Nomads on the river’s edge


The distant crack of a gunshot woke me from a fitful sleep. I’d been reading and napping after dinner. I looked out the window. It was dark. Another burst of gunfire echoed in the distance. What the hell was going on out there, I wondered.

The night sky lit up with purple and gold starbursts as I joined the kids on the front lawn. We waited a minute and another huge burst of fireworks exploded into the heavy sky. No, I thought, still trying to clear my head, not a civic holiday, that would have been last weekend. It must be a part of Chocolate Festival, I thought, as another firework launched, then blossomed into a shimmering white sphere hanging over the St. Croix River.

I’d just walked along that waterfront a couple of evenings ago. The sun was setting, lighting up the clouds with soft rose and orange halos. It was low tide, and deep rivulets from ancient underground streams leaking out from underneath the town had veined and etched down into the glossy riverbed mud. The river itself was reduced to a narrow golden channel in the middle of the mudflat. The rows of pier pilings from the old wharfs poked out of the mud, reminding me of all the industry that must have once been here. I kept walking. A nose full of swamp gas—methane—came wafting across from the old sewage lagoon the Town crews have been filling in for the past few months.

Rivers have always been our first frontiers. Our ancestors first came for the fish, then used the rivers as highways, then later as sewers for their towns and industries. The St. Croix and the town of St. Stephen are a part of that old story. It’s ironic that tonight’s fireworks are celebrating the last remaining original factory here. I’d like to think that maybe the river is celebrating its freedom.

Sometimes I wonder what I’m doing here in this part of the world with these fussy, conservative people. More than work, my kids draw me into community life. I meet the moms and the dads at Cubs and golf lessons and art classes. Often the conversations seem strained, the parents calibrating the other parents and kids. ‘Do these fit with mine?’ the silences between the words seem to ask.

Then I see the ridge people come in for the Thursday night concert in Town Square and the Friday morning market along the river in their old pickup trucks. I get them. There’s just a good gospel song or country tune, or handmade dolls with gingham smocks for sale. Life is simple.

But then again, everything gets a little more complicated, even on a riverfront walk. I have a daydreaming moment. As I pass by a shiny new Ford truck, its massive 3-bar grille turns into a clenched chrome fist poised to pound the air. It’s an assault weapon. I mean that’s it. I’m both attracted to and repelled by the truck, and I start to think about every thing that grille is gonna flatten. No matter, I think, life will flatten all of us, anyway. But a new pickup truck will always be a local status symbol.

Status and social distinctions are a real force here. We should know. Since moving here we’ve been house nomads traveling up and down the river. First we lived in St. Stephen, then in St. Andrews, then back to St. Stephen. Now we may be moving back to St. Andrews. There’s a tension between these two towns, the gritty, working class St. Stephen and pretentious, gentrified St. Andrews that affects everything. And honestly, I can’t say that I like one better than the other.

I don’t know how much tonight’s fireworks cost, or who funded them, but I do know that the finale was simply the best fireworks display I’ve ever seen. Explosion piled on explosion in rapid-fire sequence. And it sparked a thought about St. Stephen. For the first time I saw a glimpse of greatness in this town, a greatness that must have been here when all those wharfs were still standing along the riverfront. There was an enthusiasm in that display I’ve been missing.

I’m conflicted about this idea of greatness, though. Was St. Stephen a greater place when it was a thriving industry town? Was it greater when its industry polluted the river? Or mowed down the old growth forests to make the ships and the axe handles? Or dammed the river for power? Or is it greater now, when its people depend less on the river and the local environment?

It’s not a local thought. It’s global. And it depends on whether one sees greatness in human achievement or in the living natural environment. Years ago the Victorians thought the rugged Rocky Mountains were ugly. Today we find them beautifully compelling. Today we think the glowing rivers of city light radiating into the night sky are beautiful. Will we think so in the future? We, all of us, are rapidly coming to an intersection between human activity and the planet’s capacity to modify that activity.

So here I am, nearing the end of a column with a thousand unwritten questions and no answers. What kind of work can we do that doesn’t finish off what’s left of our environment? Can we do that when over 75% of our workers are in the service sector and when most of our “real” skills have been outsourced overseas? Can we even model our own impact on, say, the coastal fishery, let alone the effects of climate change? Can this little corner of the world get over its parochial class distinctions and actually begin to dream up new, innovative ideas for the future? Am I walking the walk in my own work? In my own life?

To add to the confusion I keep reading. This week it’s an old book: ‘Unfit to Manage’ published back in 1988. Interestingly, the author forecasted the present financial crisis. There’s great stuff in that book. He details the union-busting tactics of U.S. corporations, the massive transfer of jobs, mid-management functions and R&D offshore, the overwhelming greed of top executives—and despite all the pressures, the resourcefulness and productivity of the ordinary American worker. There’s always hope, he writes.

Meanwhile we all keep moving along with the river. This time, for us, it’s downstream.


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