When an ancient streamside conifer falls, finally washed or blown from its riverbank down into the water, a complex process of disintegration begins. The fallen tree becomes a naked log, the log begins to lead a kind of afterlife in the river, and this afterlife is, in some ways, of greater benefit to the river than was the original life of the tree.
A living tree stabilizes riverbanks, helps cool water temperatures, provides shade and cover for fish, shelter for mammals and birds. But fallen trees serve some of the same purposes, and other crucial ones besides. The gradual disintegration of a log in a streambed creates a vast transfusion of nutrients--a slow forest to river feast reaching from the saprophytic bottom of the food chain to the predatory, fly-casting, metaphor-making top. Downed trees are also part of a river's filtration system: working in concert in logjams, they become flotsam traps; mud, leaf and carcass traps; Styrofoam, disposable-diaper and beer-can traps. And they're a key element in river hydraulics: a log will force current down, digging a sheltering pocket or spawning bed for trout or salmon; over, creating a whitewater spill that pumps life-giving oxygen into the stream; or around, sometimes digging the salmonid's version of a safe room with a view, the undercut bank.
On the forest streams I know best—those of the Oregon Coast Range clearcuts, "tree farms" and remnant strips of rainforest—the breakdown of even a five- or six-hundred-year-old river log takes only a few decades. Tough as logs are, the grinding of sand, water and ice are relentless. Within a decade or two any drowned conifer but cedar turns punk, grows waterlogged and joins the rocks and crayfish as features of the river's bottom. I often glance down at my feet while fishing and see that the "rock" I'm standing on is really the top of a gigantic log sunk and buried in gravel and sand. And even after burial, decomposition continues. The log breaks into filaments, the filaments become gray mush, the mush becomes mud, washes downriver, comes to rest in side channels. The side channels fill and gradually close. New trees sprout from the fertile muck. The cycle goes on.
There are, however, parts of every drowned tree that refuse to become part of this cycle. There is, in every log, a series of cross-grained, pitch-hardened masses where long-lost branches once joined the tree's trunk. "Knots," they're called, in a piece of lumber. But in the bed of a river, after the parent log has broken down and vanished, these stubborn masses take on a very different appearance, and so perhaps deserve a different name. "River teeth" is what we called them as kids, because that's what they look like. Like enormous fangs, often with a connected, cross-grained root. It took me awhile to realize, when I found my first, that it had once been part of a tree. Having grown up around talk of "headwaters" and "river mouths," it was easier for me to imagine it having washed loose from a literal river's jaw than having once joined a branch to an evergreen.
I don't know how long these teeth last, but even on the rainy coast I'd guess centuries: you sense antiquity when you heft one. Because their pitch content is so high, and hardened pitch outlasts the grainy wood fiber, the oldest teeth lose much of their resemblance to wood. Some look like Neolithic hand tools, others like mammals—miniature seals, otters, manatees. Still others resemble art objects—something intelligently worked, not just worn. And to an extent this is what they become. There is life in rivers, and strength; there are countless grinders and sanders: in a relic the waters have shaped so long, why wouldn't we begin to glimpse the river's mind and blind artistry?
With my trees, logs, and river in place, I'd like to piece together a metaphor: our present-tense human experience, our lives in the inescapable present, are like living trees. Our memory of experience, our individual pasts, are like trees fallen in a river. The current in that river is the passing of time. And a story—a good, shared story—is a transfusion of nutrients from the old river log of memory into the eternal now of life. But as the current of time keeps flowing, the aging log begins to break down. Once-vivid impressions begin to rot. Years run together. We try to share, with an old friend or spouse, some "memorable" past experience and end up arguing instead about details that don't jibe. Chunks of the log begin to vanish completely. Someone approaches us in a crowd, his face lights up, he says his name, tells us of a past connection—and we shake his hand and grin through our horror, unable to place him at all. Some of us realize, after being endlessly corrected, that there are portions of our pasts we can no longer weave into accurate narratives. Others of us realize, after sharing the same accurate narratives for decades, that we have somehow talked our allotment of stories to death, that no one listens any longer, that when we tell these old tales the room fills with a dark water and our listeners' eyes glaze. So we stop telling them. We let them decompose. The last filaments of memory become gray mush, the mush becomes mud, the mud washes downriver. New life, and new stories, sprout from the silence.
There are, however, small parts of every human past that resist this natural cycle: there are hard, cross-grained whorls of memory that remain inexplicably lodged in us long after the straight-grained narrative material that housed them has washed away. Most of these whorls are not stories, exactly: more often they're self-contained moments of shock or of inordinate empathy; moments of violence, uncaught dishonesty, tomfoolery; of mystical terror; lust; preposterous love; preposterous joy. These are our "river teeth"—the time-defying knots of experience that remain in us after most of our autobiographies are gone.
A true river tooth experience is usually old; until the narrative fiber that surrounded the event turns punk and vanishes, one can't be sure it possesses the adamantine quality that is its chief attribute. Most are also fairly brief—just as actual wooden river teeth are fairly small. In my own such experiences I am more often acted upon than actor; more eye than body; more witness than hero. Yet the emotional impact of such experiences is often huge. Some river tooth experiences, if shared with the wrong person, would certainly wound, and could perhaps even kill. Others, whether shared or not, possess the solidity of a geographer's bearing marker and help us find our way. Almost everyone, I believe, owns scores of these old knots and whorls. Yet—perhaps because they lack a traditional narrative's flow from beginning to middle to end—I hear few people speak of such experiences.
There are many things worth telling that are not quite narrative. And eternity itself possesses no beginning, middle or end. Fossils, arrowheads, castle ruins, empty crosses: from the Parthenon to the Bo Tree to a grown man's or woman's old stuffed bear, what moves us about many objects is not what remains but what has vanished. There comes a time, thanks to rivers, when a few beautiful old teeth are all that remain of the two-hundred-foot spires of life we call trees. There comes a river, whose current is time, that does a similar sculpting in the mind. My hope, in sharing a few personal river teeth here, is to let go of what can't be saved, to honor what can and perhaps to make others more aware of, and more willing to accept and share, the same cycle in themselves.
to the daaman
It's a few days before Christmas, downtown Portland. I am three years old. My mother, two brothers, sister and I have come in from the country by bus. We're here to shop and, I guess, meet Santa Claus. But I'm not interested in Santa. I'm interested in survival. The doors of every car, trolley, bus and building in town are extruding humans, most of them traveling at a pace equal to my dead run, all of them bigger, some ten times bigger, than me. The air at my level is so thick with scissoring thighs, swinging purses and jingling trouser pockets that I can't even glance at the window displays. My brother John is seven, and nearly competent to handle this chaos. But Steve is four and incompetent, so John is under orders to hold Steve's hand and walk directly in front of my mother, whose arms and attention are occupied with a purse, four or five shopping bags, a Christmas list and Katherine, my baby sister. That leaves me to bring up the rear—and I am to maintain my position by clinging to my mother's bright red winter coat.
I am fervently clinging. I know that only by obedience will I survive. We've already walked dozens of blocks, entered revolving or swinging or sliding double doors, traversed the aisle mazes of boiling-hot buildings, ridden fang-stepped escalators and airless, fart-filled elevators, only to shoot, sweating and dizzy, back out into the cram-packed cold. As we head for the Meier & Frank building and rendezvous with Santa, the sidewalk is so thick with percussing shoes that I can scarcely see concrete. One misstep by one of the thousand spiked heels and my foot could end up looking like the foot of Our Lord. On a midblock sidewalk Mom escapes a knot of people by angling us over to the edge of the street--and a delivery truck nearly mows us down. At a crosswalk, moments later, she swims us off the curb with the human current, sees the DON'T WALK sign flash, slams into reverse, smacks her red wool bottom into my face, crushes my head into the keys of some fat guy's pockets, changes her mind, hollers "Run!" and I am barely able to catch the salvific red coat and follow it, dazed, back into the current.
The coat is trolling me now, like a half-drowned herring, through a crush of silhouettes along the shadowed side of a building. The people across the street, in contrast, are ablaze with winter sunlight. Despite sensory overload I am fascinated by their brilliance. It fascinates me, too, to see a woman among them in a fiery red coat who looks a lot like my mother. Tightening my grip on my real mother's coat, I see that sunlight mother is even carrying a baby. And right in front of her are two boys dressed a lot like my brothers. Funny. The only thing missing is the boy dressed like me. I tug on Mom's coat, wanting to show her our near-twin family. She feels the tug, turns, gives me a surprised little smile—and something's happened to her face. It's wrong, wrong! Every piece of it, lips, eyes, nostrils, is different; not ugly, not bad, just hopelessly different. Hoping it's some trick of the shadows, or of makeup, I gasp, "What did you do?"
She just stares down at me, then laughs—a strange, nervous titter—and in a strange voice says, "You're holding my coat."
Of course I am. And I keep holding it. But she's lost the baby, lost my brothers, lost her face. Does she want me to let go so she can lose me now, too? Too scared to confront her violent foreignness, I look for the family I'd wanted to show her. There they are, in the beautiful blazing light. And look. The red-coated mother just noticed me here in the shadows. Noticed me, then gaped, then looked behind her. Now she's pointing me out to her boys. They gape, too. The woman and boys start waving and shouting. The Steve-like one starts jumping. The John-like one starts laughing. Even the baby is waving. And I can't understand them, it's way too noisy, but they're acting as if they know me, they're acting as if they want me. And though I feel it's a betrayal, I suddenly want them, too.
So I drop the red coat. I let it fall, turn toward the sunlit family, bolt right into the street. But when she sees me coming the sunlit mother screams, tires scream, pavement screams, I feel violent hands, engine heat, my body flying backward, the wind of a speeding car. And I'm back in the shadows, in my weird-faced mother's arms. But she is squeezing me now, she is holding me tight. And strange as she still looks, I know she has just saved my life.
I give her a tentative hug, then grab the sleeve of her red coat and hold it, to show her I remember. She smiles an odd smile in response. But she doesn't laugh or titter. She looks scared now—as scared as I was at first. Yet even scared her face is pretty; maybe prettier than before. I don't know what she did with my brothers or baby sister, but I know by the way she's holding me that they must be okay. "Just wait," she tells me in her quiet new voice—and I like the voice, too. "I'll wait with you. Don't worry. They're coming. See?"
Following the line of her long, elegant finger, I see the sunlit mother herding her boys and baby toward the corner crosswalk. But now I don't understand. I love my changed red-coated mother despite her sudden difference. And the whole time she holds me, the whole time we wait, I believe that I'm about to change families.
In 1960, on one of the hottest June days on record, I went with my family to watch the Grand Floral Parade of Portland's annual Rose Festival. "Rose Vegetable," hippie friends would later dub it, with no argument from me. At age eight, though, one assumes that when a billion flowers get beheaded and thrust on public display, they've died for some noble purpose. So there I hunched, front-row-seated on the curb, watching the edible-looking floats and neurotic clowns; the gymnasts, marching bands and National Guard rockets, the stuntment, stilt men and sequined majorettes; unicyclists, Indian chiefs, rope-trick artists. White-gloved, admiration-stoned princesses reached toward us through the air, slowly unscrewing invisible jar lids. Beefy Rosarians glad-handed us. Rows of robotic soldiers disdained us. Peanut, ice-cream and bauble vendors hustled us. Magicians and jugglers regaled us. And none of them stuck around long enough to bore us. I grew mesmerized. I can't say for certain that I was having fun, but I was definitely an enthralled little Rose Vegetable, pleased as Pepsi to be a Portlander, wishing I'd a flag, gun or red rose to wave.
The Meadowland Dairy wagon came clomping toward us—a huge, turn-of-the-century bandwagon, drawn by eight enormous black Clydesdales, with a uniformed brass band aboard. The parade abruptly halted, in that inexplicable way parades do, placing the wagon right in front of us. The band lit into some better-than-average Sousa. Parade-goers began bobbing to it like hundreds of happy toilet plungers. Then—in sudden, shocking disagreement with the reigning Rose Vegetable mood—one of the Clydesdales shrieked, and began to rear in its traces. All seven of the other horses began doing the same. The brass band was jerked so violently the Sousa was yanked into silence. And we suddenly knew—as the wagon driver roared his puny "Whoa"s, jerked futile reins, and mothers began gripping kids--that those horses could drag their wagon anywhere they chose, including straight through the marching band in front of them, or into the crowd on either side.
That was when I first noticed a man who'd been trudging along by the Clydesdales from the beginning. Just this bland-faced, pale old bald guy wearing black slacks and a short-sleeved shirt so boring he looked more like a lost salesman than part of a gala parade. Definitely not the guy you'd choose to save a day. But he was holding a riding crop in one hand. And he shuffled back along the rearing team, applied his crop to the trouble horse and managed, in no time, to quell all eight of them. No sooner had he calmed the horses, though, then he fell facedown on the asphalt. And didn't move, though the pavement was blistering hot. Seeing this odd behavior, the horses took a few nervous steps forward, and the wagon's huge wooden-spoked, steel-rimmed wheels turned just once. But once was enough: while we stared as if at another clown stunt or magician's truck, the right front wheel of the Meadowland Dairy wagon rolled, with majestic slowness, not so much over as through the old man's head.
The smell of a hospital, the air in a full church—normally these are all it takes to make me faint. But the sense of unreality the parade had engendered in me was so complete that not even the sound of crunching skull or the widening pool of brain made me queasy. When easily twenty-five people, including my father, flopped to the ground as if playing Simon Says with the dead man, the unreality only thickened: I didn't understand till my father recovered and told me, later, that it had been a mass faint.
It betrays my slant on civic pride that I consider this, by far, the most edifying Rose Festival event I've ever witnessed. When I try to this day to grasp the driving force behind words like karma, destiny or fate, I picture those eight enormous black Clydesdales. And when I first read of the Buddhist symbol of the Great Wheel, you can imagine which wheel's slow turning sprang to mind.
So what a comedown, what a piffle-ization the next morning, to watch my parents paw the daily Oregonian from end to end and find that the only mention of this soul-shaking event was a three-sentence piece of denial on the obituary page. The old guy had died a hero; he'd gone down for the Rose Vegetable cause; his actions were the first I'd seen outside a boob tube or movie theater that bore even faint resemblance to Christ's line: "He that losest his life shall save it." And the paper stated his name, age and ex-address; stated the time and place of his death; called the cause of his death "heat stroke"; and that was that.
The Lord can only giveth. The media account is free to sweep what the Lord giveth away. This was my first exposure to this gruesome kind of clean-up operation. I have distrusted newspapers and civic celebrations ever since. I have also believed, ever since, that we live among quiet heroes.
Excerpted from River Teeth by David James Duncan. Copyright © 2006 by David James Duncan. Excerpted by permission of The Dial Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.