A river runs through my backyard, just like the river of my childhood did, and although this is a different river, it is a sorrowful river just the same. For four years I have heard this river call to me from across the buzz and swish of traffic on State Route 315 and for four years I have tuned it out as I traveled past its banks either in my car or on bike. I tuned it out for the reasons you might expect – I was too busy, I was in too much of a hurry, I was too caught up in whatever world my mind and heart were in that day. Fortunately, for me, a river waits.
The river from my earliest childhood memories – the one that ran behind the house I grew up in, was a river full of sorrow. Images in local newspapers showed the burning Cuyahoga, the river that was so polluted with industrial run-off swill that it caught fire not once, but many times during the 1950s and 1960s and as early as 1868. It flowed just behind the back gravesite lots of Standing Rock Cemetery, which was less than 1/4 mile from my house in Kent. A fitting backdrop, those empty grave sites were, for this river and its sorrow.
The namesake of Standing Rock Cemetery hails from the large rock that sits in the middle of the Cuyahoga River. According to legend, this great rock was used by Native Americans as a place to hold council. When I was young, sitting on the banks of the Cuyahoga and closing my eyes was all it took to smell the rich tobacco of their pipes and hear the low drones of their voices carried by the wind downstream. I imagined “them injuns” of my childhood stories talking about whether to spare their new neighbors from scalping as the influx of settlers in the early 1800s grew quickly and without warning or respect to those that were there before them. I imagined the brown wrinkles of their skin smelling of earth and sun as they climbed the majestic, magical rock, and the river’s tearful voice, quietly whispering to them what the future held as it meandered through the sleepy town of Kent, Ohio.
A river’s strength lies in its ability to adapt and change over time. A couple of Sundays ago, taking a cue from the rivers I have known, I resisted the urge to rush home and begin my weekend routine of getting caught up on laundry, cleaning, other mundane chores. I took another route home – upriver along the banks of The Olentangy.
I had just finished a short bike ride along the paved trail that followed the Olentangy and didn’t feel like braving the last mile – the mile without a trail, no berm, full of 40 mph vehicles with people in their own worlds, in their own minds, zooming past me. I locked the bike to the rack outside of the shops near the end of the trail and walked the last mile. But instead of walking along the narrow berm of State Route 315, as I have done in the past, I detoured east towards the river.
A small ravine presented a hidden, but challenging path for me to get to the river, whose access was more difficult than I imagined. State Route 315 and its surrounding office buildings seemed aimed at blocking public access to the river and I wondered if that was the intent, and if so why? Perhaps the county/city was concerned about possible drownings or accidents for those who ventured into the water, which seemed likely given the steep rocky banks along most of my route. But I couldn’t help but wonder if people were given easier access to the river whether they would become more concerned with the health of it. It’s much easier to ignore a polluted river when you only read about it in the newspaper.
The kerplunk of frogs jumping from the shore, along with the sudden warning “kraak, kraak, kraak” calls of the blue herons greeted me as I entered the tepid water. I walked along several large sandbars that split the river in two in some places. As I waded in its waters, I thought about the original name that had been given to this river by the local tribes living in this area -Kiin ansh ikan Siipu nk”. A loose translation of this is “tool, sharp, and stone”. A fitting name, as there were many rocks and stones on the banks and in the low areas of the river, causing me to take the easier route and wade in the water up past my knees as I headed north. The current name of the river – Olentangy – means “River of Red Face Paint”, and was actually the name that the Native Americans called what is now known as Big Darby Creek, located west of the Olentangy. The name was mistakenly applied in 1833, when legislature aimed at restoring Native American names to rivers was passed.
A neighbor recently published The Mt. Air Story – A History of the Area that I Call Home, a compilation of historical information, clippings and memories of the area that I live in. An image in the book shows the site of a bathing beach that had been planned for as a part of the resort area that was beginning to develop in 1929 along the shores of the Olentangy. At this time, sand was brought in to create the beach, and I couldn’t help but wonder if the sandbars I was walking on were formed from that very same sand that never fulfilled its planned destiny.
As I waded up the river, the wind picked up and pushed an old tire swing, and carried with it the laughter of the children that had swung on it at one time. This laughter, and the laughter shared by those that danced on the shore of the river in the moonlight, amongst the swaying sycamore saplings that now towered over me, guided me through the river’s tapestry of time. A gosling swam past me without a quack or any acknowledgement, and suddenly I felt like a ghost wading along the banks. As I walked into the tall grass on the shore, and turned to watch the gosling join its siblings, I heard the sigh of a heavy heart. Was it mine, heavy from waiting so long to breathe in the majestic view from the shores of this river? Or was it of that of the Olentangy herself, as she meandered through this patch of land known as Mount Air, onward to meet the Ohio River, 100 miles due south?
As I stole a few quiet moments that afternoon from my hectic life, I felt my heart become one with the river’s. And, instead of hurrying along my way back home, I settled into the tall grass on the bank. And, like the Olentangy, I waited.