Comes the River
By Thomas McNulty
“The prairie river possesses a nice piece of the summer sky.
It has always been that way.”
- Dave Etter, “The Prairie River” from Crabtree’s Woman, 1972
It whispers under the old stars like a spurned lover. It whispers and moans and slithers like an undulating snake across the land where the Potawatomi and Fox Indian tribes once roamed. Ghosts now, all ghosts, and they too whisper under the splash of starlight, restless in their forgotten graves, a whisper of dust that gives back their names to the ceaseless and uncaring night.
The Fox River begins its two hundred mile long journey near Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin and stretches down across the prairies and between the sandstone bluffs past Waukesha, Waterford, Rochester, Burlington, Wheatland, Silver Lake; an eighty mile flexing stretch that spits green foam against the sandy embankments, its bottom curdling with industrial waste. Congealed chemicals, mist of poison, spray of plastic residue, the river cradles them all and becomes them, a seething and powerful force that sweeps along toward a destiny that we cannot possibly imagine.
The Fox River impregnates Illinois near the Chain O’Lakes. The lakes tolerate its presence, and the river flows onward. This then is the greater Fox Valley area and some estimates record that a million people live along the river. This is a convenient Census Bureau lie. Closer to two million people live near the Fox River. This is the Heartland, the Midwest, the land that Carl Sandburg celebrated. And these are the towns that thrive and suffer and confound themselves along the Fox River: Johnsburg, McHenry, Holiday Hills, Island Lake, Cary, Fox River Grove, Algonquin, Carpentersville, East and West Dundee, Elgin, St. Charles, Geneva, Batavia, Aurora, Montgomery, Oswego, Yorkville, Plano, Millington, Sheridan, and Ottawa. Blue collar towns that tolerate the white collar snobs with the same indifference the lakes impose upon the river.
From my secluded den in Crystal Lake I am but ten minutes from the Fox River, but perched on the prairie that rises above the valley and rambles east toward Leaf River and Galena. I grew up near the Fox River and I know its whisper, the taste of its metallic waters, its murky green body and its sluggish crawl under the bridge in Dundee. The fisherman cast their lines here for northern Pike, largemouth bass, catfish, and sunfish. Although environmentalists claim the Fox River today is cleaner than its been in thirty years I would not eat the fish from this river. For an environmentalist is only a fool that has been conned by the Big Boss politicos. The most dangerous people in this country are those starched shirts who carry clipboards and espouse an agenda.
At twilight the river people sit on their porches drinking beer and smoking their pipes. The sycamore trees toss long shadows in the fading light and the sound of a fish splashing after insects echoes across the summer lawns. The river pays no heed, a sluggish brute after a long journey, crawling toward the next bridge, the next bend, the next blue shadowed fork where the river people watch tirelessly, the old men dreaming of taffy apples and farm girls backstroking nude in the sunlight of their long remembered youth.
Paint the river as a metaphor; a song of the river; the river’s poem, the river’s soul. How often do you cross a river and ignore it?
On those long and lazy Saturday afternoons the summer children chase frogs splashing along the riverbank. In the distance the sound of a freight train whistle causes the crows to flap their wings and take flight cawing over the rippling green current. Poets come here to watch the water and muse on their next stanza. Lovers walk along the dandelion path and snap photographs of the ducks near the footbridge. The sunsets at the river are keepsakes, a benediction painted in shades as delicate as a lullaby.
This river carries our dreams, as do all rivers, and our dreams are harbored in the towns and cities that built themselves near the river in the hope of realizing their Manifest Destiny. The river’s whisper is an elegy for the lost American Dream, an ode for the future that still might be, a whimpering cry at the injustice of our plight. Sometimes, when the light is just right, there is something about the river that inspires us. And standing on the riverbank we pause a moment letting our mind drift along the current, entranced by the endless rhythm, and we might feel uplifted by the prospect of a bright and shining life after all. The old Victorian homes that face the river seem to shift on their foundations, curious, chancing a peek at the river as it passes endlessly and forever into the future.
“The river of your life flowed from a more distant source than you suspected. It rises still, a devious flood between green banks of summer. It is there forever, tracing a prophecy across the earth.”
- Ross Lockridge, Jr., Raintree County