I dropped my daughter off for her first day of high school today. Then I went to the river.
This wasn’t hard, because Cherokee High School sits right above the river, separated only by the thin strip of Boling Park.
I walked out on a long, broad fallen tree that juts out into the current, and the river was all around me. Again.
So many of my major life events have taken place near this river. It has wound through my life, mostly unseen.
I remember sitting here in Boling Park with my ex-husband before we were married. It was my birthday, January 26, but one of those freak warm days we get in January in the South. The sun was almost hot, but the leaves were all dead. False summer. I was sitting on a concrete bench crying inconsolably because he had done nothing for my birthday, and a part of me knew he never would. I remember tearing into shreds one of those big leathery seed pods from the catalpa trees that grow near the river. Pinching the fat seeds with my thumbnail, dropping them on winter soil.
But I married him anyway, and the result of that marriage was Cassie.
My tears that day seem like my own teeth knocked out and sown in the ground. Like when Athena told the Greek hero Cadmus to kill the dragon and plant the dragon’s teeth, to grow a crop of warriors. Cassie, grown from my teeth and tears.
The ground was salted that day, as conquerors in ancient times salted land to curse it, to make it never bear again.
In fact, I never did bear a child. Cassie was adopted because I could not bear.
But the land has never ceased to bear, even though it is a conquered land, salted with many tears.
In the 1830s the land where I am standing was called Red Bank and belonged mostly to a Cherokee man named George Still. In 1836 federal appraisers valued Still’s 100 acres and improvements on lot 159 in the second district of the Cherokee nation at $1295.00. Still had several houses, stables, barns, a blacksmith shop, a fish weir on the river, 250 peach trees and 100 apple trees. He also had slaves.
George Still was close to 70 when all of the Cherokee were removed from Georgia on the Trail of Tears in 1838. I don’t know if he completed the 1000 mile walk to Oklahoma, and I don’t know if he ever received his $1295.00. I don’t know what happened to his slaves.
I wonder what lies buried in the soil beneath my feet. Not just my own tears and teeth. Bones and tools, surely. There have been many digs along this river. But what is the archaeology of human experience?
The river still flows and the land still bears. Well, sort of. The river is much browner now, and the banks are eroded and raw from the stormwater runoff that development intensifies. Red Bank, indeed. A thicket of poison ivy, kudzu, and mimosa trees lines the river – invasive species — so that you can barely see it, even when you are right next to it.
One of the things that I learned as I started to study the river is that a river never flows in a straight line. The Etowah flows roughly east to west, from near Dahlonega westward to Rome. But any given stretch of the river might be going in any direction at all.
In Canton, you would think the river would flow east to west, but Canton sits in a giant meander. This land owned by George Still sits smack in the middle of the meander, so that the river seems to flow first south, then north. The river contradicts itself and points in the wrong direction. It fools you. You can only understand the direction of the river from far away.
I too have lived in the meander.
But the other thing I’ve learned is that the water goes where it must. It finds the low ground that takes it to the bigger river, on to the sea. It might meander, but it does not get lost. It knows the way home.
Before I began to study the river, I could not have told you in what direction any creek or river flows. Not the Etowah, not even creeks I knew well. Honestly, I did not even grasp the fact that all creeks are flowing toward a river, and all rivers toward an ocean.
It’s a gift, I think, that now I know.
My daughter, my Cassie, I see how she flows, where she goes, that I am not going with her. My fierce warrior born out of pain. She has dyed her hair magenta and plum and copper. She is a girl on fire. Godspeed, my daughter, all the way to ocean. All the way home.