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Mark Twain: Two Ways of Seeing the River

Now when I had mastered the language of this water and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river! I still keep in mind a certain wonderful sunset which I witnessed when steamboating was new to me. A broad expanse of the river was turned to blood; in the middle distance the red hue brightened into gold, through which a solitary log came floating, black and conspicuous; in one place a long, slanting mark lay sparkling upon the water; in another the surface was broken by boiling, tumbling rings, that were as many-tinted as an opal; where the ruddy flush was faintest, was a smooth spot that was covered with graceful circles and radiating lines, ever so delicately traced; the shore on our left was densely wooded, and the sombre shadow that fell from this forest was broken in one place by a long, ruffled trail that shone like silver; and high above the forest wall a clean-stemmed dead tree waved a single leafy bough that glowed like a flame in the unobstructed splendor that was flowing from the sun. There were graceful curves, reflected images, woody heights, soft distances; and over the whole scene, far and near, the dissolving lights drifted steadily, enriching it, every passing moment, with new marvels of coloring.

I stood like one bewitched. I drank it in, in a speechless rapture. The world was new to me, and I had never seen anything like this at home. But as I have said, a day came when I began to cease from noting the glories and the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon the river’s face; another day came when I ceased altogether to note them. Then, if that sunset scene had been repeated, I should have looked upon it without rapture, and should have commented upon it, inwardly, in this fashion: “This sun means that we are going to have wind to-morrow; that floating log means that the river is rising, small thanks to it; that slanting mark on the water refers to a bluff reef which is going to kill somebody’s steamboat one of these nights, if it keeps on stretching out like that; those tumbling ‘boils’ show a dissolving bar and a changing channel there; the lines and circles in the slick water over yonder are a warning that that troublesome place is shoaling up dangerously; that silver streak in the shadow of the forest is the ‘break’ from a new snag, and he has located himself in the very best place he could have found to fish for steamboats; that tall dead tree, with a single living branch, is not going to last long, and then how is a body ever going to get through this blind place at night without the friendly old landmark?”

No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat. Since those days, I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty’s cheek mean to a doctor but a “break” that ripples above some deadly disease? Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn’t he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesn’t he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?

Public Domain

From Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain. First published in 1883. The book is a true account of the author as a young man learning to pilot a steamboat on the Mississippi River. It explores the changes in the river from season to season, as well as his own growth in perspective as he matured.

2 comments on “Mark Twain: Two Ways of Seeing the River

  1. Barbara Huntington
    November 7, 2021

    About 15 years ago, I experienced this phenomenon in a different way. I had become a consulting rosarian and a judge for the American Rose Society in my 20s. Somewhere I lost the ability to see the beauty in a flower with a sun freckle or a graceful, but nibbled, green leaf. That was before I truly recognized the evils of pesticides. That came first. I also grew vegetables and noticed when I sprayed poisons, the pests came back long before their predators. I became rabid in my condemnation of pesticides and became a vegetarian. I would not answer questions about which pesticides to use to obtain “perfect” roses and submitted my resignation as a consulting rosarian. I had roped my mother into becoming a rose judge with me, so I didn’t stop judging until she could no longer do it with me. Now, I joke the remainder of my rose garden is Darwinian, survival of the fittest. When they die they are replaced by California natives, plants for the pollinators, the birds and butterflies passing through. A few years ago, I walked into my garden with new eyes. One of the few surviving roses was blooming. It didn’t have a three foot stem. There were few bugs because my garden has come into balance, but there were a few. The bloom may have had a single perfect center or maybe it had doubled. At last the judges guide had stopped holding my brain hostage snd I saw a rose. A survivor. A tenacious beauty. I inhaled her fragrance and left her to enjoy and be enjoyed in my garden for the rest of her natural life. I am back to smelling the roses without judgement snd realize judgement is most cruel to the judge.

    Liked by 1 person

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