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Emma Törzs's essay “Waterways” is a beautiful non-fiction narrative essay. She views and describes her views on life from the perspective of ever present circumstance in her life – the rivers.
An outstanding incident that happened in the authors' hometown of Acton triggers her thoughts on the life issues and brings back many childhood memories. A dead man's body is found in “her river”. The river was always an integral part of her life; at different stages it was a different river. However, it became more than just a part of life; it became a metaphor of life itself, with its unpredictability, turns, challenges and wisdom. And to correspond with the river, the essay itself is flowing with the ease. The author takes time to reflect on the thoughts that are coming up as they do. There is no need to rush. The life is better lived when it is lived moment by moment, when there is the time to see the river and the changes that are taking place in the world and to reflect how those changes affect mankind.
From the very childhood “the river” was always present in author’s life. Sometime is was full of life – when the heavy rains filled it to the brim and it was rushing over its banks and reaching out to people; other times in summer it was dry and lifeless, and people had to take turns watering their gardens. And even though it seemed there was hardly any water left and people had to watch their plants dying, they were grateful for what they had and their reward was that they always had “better tomatoes” even though neighbors were cheating. The river and the waters were gentle and accepting of anything that was put in it. That is why the name that the river actually had sounded so surprisingly strong, manly, stiff and unbending. It was “at odds with the water”. Maybe, that is the reason the river’s name was not known and mentioned only once, in the newspaper article that described the incident.
From the reaction the author has it seems she is more surprised the river has a name than that something as non-native as a corpse was found in it. There were always some “non-native species in that river” such as soccer balls, sleds, bottles; people are always throwing things into water, perhaps, hoping the water will cover them forever. Certainly, finding something in the river was not as outstanding occurrence for anyone. However, finding a dead body in the river was something that was not imaginable. It was strange to see the poor man being fished out of the contaminated water just like another unneeded thing. He has been in the water for a long time and no one was missing the man, no one, beside the river, cared. Any passer-by, even the author herself, could have found the body while walking on the railroad tracks, as she used to be doing almost every day, just like the teenagers that had found it. No one thought of the possibility of something like this happening, yet, once it did happen, the imagination started painting scenes from this poor man’s life and death.
This is bringing the whole train of thoughts to the author – the childhood memories, history and the world, the way it has changed. Looking through the window, the history in miniature is clearly laid out “parallel to one another: street, river, railroad.” The railroad by the river had changed – the train engines do not “rumble and hum” like they used to, instead “now, when I visit, they roar”. Everything has changed and “things used to be better”. What started off as “ecologically-sound superhighway, part of the annual New England Native American migration pattern thousands of years ago”, now was polluted by the railroad and automobiles, and the mill. People had used the river the way it was convenient for them, nevertheless the river was always kind to the man. At times man’s activities brought the erosion of the river banks and rivers would become a pitiful sight, full of garbage and wastes that would turn them into graveyard for cars, refrigerators and other detritus; the rivers that flow through the cities “always smelling of city boats and something left to rot.” That is what happening in our fast moving civilized lives, when no one cares how their actions affect others, affect rivers. Civilization won over wilderness and now “rivers are numbered, the land is divided, and it’s the cities that run wild.”
Every “the river” in history is always significant, because “it exists not only as itself but also as a reference point for everything else, a meter by which we measure distance and location”, more meaningful and animated meter then simply miles. If the distance is measured by “the river”, the measurement might not be as accurate and precise, but the depth and emotion added to it clears all the inaccuracies and uncertainties, and gives a clear direction, perspective and the goal.
The river was always a friend and a source of inspiration. Even though it was polluted by the railroad that ran alongside, it was beautiful and cozy and it was always “mine”. It was so attractive that “if you’ve ever used a pencil, you may thank my river and this mill for bringing it to your hand.”
Then, as we grow and our world grows bigger, there come other rivers, beside “mine”: the first river to swim in, the other great river, the river where everything has started. Each river is unique and special, just like every person we meet in life, like every life's experience – some are cold, other are fast, yet other are salty. Not all the rivers are connected. If one would like to get from one part of the country to the other just through the river, the big study should be conducted to see what are the rivers that can get you to where you're going and where do they connect. Maybe it is not even possible. But if it would be possible, “it would take a lot of investigation. Or you’d have to go in a very roundabout way…” The Father Frederic is a significant person in author’s life to the contrast with her mother who we hardly read anything about. Father calls her “Tootsie” even when she is grown up; he takes time to write and answer her question; there are a lot of childhood memories of when he took her and the little sister to the other river to swim in for the first time because no one could swim in “my” river. The father cared to talk to the little boy and was timing how long sisters can stay under the water. The Father loves rivers and every summer goes on “The Boy’s Trip” with his friends just to rest from civilization. They always come back happy. “The river calms them, churns them down soft.” There, in the “wilderness” men can be men, without constrains of “civilization", free to enjoy the “godly force” and God Himself. Unfortunately, the “wilderness” gives in to “civilization”, there are less and less places where people can just be themselves, without pretenses and cover-ups, where they can think and reflect on life and the significant things in it, like “home”. For centuries people lived in the same place by their rivers which was vibrant, life-giving and alive. Their worlds were pretty small. Even trains were humming and singing. However, when cars were invented, people's worlds all of a sudden became enormously vast and full of possibilities and places to see and go to! But did it make people happier? Why is that that with all the advances of civilization people realize that for some reason the “home is hard to pinpoint”, that despite fast moving pace of life “there’s a lack of movement that comes with our repeated attempts to quantify essentially unquantifiable things” and there is a need for “wilderness”? The man is conquering new territories and plowing new lands, creating dams and building mills, changing or even ruining river beds, and there is only destruction left – deforested, overgrazed land without vegetation and caring hands to sustain the river and hold the water. Because of the people's carelessness, the rivers become full of derbies, junk and filth. What once upon the time was a cradle for the state and, maybe, the world now becomes just another faceless land, just another river, and the history is forgotten.
“Minnesota has stolen “mni sota,” and it is in this narrative that I believe.” New replaced old, but are we better for it? People are restless, yearning for solutions and change. “The Mississippi rolls over in its bed as I roll over in mine, both of us sleepless, both of us re-defining our belief in home.”
One of the main themes of the essay is this: “I believe that to move forward sometimes we must instead turn back.” It does sound paradoxical, yet, when people go back to their origins, to their childhood memories, to their forsaken dreams, they start seeing the world around them in different light. They start seeing the world where acceptance and tolerance, brotherhood and hope rule. There is no need to argue what has more right to exist – new or old, Minnesota or “mni sota”. The river flows through both of them and bringing life to all: “life to the land without a name, life to the people of mni sota, life to the inhabitants of Minnesota.”
Just like the river, people have their common measures which are always true even though they, just like the waters in the river “are always in flux”. And the time will come when people will turn back in their ways. But it might not happen “until we’ve plowed so far forward there is nothing left but graveyard dirt upturned.” But there is a hope, always: “When we have forsaken the earth, the earth will receive us and we will relearn ourselves.”
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