Me and how I found the trickster

Some people find tricksters in the city, where they lurk in alleys, coffee shops, and subways. Others find tricksters in brooding mountains that tell ancient truths. Football stadiums, gambling casinos—they have tricksters as well. For all I know there might even be tricksters in shopping malls.

Me, my canoe, and my river.

I know for certain there is a trickster in the Potomac River. It pranks and plays throughout the river’s watershed, from the its main stem just a 10 minute walk from my house, and up into the foothills and the high peaks beyond. It inhabits pristine streams as well as trash-clogged city culverts. Wherever I go it is there, offering to help me think and question my assumptions. The trickster stands at the intersection of my beliefs and the vast and mysterious system of knowledge we call nature. The name of my trickster is Patowmack.

I met Patowmack only recently, but when I did, I was prepared by a lifetime of experience.

Boyhood wilderness. I spent much of my child and adolescent years exploring the woods and swamps behind my family home in what was then the New York City exurbs. There in my my own personal wilderness I could peer into the pungent darkness of a fox’s den under a rock slab. Or jump from hillock to hillock in the skunk cabbage swamp. At school I did terribly.

After high school I barely made it into a special program for “late bloomers” at Boston University. I suddenly became a star student, the one who set the curve at exam grading time. Perhaps overly cocky, I applied to super-selective Amherst College, and somehow I got in.

The ‘eternal’ rainforest. After college I joined the Peace Corps. I was posted to a town on the edge of the central highlands that was home to an international agricultural institute. It was also close to the rain forest. I loved exploring this world of shadows where everything was new and strange, even the calls of the birds. Except the smell, that is. It was that same intoxicating mix of decomposing vegetation and humid air that I remembered as a child visiting the Bronx Botanical Garden.

There in the forest I met another trickster, though I wasn’t aware of it at the time. I just knew him as the revered topical ecologist Leslie Holdridge, patrician in bearing and passionate about the rain forest.

Prof. Holdridge once took our class into a stand of great trees, their branches far overhead festooned with vines and bristling with bromeliads. It was the very image of the eternal rainforest that I had dreamed of since childhood. As we stood there in the shadows, he told us that in fact, this forest is not eternal at all. He cut into the trunk of a tree with his machete to expose the reddish brown wood. These are mahoganies, he said. They need sunlight to get their start. Four centuries ago Indians grew corn here. Then something happened. The Indians abandoned their land and the trees took over.

That was a real story, much more compelling than a forest that just goes on and on.

Mystery in a mangrove swamp. After graduate school at Columbia University, a few jobs, and a longish stint in Europe, I moved to the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. I was now the editor of the magazine of an international organization, the Inter-American Development Bank. Somehow I got pretty much carte blanche to travel about Latin America, wherever my interests led. Mostly this meant going direct from the airport to the back country. No time to waste in the capital cities.

My encounters with tricksters became more frequent. In the Galapagos, for example, I arrived still clinging to my cartoonish image of an island paradise and shrine of evolutionary theory, sacred and untouchable.  Then things started to get real. First off, it turned out that the islands were harsh and inhospitable. Jagged lava beds shredded my running shoes. I could almost feel the erupting magma.

Then I met government officials and fishermen who were supposedly working together to create a marine reserve. The fishermen spoke eloquently about the need to protect endangered species.

Then deep in a mangrove swamp I stumbled upon a pile of freshly delivered crates. I later learned what everyone on the islands already knew: The stash of crates contained machinery for processing just those marine creatures that were being protected. The people couldn’t care less about Darwin, and were liars besides. And they had their reasons.

River rats all. Meanwhile my children were growing up, a lot of it on the Potomac River. “Don’t schedule any sleepovers on weekends,” I would tell them. Weekends were reserved for the river and for getting wet and dirty. That was us—river rats. My daughter mostly liked to fish and she was good at it. My son preferred catching crayfish in the shallows, turning over rocks and snatching the little lobsters as they scurried away. I’d like to think that they still are river rats, even though my daughter now lives in Baltimore and works as a designer and musician and my son is gaining a foothold in the world of academia.

I’m still a river rat, in fact more now than ever. Since I retired from my job I turned even more to the Potomac River and started discovering that the river has dimensions I hadn’t previously suspected. I found out these things in books, in scientific papers, and from people I met, but mostly from the river itself. This is where I met the trickster whose name appears at the top of this website.