The River

Feb 15

I grew up near the Oconee River-a brown, langorous southern waterway in Northeastern Georgia. Where I lived, the banks were, for the most part, undeveloped. Oak, hickory and poplar, reaching for the sun from without the other trees, stretch out over the waters, like revered old men leaning as they stand. Closer to the ground, mountain laurel and rhododendron cling to even the most precarious of hill-sides. The water of the river runs shallow, splashing over granite boulders, river stone and mill ruins.

Long hours were spent in these woods with my childhood friends playing Star Wars, catching fire-flies, building forts and dams.  Later, in my adolescence, I took long strolls into solitude. I would sit in a silent communion, amid the trees, seated on stone slabs overlooking the river there was a silence that contained everything.

There are the burial mounds of the Cherokee Nation near the river. Graves dug into the top of a hill, covered with stone. Cedar and holly were sacred to the Cherokee, and still grow among the remains. Part of the funerary rituals of the Cherokee were cleansing in the river, which they called “The Long Man.” I walked among the dead near the river, respectful, my presence to keep memory.

Once, I was in the deep wood near the river, after a visit to the Cherokee graves. Thunder lowed from heaven and warm, heavy rain came down-fat drops that shook hands with the trees. The path was narrow, thick with brown and green that gave some canopy from the down fall. And then, before me, there was a deer-but unlike any I had seen before. It was unhorned, a doe, it was the color of tea, legs like reeds. I saw many deer in my years on the river. They are skittish creatures and bounded away to a safe distance in all my encounters-except this one. The doe regarded me intelligently. It was unafraid and knew I meant no harm. Long moments passed, and then the deer stepped into the brush next to the path and vanished. I went on, through the woods, in rain, by the river.

Many expect spiritual experiences to contain great revelations, explosions that accost and interrupt our lives. But often, the greatest moments of illumination are quiet and personal things.


  1. Is it the quiet moments that we remember the most- because they were found in times of concentration with less distraction- or because we came to them in sobriety? Did that quiet moment touch the piece of our brain to create a life changing experience, an eye opening memory to be filed away? I don’t know. I do know that I have felt a similar communal spirit strolling alone through the forests and fields of my old family home, and yet, that same aha moment has visited me in a huge concert hall with hundreds, even thousands of people as a memorable arm hair, goosebump raising moment of Hell yeah. I’m alive. And that moment was real.
    And I welcome them both equally. Thanks for sharing, Peter, for giving me a reason to hit the pause button today.

  2. Linda,

    I think it depends on the situation. Certainly, we’ve all been subjected to events that were full of sound and fury, as it were, and thus branded themselves in our memory. That said, transcendant moments are often described as occuring in those still, silent moments. Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is byway of opposites. One of the names of Hell is Pandemonium (literally, ‘all-demons’) a word that has come to mean loudness, chaos. This is because Hell was thought to be a cacophonous place…thus, its opposite, Heaven, is, of course, silence and with that silence comes order. Within silence and order all things are in their place and understood and we arrive at a higher sense of meaning.

  3. This is a nice piece. I don’t know how to answer your question. It seems to me that some intensely spiritual experiences are communal: think of certain Christian churuches with roots in the American South, both black and white. Their seems to be a communal intensity at such gatherings. For me, meditation is what does it, and it is a way of pulling away from the rest of life, and a way of reentering it.


  4. Jeff, thanks for the kind words. I agree that some spiritual experiences are communal. It is interesting that you use Southern churches to exmplify this-I think all places of worship have communal spirit in some sense, it’s the reason for their existence. Now, the way this communal experience manifests may vary from group to group, of course…

Leave a Reply