At ease by a creek in the wilderness


I am on my way to Kootenai Creek, a neighbor and laughing friend who spends all day, all year, all everything, tumbling down the western side of the Bitterroot Mountains in southwestern Montana.

This is the edge of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, over a million acres of forest that stretches between Montana and Idaho. Kootenai Creek empties into the Bitterroot River, which in turn empties into the Clark Fork River, which then swells the Columbia River for its long journey to the Pacific Ocean. I’m not sure that my creek has any thoughts of the sea, but I imagine there’s not a brook or stream in the world that doesn’t yearn for a lake, dreaming of the day it can fan out, rest in the open, caressing and supporting the bellies of fishes.

As always when I enter the woods, I step into an immense and ancient privacy. This is where the weighty and important decisions are made, where life and death hang in the balance, with the soil, the cleansing of the water, and the rejuvenation of air. Kootenai Creek is not wide -- 6 feet to 12 feet in most places -- but its acoustic gymnastics are subtle and grand.

I believe is a mistake to talk of the monotonous voice of a river or stream, worse yet to say that a brook babbles. A brook is fine literature, poetry of the first order, and if I had to guess, I’d say Kootenai Creek is reciting James Joyce, perhaps, even William Blake. In my mind there’s no more important vocabulary than that of running water, a continual talker. Kootenai Creek is also well-versed in the patterns of weather. Listen closely, and every landing of leaf and insect becomes a clause, a comma, or a word in the story. Every deer wading in for a drink is indenting a paragraph.

There are so many qualities of sound that come from this one stream, so many choral differences as it steps down the stones. There are the guttural, throaty undertones of its intense hiss. There are the small, individual drops that leap out of the spray, and larger drops, too, that plunk, plop and thunk louder.

Today, Kootenai Creek raises its voice to an extreme but tender whisper. It pours under masses of roots and rumbles out from the dark. Everywhere in the creek are the broken ends of trees, slick, black-green arms that let the water rush over them. To the water’s song they add a hint of melancholy I hadn’t noticed before.

Today, I am stalled by a creek, content to be a bump on a log, sitting out of the sun. It brings me a simple joy. My goal has not been to speak with this creek but to submerge myself, sink like a stone into a caring and genuine awareness of beauty. In the end, I’ve not heard a word I expected — not happiness, not peace. Instead, I’ve heard what all language, all literature, every breath of nature is repeating over and over until the very end: home.

I rise to leave. I take one last drink of water. To do this I lower my face close to the water, purse my lips. I kiss Kootenai Creek. I can see the smooth stones in the shallows. I can see the moss growing gently attached to their logs. In the rushing water is one moment of life. Then all is blurred. If not nature, who is my lover? If not in love, why not? I drink and breathe deeply. For a moment, all is bright and well in the world. 

Charles Finn is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He is a writer and recently moved to the Seattle area.

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