This is about rivers and riverbeds but it's not about rowing. It's about fear. And for this rower anyhow, there was once nothing so terrifying as the sight of the bottom of the Charles River.
I saw the bottom of the Charles River the other day, and this time it didn't spook me. It was one of those late-summer or early-fall days when the atmospheric conditions do whatever it is that they do and the usually murky river turns clear. In the past, I've had to look away, taking solace in the horizon or the bank -- familiar images compared to the strangeness of the riverbed. But these days, I can stare down at the bottom to see what I can see.
When you're sitting in your hip-wide rowing shell and you look down to suddenly see sticks, and leaves and maybe even a fish beneath you in the silt, the view can come as quite a shock. And that's not even counting the more unsettling objects you might glimpse, like a car tire or a shopping cart or a beer can. Not that there's anything particularly upsetting about a beer can at the bottom of a river. But the sight of it gets the imagination going. If a beer can be down there, then something else, something more personal, more tragic, could be down there, too.
I'm not alone among rowers in my negative response to these clear-water days. When you're out there on the river, day after day, in calm water or the occasional chop, you tend to think about the river as a surface. The river feels almost two-dimensional, and you need it to feel that way. If it's two-dimensional, it's like a sheet of paper or a road, and you can glide along it without being caught or interfered with. You have the sense that you can go faster and with more grace.
If the river is a three-dimensional creature, it has depth and substance and texture. It can snag your oar blade, or, worse, you can fall into it. Immersion: the proof of three dimensions.
On the Charles, we are lucky. The river has no strange tides or weird whirlpools, and for most of its rowable course, it passes along heavily populated banks. There is little danger (save the real seasonal danger of hypothermia) of falling in, as you can climb back in your boat and even stand on the riverbed in some places to do it. And if you can't climb back in, there is a very good chance of immediate help.
But there's that psychological threat -- a fear of being swallowed up, of getting cold (again, this is real and serious) and of being in the wrong relation to the space around us. You're supposed to be above the waterline, like a dragonfly, not like a dog paddling wearily after a stick.
Plenty of rowers will be scoffing at this notion, for they are fearless. Truly and admirably so. But for some of us, that fear of the river's three-dimensionality and its power to swallow us up -- well, that fear that materializes when we see the bottom of the river.
I've begun to get over this fear. Experience helps. The more times you go out, and in tougher conditions, the more you realize that you have the skill to keep yourself in the correct relation to the water. The biggest help comes from acknowledging the fear in the first place. Looking away can only avert so much. It might alleviate the first instant of panic, but all it really does is replicate all the murky-water days when we pretend to be rowing on a solid surface.
In the end, you have to look at the riverbed. You have to look at the depth around you, even if it scares you. Look down and change your sense of the geometry of the river. Instead of thinking of it as a deep thing that can overwhelm you, look hard at all of it. See that it's not separate from you but part of the space you occupy. And you'll be able to move with greater grace and speed.
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