Once the river was just a river. This is not meant as a criticism. Even stripped down to its geographic and biological essentials, the Potomac was still a very impressive piece of natural engineering.
Then along came the raven. From his perch on a cliff near the summit of Short Hill Mountain he could look down and see the Potomac and the Shenandoah rivers meet in a tumble of rocks and rapids. Even when he soared with the vultures and eagles he never let the river out of his sight. Something gnawed within him. There was something he needed to do.
A serious talk. The raven chose a still day when no wind would muffle his words. Off the cliff he jumped and down he glided, making tight circles as he dropped. He landed on a rock ledge that backed up a pool of water.
“River, do you hear me?” Raven asked. Silence. Raven croaked again, a little louder. In the pool a fish made a splash as it struck a mayfly on the water’s surface. The Raven took that as a “yes.”
“Listen to what I am about to say,” said the Raven. “I am a raven, very smart and very clever. In the far north people still revere me for my exploits. No creature can make its way in the world as I can. They call me the trickster.
“But here in Potomac country tricksters are all gone. They once inhabited the forests and and rivers in the form of foxes, rabbits, raccoons, and the supple and twisting water snake. The Indians would sit around campfires and tell tales of the tricksters’ cunning and knavery. But when the Indians disappeared, the tricksters disappeared along with them.
“The Indians laughed at these tales, but they learned as well. They learned how to live together with other people and how to hunt and fish, and grow maize and squash and beans, and how to avoid danger. These were simple lessons, because back then the affairs of this world were much simpler than they are today. The Indians lived in easy partnership with their world and worshiped the many spirits that they found at hand.
“It’s true that they cleared patches of forest to cultivate their fields and sometimes set fires so that deer and elk would have new and tender shoots to eat. In the rivers they fished and plied their canoes. But these were minor things, mere scratchings on the earth, like the marks my claws are making in the dried silt on this stone ledge.
“Then things changed. New people arrived in this country. They worshiped a single god who urged them to achieve big ambitions by subduing the earth–the trees of the forest, the minerals in the ground, and the waters that flow between your banks. It wasn’t enough for these people to live in partnership with nature. They wanted nature to do their bidding. You saw this yourself, how they built dams across your streams and used your currents to carried away wastes from their industries. They harnessed your water to transport boats loaded with coal and timber. They put strange fish in your waters. They did all these things and much more.”
New trickster needed. The raven stopped, fearing that the river’s attention had drifted away like a piece of discarded Styrofoam carried by the current.
“River, are you hearing what I’m saying?” croaked the raven. Something moved among the knotweed at the head of the pool. It was a water snake with a small catfish headfirst in its mouth. Yes, the river was listening.
The raven continued:
“These people today need a trickster much more than the Indians did,” he said. “They quarrel among themselves and with the natural world. They are running a grave risk.
“The new trickster cannot be a mere creature of the forest as in the old times. The new trickster must have great strength to match the power of the people. He must be very smart, because these people are extremely clever. Only such a trickster can command the attention of people who are obsessed by their own affairs and pay little attention to the natural world.”
Now the raven prepared to make his pitch. He knew the river’s sense of vanity, how it cloaked itself in shimmering gowns of red and gold each evening as the sun set. He also knew the river was proud of its ability to nurture all the plants and animals between its banks and throughout its network of tributaries and streams.
The raven began:
“Only you,” he said, “have the knowledge and strength—and beauty—to get through to these people. It’s true that you have led an exemplary existence as a grand database of physical laws and geographical verities. You have dwelt your entire existence in the hydrosphere, the geosphere, the biosphere. Now you must enter the noosphere, the world of consciousness. Only in this way can you understand how people think and what you must do to communicate with them.
“Then you will have the power to devise feats of cunning and trickery that will help the people to question what they do and what they believe.” He added: “And you will also make them laugh.”
The river accepts. The raven paused again. He watched a plastic water bottle enter the little pool, take a few turns, and lodge itself between two rocks. It wasn’t much of an affirmation, but at least it was a start. It seemed like the river was on board.
The raven concluded with some final words of advice.
“First of all,” he said, “tricksters are not oracles. Don’t expect that people will revere you as a prophet or respect you as a vengeful god. Make them laugh, surprise them, and then get them to look at themselves, the way the raccoon sees his reflection in a puddle by your shore.
“Second, learn the art of disguise. Slip into the skin of whatever makes the trick work best. It can be another animal, but it can also be a person, a machine, a rain cloud, anything you like. People crave novelty.
“Third, don’t be afraid to lie. A steady diet of truth can be predictable and your tricks will end up being boring. Of course people will eventually see through your lies, if they’re paying attention.
“Fourth, don’t expect that people will always get the joke. There will always be at least some who will sit there with blank faces and a confused look in their eyes while the others are laughing. That’s just the way people are.
“Fifth, don’t be surprised if your tricks sometimes backfire. You might send a flash flood to carve up the lawn of a new mega mansion, and the silt ends up smothering a nearby stream. Just shrug and move on.
“Finally, come up with a name that sets you apart. Bugs Bunny is not like any other rabbit. Something like Nanahboozho has a nice Indian lilt to it, but it’s too hard to pronounce and it’s already been taken. How about “Patowmack the Trickster?”
Trump trick backfires. A beaver slapped its tale from somewhere along the shore and Patowmack the Trickster set off to learn try out his new trade. His first tricks were amateurish and clumsy, like when a wooden toilet he sent down the river in a spring flood hit a kayaker coming out of a roll. Then he became more ingenious, like the time he impaled a tire on a tree branch 20 feet above the river.
He learned to form partnerships with other tricksters, such as when he convinced Donald Trump to place a plaque at the base of an enormous American flag on his riverside golf course that commemorates a bloody Civil War battle that never took place. He also experienced regret, such as when that joke went seriously awry.
As his confidence increases, Patowmack the Trickster is acting out ever more subtle tricks. He is showing us that the river, the rocks, the trees are epiphanies of great forces that bind man and nature together, and not merely objects to be worshiped or used. In the end, nature and humans follow the same laws.
As for the raven, he remains on his cliff-side perch, keeping an eye on things. He knows there is a much larger joke playing out in Potomac country in which all of us are protagonists. Eventually we’ll come to the punch line. The raven hopes that the joke won’t backfire.