Now we paddle for the people, for all creation

By John Ruskey

“The Belly of North America, Sea to Shining Sea”, 30 x 38, watercolor, John Ruskey
Now we Paddle for the People, for all Creation ~ by John Ruskey

I am the river
but I am lonely
where are the people?  
where is creation?


A young man set off in a red canoe to find out, 
to paddle for the people — and all creation
in this great nation, from sea to shining sea
stroke to the east, stroke to the west

leaving the waters of the big whales
following inland watery trails
he started up the big river Woody Guthrie sang about
“Oh, it’s always we’ve rambled, this river you & I

All along your green valleys I will work until I die”
I see wind surfers and ocean-going freighters
but where are the salmon?  And those who followed the fish?
The First Nation peoples traded up and down the coast and the big rivers of the west 

in their dugout canoes carved from western red cedar 
and the Mississippian people carved theirs from cinnamon cypress  
and did the same up and down the meandering muddy waters
of the great heart of this continent,

connecting big bony mountain ranges on either side,
and the salty sweet Gulf of Mexico in her belly
The people of the North Woods stripped giant birches of their skin
and crafted the sleekest, fastest, and finest vessels ever

European sailors entering the St. Lawrence Seaway 
were amazed at how nimble the birch bark canoes scooted over the water 
and now in a red canoe named Shannon, derived from that same tradition
a young man starts chopping his paddle left and right

back & forth, north & south, east & west
stroke to the one you love the best, stroking
with unrefined, but dedicated determination 
and rhythm, and swirls, up and down the same rivers

and now we paddle for the people, now we paddle for creation

The loneliness of the long distance paddler, the cold nights and hot days
the waking up by the first light to pack up and push off
sometimes in blistering sun and deadly drought, sometimes in flood
days of hard winds and hard rains, of big rivers, and shallow rocky rivers

whirlpools tugging at your paddle, eddies spinning you around and around, boils erupting and discharging big rolling waves, crashing waves, haystacking waves, rogue waves
very fitting indeed, to come in backwards
Shannon canoe turning to look back on the last 22 months

and remember the distance, and all of the portage steps and paddle strokes along the way
all the long nights and lonely days, the little triumphs, the setbacks and challenges
the tearful circumstances, the joys and letdowns, the agony and the ecstasy
the brilliant enlightenments, the humbling winds and storms

your body in pain, but your spirit endured, enchanted, enlightened, exulted
you laugh out loud, all things brought to comic balance on these islands
in these waters that connect us all, so close and yet so far
a contrail illuminated baby yellow for a long moment, then extinguished

now a faint reddish lavender bluish seems to streak the cheeks of the sky 
from where the sun disappeared not long ago, tears in your eye
are they from the wind?  are they from the cold?  are they from the brilliance?  are they from the high lonesomeness?  Are they from the bounty?  The beauty? Are they from the pain?  

Are they from the absurdity?  You have no choice but giggle, then whoo-whoop!
no one hears except the birds and fish.  A bull shark bumps your canoe 
in the Mississippi Sound, a pod of dolphins surface and seem to smile  
You are lonely, but you are not alone, sun burned, and chilled to the bone

a Grizzly wanders through your Rocky Mountain camp
a Gator surfaces and swells the waters of Lake Pontchartrain 
then swishes away, a Snowy Owl watches from a Hudson River fir
a loon cries, and then dives, as lady liberty rises, tears in your eyes

and now we paddle for the people, and all creation


paddling up and out of the Chinook oyster bays
at the foot of ferny evergreen coastal ranges, Oregon, Washington 
into the rugged bitterroot Idaho, salty wind blowing over the camas prairies,
across the great divide into wild wolf spruces, and aspens and pines, box elder and willows

smoky vanilla ponderosa, blushing in the sun, the backbone and basins of the west,
to descend through the open antelope plains of Montana, the lonely Dakota grasslands
the cliff swallows of Nebraska, the blackbirds of Iowa and paddlefish of Kansas, 
into the fecund forests of the muddy heart of a continent, 

a squirrel could leap across the country’s canopy without touching ground
the sturgeon of Missouri and white pelicans of the middle miss, the egrets of Illinois  
and down, down, down into the gut of America, where the great green Ohio 
river flows in from the east and swells the muddy Mississippi to fullness, and now together 

joined as one they swirl southward in ever larger muddy meanders 
gulping great gobs of bottomland hardwood forests and endless wetlands 
thriving with vine-covered cottonwoods, sweet gums, oaks and sycamores,
the wild turkey of Tennessee, the lightning bugs of Kentucky and bald eagles of Arkansas

the flooded tupelo-gum cypress forests falling away to endless estuary marshlands  
the map turtles of Mississippi and the see-through river shrimp of la Louisianne,
the osprey of Alabama, the foxes of Indiana, the cicadas of Ohio, and over the long loopy line of ridges of Allegheny, the snapping turtles of Pennsylvania, through Chataqua, and over 

the Appalachian divide, where glacier-carved valleys 
bounded by rolling moss-covered mountains, and dark cliffy ravines
erupting with maples and hickories, oaks and ashes and white pines 
the snowy owl of New York, the long lonesome cry of the loon, before she dives

bittersweet in your ear as lady liberty rises
and raises her torch over the sparky brilliant glistening waves
we’re all connected along this trail, the waters — and the land — 
makes us one — the only dividing line appears on maps

and now we paddle for the people, for all creation


I don’t know what got into your mind when you dreamed up this quixotic odyssey
surely a sane man would have found it an oddity, and made the same route by car
but I do know the pull of the heart strings, and the yearning, and the call
the river yanks deep within us, the crusty cavern of our inner beings

and pulls us up and out of bed, off the couch, out of the house, and over the riverbank 
the flow of human blood through human veins runs broad and deep
if rivers flow there, as Langston Hughes once said, then surely canoes as well
humans have been carving canoes for at least 8,000 years

For eight millennium we have applied carving tools and fire to logs
and pushed these sculpted wonders into the water
heavy on land, but light as a leaf when they float, the magic of fluid motion
all things brought out of the commotion, all things brought together, brought to harmony

even cold steel bridges and billowing smokestacks 
are made beautiful in their long sinewy reflections
the river makes mad rampages, and floods homes and lands
but also replenishes the wetlands and rejuvenates the forest

free fertilizer for the fields of the farmer, who fears silt and sedimentation 
we build levees ever higher, but we find our freedom on the other side of the levee
where is the ivory bill?  and where is the passenger pigeon?
22 species declared extinct in 2021, the Bachman's warbler: last seen in 1988.

the bridled white-eye: last seen in 1983; the flat pigtoe mussel: last seen in 1984
the green-blossom pearly mussel: Last seen in 1982.  
Ivory-billed woodpecker: last seen in 1944.
Eight freshwater mussels, two fish, and eleven birds.

the misery of accepting the loss, the call to retreat, into the wild places, for the sanctuary of the many, the long landscapes, the remote mountains and big river islands, over the muddy edges into the remaining wetlands and floodplain forests, the cougars and black bears, the otters and osprey, all need - or feed - on the fungi, the microbiota, the free-flowing 

plankton soup, the monarchs, the yellow, orange, black-and-white spotted kind that flutter 
three generations from the shores of the Great Lakes to the mountains of Mexico, 
will they survive the next year?  Filled with fear, as their numbers flutter and fall to the floor and flop around like ashes from a fire, mass murders of their numbers, where will it all end?

and now we paddle for the people, for all creation


One more paddle stroke for the people
Paddling for the people, paddling for the town
paddling for polluted communities, struggling for their lost ground
paddling for pickers and planters, who try to the feed the world

for the truckers and tow boat pilots, for the dock workers and stevedores, the warehousers and distributors, milkers and meatpackers, for the furniture builders and cheesemakers, the assembly lines and food lines, plastic workers, coal shovelers, uranium miners 
loggers and lumbermen, librarians and nurses, teachers and welders

for the granaries, the roaring factories, and throbbing refineries
the overcrowded prisons and hospitals, and schools, the face masks and throbbing hearts
families torn apart, motherless children, kids growing up without fathers
families torn apart by war, youngsters seeking a better life

parents seeking freedom of thought, of prayer, of economy, of transformation, 
hungry children, broken families, All humans crave freedom, but what does that mean?  where is that to be found?  We find it over the levee, down the river, through the woods
in the canyons and deserts, the grasslands, seashores and mountain ranges of the great fertile 

belly of North America, Mother Earth accepts all, all Euro-Asians & Africans, all Oceana, all the Americas north & south, all those grounded, and those at sea, all the lands, and all the islands in between, the first peoples, the last peoples, all nations, colors, codes and creeds, 
all those descended from hunter-gatherers, and still have not found the path, you show the 

way, the light shining, the glowing torch held high, in the foamy effervescent milky way, in the pathway in between and through the storms, the rippling colorful creative pools deep in each other’s eyes, we all breath the same air, we all drink the same water, we all consume and share, mother earth provides, but how long she sustain all of us multiplying and consuming 

and burning, we are one species out of five million and counting, we have one voice, one vote, one purpose, all connected, each and every one as integral to the whole as a a drop of water to the ocean, the oilmen and amoebas, all colors turn petroleum black, the river turns all things brown, creator were pinches off a piece of mud, and breaths life into the dust

lady liberty shining through the faces of all the people and places
along the trail, on hog farmers and chicken farmers, maids and masons, a country made of countries, who will build your houses? and who will answer your phones?
who will tend your sick?  And who will keep your yards? 

who will write your books?  And who will sing your songs?
who will drive your buses? and who cook your food?
who will cut your corn, and who will harvest your hay?  who will raise your greens?  
who will teach your children?  And tend to your kids?

Who will nurture and nanny your infants?  And where will the children play?
Not tomorrow, but today?  We all need that place to walk in the woods
that place over the banks of the river, where busy time stops with a shiver
the balance of life expressed in every paddle stroke, starboard and port, c-stroke & j-stroke

the symmetry of swirling mushroom ripples revolving behind your every reach and pull
as we heart soul time arrows overflow the quiver, to remember and deliver
that pathway, that portal to the infinite, the universe, and now lady liberty rises over the ever-reaching curved horizon to meet you and greet you, as you swing your paddle clean & bright 

flashing like silver, to blaze with brilliance the songs and stories 
of twenty-two rivers, across twenty-two states, in twenty-two months
the soul song of a continent carried in a simple two-person canoe
ferried along in the forever flashing, splashing, golden burning bright, swirls & flow 

drawing and ruddering, fluttering on the wings of a butterfly, over beaver and mussel trails
power strokes up through the rapids through funnels of joyful whitewater bliss, cut into an eddy behind a rock, take a pause, a steamy breath, and start forward again, flashing like sliver salmon leaping upwards with undefinable yet undeniable motivation, and purpose

and now we paddle for the people, for all creation


John Ruskey
Dec, 2021
Clarksdale, New York

11 thoughts on “Now we paddle for the people, for all creation

  1. Wonderful piece! Will you make a poster out of it? Will you make a documentary of your journey? Shucks, I’d donate for that 😀
    Congratulations, and may you paddle on forever – for peace, people and the planet …

  2. Congratulations Neal from Connie, Gordon, Joseph and Jenny of the Cogley House B&noB in East Brady PA. Have been praying for you to complete your journey safely. Ed (the auction guy) and Fast Eddie ask about you all the time. Will let them know that you completed your journey ok. Haven’t seen any thing on TV yet. In Prayer the Cogley’s.

  3. Gale D. Boocks

    …soon thy toil shall end
    Soon shalt thou find a (winter) home and rest,
    …reeds shall bend
    Soon o’er thy sheltered nest.
    Thou’rt gone, the (great) abyss…
    Hath swallowed up thy form, (and)
    On my heart…
    Hath sunk (a) lesson thou hast given
    And shall not soon depart:
    He, Who from zone to zone,
    Did guide thy (paddling) flight,
    In the long way that All
    Must trace alone,
    Will guide (our) steps aright.
    (Special thanks to William Cullen Bryant, author of To a Waterfowl
    and to Neal Moore, our brother, friend, and hero, for sharing himself and his love with hundreds of fellow travelers on the journey of Life)

  4. Gale D. Boocks, retired pastor & paddler

    I paddled with Neal on the Allegheny River & my wife Donna and I had a cookout for him and gave him a queen size bed for the night in Oil City, PA. I watched him from a bridge – he was so patient and methodical lining up through boulders and snags in rapids he couldn’t paddle against. I gave him a tee shirt & a paddle made by Verlen Kruger, one of his heroes, and he was very pleased. You don’t meet many people like him these days, and it is a blessing to know him. The parting words from The Hobbit seem fitting: “Fare ye well, wherever you may fare” Neal Moore and may the winds be always at your back!

    1. John Ruskey

      Thanks Gale, and Happy Ca-New Year! Neal’s vision has been an inspiration for many, including crusty ol’ river-rats like myself!

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