Category: Spirits and tricksters

Meet the Potomac’s own philosopher

If the Potomac River has its own trickster (our friend Patowmack), why shouldn’t it have a philosopher as well?

Despite his life of despair (note the tear), Heraclitus teased posterity with a double-edged aphorism about stepping into rivers.

My philosopher of choice would be Heraclitus. As his name suggests, he was an ancient Greek, and he had some important things to say about rivers.

Member of a distinguished family, Heraclitus lived 2,500 years ago in the city of Ephesus, which was located on the eastern coast of the Aegean Sea in present-day Turkey. Through much of its history, this fabled city was a major commercial and religious center. Vestiges of its past glory survive today in the gleaming ruins of its temple, its vast amphitheater, and its great library. The city also figured in early Christian history as the probable origin of the New Testament’s Gospel of John.

Despite his illustrious homeland and family pedigree, Heraclitus led a lonely and ascetic life. He despaired of just about everything, and according to some accounts, at his life’s end he smeared himself with cow dung to cure himself from an unknown illness. The remedy proved ineffective, and his body was cast out in the street where it was eaten by dogs. Heraclitus was known as the “Weeping Philosopher.”

Restless rivers. Even if you have never heard of Heraclitus, you probably know his famous aphorism:

“You cannot step twice into the same stream.”

So true. Every time I go down to the Potomac I find a river that’s constantly reinventing itself, from year to year, from instant to instant. Its water flows clear one day, discolored the next. Mayflies are hatching one hour, then nothing but dragonflies an hour later. The water warms, then cools; its volume ebbs and flows; levels of oxygen and pH and other chemical indicators rise and fall in an ceaseless continuum.

A wall-to-wall carpet of stargrass one year nearly disappeared the next.

One year I’m dazzled by beds of stargrass that turn the river yellow from shore to shore; the following summer I find only scattered patches. An island recedes; a gravel bar forms upstream. I catch smallmouth bass along a stretch of shoreline one year; the next year only largemouth bass rise to my fly.

The restless river redraws its own geography. Mountain rivulets cut into mountain slopes and change the spot that marks the river’s sources. Downstream sediments build up and form oxbows that loop across the landscape. The sediments that reach its mouth create new land and extend the river further into the lake or sea.

All this is true, even obvious. But it hardly seems like the stuff of philosophy. Am I missing something?

Our mind’s river. It turns out that the idea of constant change was only part of what Heraclitus’ thinking about rivers. Here’s something else he said:

“On those stepping into rivers staying the same other and other waters flow.”

What to make of this? First off, Heraclitus could have used a good editor. (Actually, the blame for the clumsy writing likely goes to a compiler named Diogenes Laërtius, who wrote some 700 years after Heraclitus lived.)

I read the sentence over and over until my brain went into neutral. So I checked online to see what the experts had to say.

Now I think I get it, and it does seem to be legitimate piece of philosophical wisdom. Part of the idea is that rivers (and all else) must change, because otherwise they wouldn’t be rivers. Change is the very essence of a river.

But at the same time, rivers must remain the same—at least in our minds—to enable us to continue to speak of them as rivers. When we imagine a river, we conjure up the same image that we’ve had in the past and will continue to have in the future, despite the fact that the actual river itself is always different. Just by using the word “river,” we are implying that this object has essential qualities that we recognize as immutable. It’s kind of like a taxonomist’s type specimen, which anchors the defining features of a given species.

Heraclitus’ river. I’d like to think that Heraclitus had some kind of personal experience with an actual river. Not that this experience would be first-hand. I can’t imagine him taking delight in feeling the river mud squish between his toes or turning over rocks to see what lived there. He was a Weeping Philosopher, not a river rat.

Writhing across the valley, the Küçük Menderes shows how change defines a river.

If an actual river was the subject of Heraclitus’s philosophizing, it would have been the Küçük Menderes (also called Cayster or Kaystros), which flowed past Ephesus.

About the size of one of the larger tributaries to the Potomac, the Küçük Menderes today snakes through a mosaic of agricultural fields as it probably did even before  Ephesus’s founding.

Heraclitus would have found the Küçük Menderes a fine example of change. The river’s very name means “meander,” and so it has over the millennia, its channel looping first one way, then another, constantly on the move.

It’s also a silty river, and its currents continually transport these sediments downstream to its mouth on the Aegean Sea. The sediments create more land on the coast and extend the shoreline—along with the river’s mouth—further out into the sea.

Modern-day pilgrims to Ephesus’s Temple of Artemis come with cameras and tour guides.

As the shoreline marched westward, it left Ephesus behind. By 1000 BC the city’s harbor had turned to marshland, and Ephesus had to be moved closer to the sea and provided with a new harbor. Around 300 BC the port silted up again, and the city was moved once more. In the 5th century AD the harbor was abandoned. Today, the ruins of Ephesus lie landlocked about 4 miles from the sea.

A canal linking Ephesus to the sea bypasses the river that has silted up ancient harbors and left the city landlocked.

But this was not the end of it. The Turkish government now has a project underway to connect Ephesus to the sea, not by moving the ancient ruins, of course, but by constructing a canal to the ancient site. And in place of boats laden with grain and amphorae of wine and olive oil, the canal will now carry yachts loaded with tourists.

No doubt Heraclitus would have wept over his city’s transformation into a tourist attraction. But that is the price of change.

River spirit agrees: eclipse no big deal

It was August 21, the day of the Great Eclipse. People were going crazy, as if they were about to witness an Elvis sighting. That is, everyone except me.

What was I not getting about the eclipse? What was I missing?

I decided to take my problem to the ancient Indian fish glyph I had met  several weeks ago. Glyph (as I call him) mostly gazes out in stony silence. If he says anything it’s usually small talk.  But maybe with eclipses it would be different. After all, he was once a spirit, and celestial events must have been one of his areas of expertise. It would be worth a try.

I hiked along the trail and then lowered my way down the rocky cliffside. I followed the shoreline, crossed a little brook, and took my seat in the rock depression beside Glyph.

Under a partial eclipse, Glyph and I
discuss calamities and celestial candy.

“Hi Glyph,” I said. “You know, this is a special day. You can’t see from where you are, but up on the cliffs across the river crowds of people are looking into the sky through eclipse glasses.”

I paused for some kind of reaction, then continued:

“It’s the first solar eclipse to cross the entire North American continent in 100 years. People out in places like Nebraska are saying it’s incredible, even life-changing. The pundits are predicting that the eclipse will bring the country together.”

Glyph remained silent, but I felt he was listening.

“Eclipse glasses are completely sold out. All over the country people are poking little holes in cereal boxes. Scientists are saying that the eclipse will inspire America’s youth to pursue careers in science, or at least engineering.”

The spirit speaks. It was now a little after 2 pm, just before the eclipse would reach its zenith. A vulture alternately soared and flapped through the rocky canyon, followed by five or six others. A Park Service helicopter swept in low over Mather Gorge, circled over the falls, and returned downriver, mission evidently accomplished.

But wait! What was that sound? It could be just the water tumbling over the rocks. Or. . .

“Listen to me,” came Glyph’s words in a gravely murmur. “These people should calm down. Eclipses today are nothing like in the old days, when I was a practicing spirit. An eclipse back then was serious stuff.

“We spirits told the people that eclipses portend calamities. And we had no end of calamities to portend. Susquehannock raiding parties, fearful epidemics, the white man. All these were because of eclipses. This is what we said, and the people believed us. People  want to think there’s a cause for everything.

“Today you have different calamities, but people still want to know the cause. Think of how much better you would have felt on Nov. 9 if Nate Silver had shown up on Good Morning America wearing eclipse glasses.

Sensitive subject. Glyph was was really getting into it. He certainly did know about eclipses. But I was hoping for something more, some show of excitement, an expression of awe and bewonderment.

“OK, I get it about eclipses and calamities,” I said. “Granted, there’s no connection. But don’t you think an eclipse is a remarkable event, just on its own, all by itself?”

“Celestial candy,” Glyph snorted in reply. “That’s all it is. Basically an eclipse is one thing blocking out another thing. It’s not strange or profound or mysterious. In fact, an eclipse is totally predictable, just like day turning into night, but without the sunset.”

This wasn’t why I had come here. I made one last try.

“You mentioned beauty,” I replied. “But isn’t an eclipse beautiful? People in Missouri are saying that it’s the most breathtakingly beautiful thing they’ve ever seen.”

Glyph paused, gazing stonily past where I was sitting.

“You want beautiful?” he said at last. “Then look behind you at that flower.”

I kneeled next to the flower. It was a rose mallow, a little tattered around the edges. Glyph had a point. Even in the partially eclipsed sun its petals glowed in shades of luminescent pink.

Just then the blossom began to whip back and forth. A breeze had come out of nowhere. I felt the temperature drop. Off to the east a great black cloud had formed, its ragged edge now advancing toward the sun and the blue sky above me. Fat rain drops were leaving dark blotches on the rocks before they evaporated.

The maximum eclipse had passed. I glanced at Glyph. After a pause he spoke again.

“I’m sorry,” he said. I guess I’ve gotten a little grumpy. Maybe that’s what happens when you once were a respected spirit and now you’re just a fish carved in a rock.”

He paused again, then added:

“Come back April 8, 2024. We’ll try this again.”