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  • Writer's pictureRobert Wallace

Meditations While on the Eno River

A Non-fiction essay published in the Wood Cat Review

On an early Sunday morning—the sky the color of a blue jay—I lace my shoes and take off down the trail. I am a sixty-four-year-old man, but running trails makes me feel like a boy. Today I am running from Rivermont Road to Guess Road—a section of the river that traverses 6.5 miles, out and back. It is cool for June, and I am alone, and I am happy to be moving.

The Eno River in the piedmont of North Carolina flows some forty miles. Beginning in Orange County, it meanders its way into Durham County until it converges with the Flat and Little Rivers, where it forms the Neuse River. As I run past the Pump Station, I remember the first time visiting the Eno River State Park, more than thirty-four years ago. Then, as now, I marveled at the astonishing natural beauty within an urban area.

Fifteen minutes in I hit the first real hill; I feel a noticeable cooling of the air on these bluffs, which are covered with mountain laurel and rhododendron. Only weeks earlier these shrubs were in full bloom, their pink and white blossoms big and showy.

Over the years I have visited the Eno River State Park perhaps two thousand times. I have hiked and run its trails. I have kayaked its waters between Pleasant Green Road to Cole Mill Road when, following a hard rain, parts of the river transform into class III rapids. I have camped in its woods, and, in July, in mid-nineties temperatures, I have found cool relief in its pools.

I reach Guess Road in around thirty-four minutes. I am sweating hard after running the steepest hill. I chug some water and begin the run back, being sure to duck under a fallen tree. Along the way small toads hop in front of me, their hue the color of the soil, making their chameleonic bodies difficult to see. Over the years I have seen many animals in the park: white-tailed deer, otters, and raccoons. I’ve seen dozens of male monarch butterflies puddling in pools of shallow water, taking in the minerals and salts that come from the mud. Once, years ago, I was paddling upstream from the Pleasant Green put-in, before the dam was torn down and, in the early spring, witnessed perhaps a hundred large black birds perching in the trees. These birds were much larger than crows, and they were quiet except for the occasional rustling of their immense wings as they settled and unsettled on the limbs of sycamore, birch, and hornbeam. It was a magical moment that I will never forget. I sat in my kayak and watched them for thirty minutes, mesmerized by their sheer size and beauty.

I veer off onto a side trail, chugging up an incline. There is something quietly spiritual about running trails, the movement of the body through a forest. It transports me, takes my mind to another place, very deep within. Like prayer. Near the crest of the incline, I startle a deer, and it snorts loudly, then it springs through the woods, away from me. I reconnect to the main trail and run slowly up another hill, jump a dry creek bed, and rise up on a muscular boulder. The Eno serenades me below; the narrow river moving assuredly through slabs of rocks the size of Volkswagen Beetles.

As far back as the sixteenth century Native Americans were known to live along the Eno. Their numbers dwindled through incorporation into other tribes, increasing European settlements, and probably various war-like excursions. No one really knows what happened to the Eno. It’s hard to fathom the loss of an entire culture, but of course this happens all the time. Plant and animal species die every day, too, mostly due to human movement and intervention.

Natural environments make me think about other living things, especially plants, and their role in the world. It helps me move away from a human-centric focus. The life, for example, which goes on at our feet. Once, years ago, I trampled through a worn path, stumbling through some greenbrier and grape vines. Standing behind a tree, I suddenly felt my life was not the most important thing, as if the world was unfinished. For a moment, a sputtering, precious moment, I made my way over to a large boulder. Next to the boulder was a rack of honeysuckle climbing up a swath of Mountain laurel. Tiny specks of dew drops littered the leaves of the bush. My reflection looked back at me in one of the droplets. I reached for one globule of condensation clinging to a variegated leaf, touching it gently; it wobbled but held together. I touched another, and the water attached itself to my fingertip, trusting there, half to my skin, half to the leaf. I pulled my fingertip away, and the droplet of water reformed on the leaf in a smaller size.

A few years ago, I was at a party hosted by a woman whose house was tucked into a pocket-sized hill. The house was sided with wood that had weathered like a tree. In this house, packed with people, artist-types, I sat in a Victorian-like sofa, when a tall man, balding, and wearing a brassy red shirt, sat down next to me. He was a psychologist and when he spoke he looked straight ahead; his clean-shaven cheeks creased resolvedly.

“Human behavior is a mystery” he said. “Sometimes it’s unexplainable.”

“And wicked” I said, though I didn’t mean it in a religious sense. He nodded. We didn’t talk about Newtown, a tragedy that had just occurred.

He went on to say he was reading Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky and found Raskolnikov to be a tortuous soul, who, nevertheless accepted his guilt, and, at times, reveled in it.

On an early Sunday morning—the sky the color of a blue jay—I lace my shoes and take off down the trail. I am a sixty-four-year-old man, but running trails makes me feel like a boy. Today I am running from Rivermont Road to Guess Road—a section of the river that traverses 6.5 miles, out and back. It is cool for June, and I am alone, and I am happy to be moving.

At night, when I can’t sleep, sometimes I go outside and stand in my driveway and look at the stars. The vastness of the universe is truly unfathomable. That alone, it seems to me, should be reason enough to cure us from killing each other and destroying the natural environment.

Milan Kundera, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, said “The majority of people lead their existence within a small idyllic circle bounded by their family, their home, and their work... They live in a secure realm somewhere between good and evil. They are sincerely horrified by the sight of a killer. And yet all you have to do is remove them from this peaceful circle and they, too, turn into murderers, without quite knowing how it happened.” Doesn’t that also include the plants that help sustain us?

How shall we respond to a world that seems in chaos and seemingly bent on our, if not self, destruction? I find truth in Kafka’s aphorisms. But I also find mystery. In the end, meaning in his works of absurd fiction isn’t about their strangeness, about whether there is hope, or not, but in how we are to respond on a personal level. I believe this is what is meant by Erich Heller’s critique of Kafka when he describes the need to go “outside” the world, which is to say outside oneself, including the plant world. Indeed, perhaps Julia Kristeva said it best in Strangers to Ourselves: “Strange indeed is the encounter with the other…. By recognizing our uncanny strangeness, we shall neither suffer from it nor enjoy it from the outside. The foreigner is within me; hence we are all foreigners. If I am a foreigner, there are no foreigners.”

My mind works like this as I run along, carefully avoiding roots and rocks. It ruminates about the world, the sorrow we bring to other persons and other living things. Sometimes I think if humans could just take time and get outside and into the woods, like the Eno River, it would help us as a species. Watching a river run through the woods calms the soul, tempers a feverish mind. It quiets our speech. Indeed, Thoreau said, “Our lives need the relief of such a background, where the pine flourishes and the jay still screams.”

As I near the end of my run, scurrying up the last hill, my lungs beginning to scream, I think about the plight of the human species, I think about previous lives that have lived along the Eno River, and I think about all the plant life that live near it now, and I quietly give thanks to my body’s ability to bring me to the woods.


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