The River in Winter

I’m sitting by the bank of the Sangamon in my red Adirondack chair. The River flows silently by.

It’s 9:30 on a perfectly cloudless full moon night. The full moon night glows blue-white.

A few days back, it snowed several inches; bright white snow still blankets the ground. The River remains partly frozen, but the ice is retreating as the river is receding. Large ice sheets still clinging to both banks slanting downward, edge the dark river in gleaming white.

I’m surrounded by leafless trees, 60, 70, 80 feet tall. Only their naked branches stand between the full moon and the snow-blanketed ground, casting deep, dark and random shadows across the gleaming white snow.  The moonlight on the ground sparkles in subtle rainbow colors off tiny crystallized snowflakes.

Looking up, the sky provides a softly glowing backdrop to dark silhouettes of twisting, entangled treetop branches, bright stars seemingly strung among them like twinkly lights.

It’s quite beautiful. And it occurs to me that everything surrounding me has resulted from utter, unplanned chaos.

There is certainly beauty in chaos.

It seems like creating beautiful things would take careful forethought, planning ahead, knowing where the creation of a thing of beauty is going. Can chaos create beauty?

Chaos equals disorder and disorder equals messy and messy needs straightening. Thus, Mom made me make my bed every morning, despite the fact that – as I frequently (and unsuccessfully) argued – I was just going to mess it up again that night.

Straighten it up! Put away those dirty socks! Clean that counter! Cleanliness is next to Godliness!

Everything needs to be straightened, ordered, named, classified. Thus we don’t look up at night and see stars, we look up at night and see constellations. We name things and connect dots, making shapes that have no natural business being connected.

There’s the Big Dipper, there’s Orion the Hunter, Cassiopeia, Taurus the bull, Gemini the twins, and there are Castor and Pollux, the heads of the twins. And look! Below them glows Sirius, the brightest star in the entire night sky.

These names mean nothing to them. There is no connection among them in the heavens, in many cases they are millions of light years apart. But to us, they become nouns.

Our human minds need classification, order, judgement. Things aren’t just things, they are “good”, “bad”, “pretty”, “ugly”. On this we all agree: pandas: adorable; turkey vultures: hideous.

Some of us look at a forest and see trees, others see tree types: ashes, elms, oaks and maples.

I look up at the massive twin trunks of the silver maple right beside me, clinging to the downward bank of the river. About 8 feet up, one of our brown Adirondack chairs sits at an odd angle wedged between the trunks. It blew off our bluff during a storm this past December when the floodwaters of the Sangamon were cresting and floated downriver only to become lodged in our silver maple.

Sure, I could probably reach up and get it down, but why bother?

The chair in the sliver maple looks sculptural to me, artistic; a commentary on the random effects of chaos.

I was reading a magazine article on “The Perils of Ambiguity”. It related that as human beings, “we tend to see patterns where none exist and embrace certainty where none is justified.” According to the author, this intense desire to find patterns in nothingness is the birth of conspiracy theories.

Where we actually have no knowledge, some of us claim certainty. Especially in the case of tragedy. Surely, there had to have been a vast conspiracy involved to assassinate a popular U.S. President while he was smiling and waving from the backseat of a convertible during a parade through downtown Dallas.

And we don’t stop there. With a bombastic sense of certainty, humans classify people, arguments, ideologies, religions as “right” and “wrong”. Throughout human history, enemies have been defined, battle lines have been drawn, wars have been fought, and people have died because they classify each other on opposite sides of what’s “right” and “wrong”.

As easy as it is to fit on a bumper sticker, it’s much harder to accept that “Sh** Happens”. We want to know: Why? How could this have happened?

It’s “wrong” that my father should have died (several years ago) at a relatively young 63 years old (a mere 10 years from where I am now). Why, oh why, did this have to happen?

Sure he was a lifelong smoker; does that perhaps “explain” his premature death? Yet some smokers live far longer lives. Why couldn’t he have been among them?

Or did it just happen? In chaos, perhaps there is explanation. Oddly, a sense of comfort, perhaps even peace, if I can accept it.

Now I’m sitting by the bank of the Sangamon in my red Adirondack chair.  Cursed by having one of these human brains that too often has difficulty coming to grips with chaos; accepting it, seeing the beauty in chaos.

Except for on this particularly beautiful winter’s evening by the river.

It’s 9:30 on a perfectly cloudless full moon night.

The Sangamon River flows silently by as the moonlight casts random shadows on the blanket of gleaming white snow.

Appeared as Notes from the River, Mahomet Citizen, February 11, 2016, by Scott Hays

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