that pond, I found myself strolling, as they say, down memory lane. Only memory lane was no longer a bucolic and familiar path, but a teeming, bewildering concrete artery four lanes wide and buzzing with people, so many people seething with purpose and impatience and irritation toward the dawdler poking along trying to find old memories buried under the asphalt and intersections and Bermuda grass and sidewalks. Eventually I came to the place I was looking for.
My pond was gone, of course; it had been drained, filled in, leveled, compacted, surveyed, flagged, gridded and erased; both it and the mixed-grass prairie surrounding it scraped clean, smoothed, and then covered with a skin of fresh, glistening progress. Rows of vinyl and brick-clad houses so close together you could literally jump from roof to roof lined streets so new the gleaming asphalt still exuded an oily stench. Beyond the cookie-cutter houses I could see the dozers and graders and other earth-moving equipment scraping away what remained of the half-section that once contained my pond. It was all going under the blade, and when it was finished there would be nothing - absolutely nothing; not a native tree or plum thicket or blade of grass - to indicate that it had ever been anything other than poorly-planned, cheaply constructed, high-density suburban sprawl. Planned blight.
Never have I seen the physical place of memory so completely obliterated and transformed into something so different from its original form. A befuddled middle-aged man was now driving, roughly, over the same spot where the kid that man used to be had once floated on water so alive, had once caught a bass that haunted him still. The same spot where that kid had shot mallards and gadwall and wigeon and watched a young dog leap like a brown missile into the water after them and drop their bodies into his outstretched hand. Wonder and amazement and magic are the gods of place, but they are old and feeble gods these days, and powerless against the gods of profit and progress.
Memory is a helluva thing. We carry it within us, but still have the urge to seek out the physical markers and locations of where that memory was created, where it was once not memory, but experience. We seek out these places, with our now so distant from our then, to remind ourselves that yes, that did indeed once happen, and it happened here. But what if that here is now gone? What becomes of that memory? Are all memories ghosts, or just the ones that no longer have anything physical upon which to tether?
I tried to reconcile what I remembered with what I was seeing, but reality had already begun untethering memory from place, corrupting the close association of the two I'd had in my mind all these years. I suspect in another twenty years I'll have as much luck trying to remember the first day of my life as I will trying to remember the details of that night. Nothing is permanent, not even memory. I turned and got the hell out of there as quickly as I could.
Posted by Chad Love at 10:57 PM