By 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? 1 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
2 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 3 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 4 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 5 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”
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 …
Many thanks, aquifer1
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.
Dear Gordon and Connie – I could feel you right there with me that day. Please give my best to Ed and Fast Eddie. I’m missing you all!
…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)
What I have written says it all, please do not modify…
Cheers, Gale – I appreciate your wise words and friendship. It means the world.
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!
Ha, Gale, the Hobbit indeed. Coming in to NYC I conjured the conclusion of the Hobbit with friends. That we all got to partake in.
An amazing, comprehensive work that says it all! Congratulations Neal and thank you John Ruskey for sharing…
Thanks Gale, and Happy Ca-New Year! Neal’s vision has been an inspiration for many, including crusty ol’ river-rats like myself!