Mississippi Solo

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Mississippi Solo

Chapter 19

I WOKE UP answering my own question. No. It absolutely does not get any better than this.
Breakfast and then a moment's peace beside the fire.
         I can hear the early morning screams of red tail hawks, the chirps of golden eagles searching for the early thermals and floating on them. The sun rises higher in the sky, the air warms, and the day glows bright blue. The hawks are thrilled to be alive and know they can soar and I can't. Their screeches are not as shrill as their working shrieks. These are softer, less piercing, happier. This time of day the birds take off from the night spent alone and flap those few hard beats that propel them up, the only effort they may perform for hours. For a short spell, they play. In groups of two or three or more they glide in circles wider and wider around, joyously. Then they fan out and take off one by one to hunt and soar alone.
         This day I, like the eagles, am truly thrilled to be alive. The day speaks to my soul, and I hear and answer back with silent song. It must be Sunday. And God answers back. I hear his voice but not clearly. Too many things are in the way and distract. I long for just a few minutes more to sit and relax but I am compelled to pack up and enter the river. God is waiting for me there.
         The morning thundered with explosions of birdsong. The music overpowered me and was too beautiful, almost too much to bear. I entered the river and made for the center, but there I could hear no sounds at all. I came a little closer to the shore and skimmed along an eerie zone of half silence from the river, half nature's serenade from the shore. And the birds I could hear I could now see.
         In the woods a bird that I had never seen before appeared and chirped to me. Black on top with white streaks, white on the bottom with a rose throat. (A rose breasted grosbeak, I found out later.) A beautiful little bird with a sweet whistle.
         A cottontail hopped close to shore and then back again.
         Streaks of red flashed across my vision, undulating and disappearing. I heard a familiar call, the song of the cardinal. I was let down. Only a pair of cardinals.
         Only a pair of cardinals! What a moronic thought. The cardinal is a beautiful bird. Bright red crested males with black throats. the female is dusty red in color and they always travel in pairs, male and female. They sing to one another tossing a song back and forth and I had seen them a million times before and watched their play, they were all too familiar and I was not impressed. But I should have been and I knew it. I pitied myself for being so stupid.
        But this was no day for pity, no day for calling myself names. This was a day the Lord had made, a day for rejoicing, a day to find the joy and beauty in the ordinary and familiar as much as in the exotic and the new.
         Two squirrels were chasing each other up and down the trees in the woods. I drew closer as I passed but they paid no notice. What fun!
         I passed La Grange and thought about stopping in, finding a church and going to Mass, but no. No Mass could ever be as fulfilling as a day in this cathedral.
         The sun rose high quickly and the day grew very warm. There was the gentlest of breezes to keep me cool. And on the breeze floated the voice of God. And I talked to him.
         It was not a prayer, no more than the whole morning was a prayer. I did not pray. I was talking to God and He was talking to me and I heard Him and I felt Him in my heart and we communicated.
         A red fox scurried down to the edge of the water and ran along the shore. He kept pace with me and seemed to be watching me, keeping up with me. I had never seen a fox in the wild before. I didn't want him to ever go away. I didn't want this day to go away.
         This feeling. Just a few years longer. Just a few more hours, minutes, moments. I hope that when I die I have those words on my lips: just a minute more. Not out of fear of death or out of wanting to live on and on, but because I will have been so thrilled with this life with all its ugliness and pain which does not in the least overshadow the warmth and glowing of peace and joy and moments like this morning on the river, and I will ask for just a few more minutes of it. The fox knew I was there and kept looking my way. Agile and funny little creature. And then he was gone.
My heart sang out its rapture; my soul soared on the wings of eagles. The glory of heaven was revealed to me on the water and I felt invincible.
         It must be Sunday.

From Amazon.com
At 30 years old, Eddy Harris leaves his home in St. Louis and sets off into the chilly autumn for Lake Itasca. "I decided to canoe down the Mississippi River and to find out what I was made of," he writes. And Mississippi Solo is his stunning testament. Harris, who has authored Native Stranger, South of Haunted Dreams, and Still Life in Harlem, has been widely acclaimed since the first release of Mississippi Solo in 1988. It is greatly pleasing to see this important and stimulating first work revived.

As the Mississippi grows from its tiny source to a wide and powerful flow, Harris gains confidence as a canoeist, faith in his endeavor, and an understanding of his varying identity as an African American traveling alone from north to south in the United States. His exact and brilliantly revealing prose shows us how each bend in this mighty river turns itself within the paddler, how person and river are entwined--and who is in charge.

With an astute ear for irony, philosophy, and wisdom, as well as truths about the river, Harris takes the reader through locks and lakes on the northern Mississippi to the wild and swift and meandering river south of St. Louis. Songs of joy, troughs of loneliness, terrific storms, birdsong, paranoia, friendly captains, wild dogs, and ghosts of slaves fill his pages. Then we face off with two hunters, two shotguns, and Harris's single pistol... and still the river leads him on to New Orleans. Like the river he travels, Harris cuts through to the core of himself and his country. Triumphant! --Byron Ricks --This text refers to the paperback edition.


bulletMississippi Solo: A River Quest, Hardcover, The Lyons Press, Oct. 1, 1988, ISBN 1558210016
bulletMississippi Solo: A Memoir, Paperback, Owl Books, Sept. 15, 1998, ISBN 0805059032