A couple of weeks ago we had a weekend that made you realize why we have seasons. It has nothing to do with circumnavigating the sun, which is merely a mechanism. The autumn season exists so as to occasionally focus down, like a colored jewel, into a day like that. The hillsides that day undulated in their fire-colored decoration, soybeans in the fields eased into gentle yellow, and in a park in the nearby town of Lock Haven, puppies scampered in the grass where people had gathered with their dogs. The sky that day was blue, light poured down like butter, and it was a perfect afternoon to lie on a blanket with someone in that same park, looking at a soybean field a few feet away.
The town of Lock Haven is on the west branch of the Susquehannah River. West “branch” may connote less than should be noted, as it is quite a fine river at that point. It flows along beside one of the long ridges we have here, and on the opposite bank from that hillside, spread along the river, is the town. The town, however, cannot see the river.
Back in the 19th century, when canals were such an important part of American infrastructure (probably before that word was in use), it was common for canals in spots to run along beside rivers. That’s where it was flat for digging them. I’ve seen this to be the case in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. Such a canal ran through Lock Haven, and because there was an actual lock on the canal at this location, the town acquired its name of proletarian poetry.
From time to time, as every river in the world will do, the Susquehannah disregards human desires and stretches out to suit itself, if allowed to do so. Until a flood in 1972, Lock Haven was known for having the Piper Cub airplane factory in town, but the flood—brought on by a hurricane—drowned the town and destroyed the factory. Twenty years later (which sounds late, but still useful), an enormous wall of earth was built to cut the town off from the river. The view is gone, but so is the devastation.
A year ago, on another autumn day, I went to Lock Haven, walked along that wall of earth, and then wrote this poem.
The Susquehannah River
I wasn’t even sure we would go.
She was too distracted the day before to talk on the phone.
She was so busy that morning that she asked me to meet her downtown,
where she had work to do.
I was sure we would not go.
she finished her work,
we had breakfast,
and she said “let’s go to Lock Haven”.
By the time we got there,
she seemed relaxed,
which surprised me a little.
I never knew on any given day
how she would be feeling.
Like the wind in central Pennsylvania
she could change directions in one day.
It was bad for people in Lock Haven
to have such a terrible flood in 1972.
It must have been tragic for houses to fill with water,
for the airplane factory to flood so badly
it shut down permanently.
But it was good for us.
After the flood they built an enormous dike between the town and the river,
and on that sunny fall day
we walked along the top,
looking at the peaceful river,
at the colored hill on the other side,
at the light on the water.
And then we sat down right on the sidewalk
that ran along the dike,
leaning against one another,
as she told me about her childhood,
as we watched ducks swimming and diving.
It was another day as sweet as any I have known in my life,
and it reminded me again
that I cannot imagine wanting a life without her.