The symphony of the river is the murmuring current broken into a chorus of gravel riffle, the bass of muscular flow breaking against rock and log, the applause of sycamore leaves trailing in the stream, the slap of wavelet against boat hull, and the lowing of cattle.
Editor’s Note: Below is an excerpt from Margie Crisp’s new book, River of Contrasts: The Texas Colorado. The river runs 860 miles from just south of Lubbock, Texas, to the Gulf of Mexico. Crips follows the river its entire length. She writes about the river and she illustrates the book with her own drawings. A taste is below. To see more, go here.
Over the years, I’ve noticed that there are two approaches to floating the river in this stretch of gently rolling hills, slow curves, and—unless it is flooding— languid current.
With river obstacles limited to occasional submerged logs, sweeper trees along the bank, and a few gravel riffles, it is possible to fall into a trance and passively become a serene component of the visual panoply of the elements: river, banks, sun, and breeze. The river unwinds like a panoramic scroll before you. The trees and plants along the shore blend into a billowing green curtain above the shimmering channel.
Egrets fly before you or stand gracefully along the banks. There could be dozens of elegant long-necked and long-legged birds—or possibly they are the same few that fly downstream ahead of you. Sun and breeze compete to lull you into a profound relaxation. The bird song punctuates the murmur of trees and river; fish are shadows that slip away from your boat as it glides along.
Or, you can pick up your paddle and move close to shore, slipping from the bright embrace of the sun into the cool shadows, following the track of the current around bends and past eddies. The songs and calls distill into individual voices that you can pick out of the surrounding greenery and trace to the jeweled birds that hop and flit among the trees.
The symphony of the river is the murmuring current broken into a chorus of gravel riffle, the bass of muscular flow breaking against rock and log, the applause of sycamore leaves trailing in the stream, the slap of wavelet against boat hull, and the lowing of cattle. Woven into the melody is the incessant background to any summer day in Texas: shrill cicadas, the clattering of dragonfly battalions swooping past, the business-like hum of wasps and bees at work, and the dry rattle of grasshoppers in the brush on shore.
Include the rotund notes of turtles diving to safety from driftwood in the river, the thin cries of hawks overhead, the cymbal crash of fish slapping the surface, and the splashes of paddles dipping into water. Over this constant hymn, add the occasional roar of a lawnmower or weedeater (especially on weekends, a basso continuo of 2-cycle engines will underscore the river sounds), the voices of fishermen calling out good day, the rumble of cars from nearby roads, the grating clash and metallic clangs of haybalers.
Above the smell of sweat and sunscreen, the water ripples a pale green scent of algae, plants, and an almost anise smell of river bank; elephant ears give off a pungent sweet smell; grape vines are sharp and dusty; sycamores smell like warm toast; box elders give off the faintest odor of maple syrup; cypress is a sharp, bright note; oaks, whether from leaves piled around the roots or the trees themselves, give off a brown odor of compost and dark humus; hackberries are blandly sweet, with a touch of acridity.
Flowers, from the overly sweet honeysuckle to the vaguely rank composites, weave highlights through the bold palette of tree, water, and mud. Gravel bars in the sun concentrate the river’s underlying notes of decay—both plant and flesh—into stretches of cobble. Still pools ferment in the sun, smelling like beer, with thick layers of algae and a slew of industrious bacteria working the stagnant water into a heady brew. The opened and discarded shells of mussels collect along the bar, mother of pearl treasures iridescent in sunlight smelling corporeal. And never far away are the omnipresent cattle: the pungent fresh-grass smell of new cow pies, the darker fetid odor of older cow plops and cows too close to the river, and the dry hay-like smell of cow chips baking in the sun.
Passing one of the many quarries (there appears to be a land rush between mines and developers to see who can acquire the most riverfront land in eastern Travis and Bastrop Counties), a grinding roar of dump trucks follows the river corridor. Behind the levees of dirt piled up along the river’s edge, the grating clatter of alluvial sand and gravel scooped up by machines feels like knives drawn along the long bones of my arms and legs. The chalky flavor of the dust floating in the air and the naked smell of the gravel levees drying in the sun stick in my throat.
When the river rises, the gravel pits’ levees often dissolve into the river, turning the water almost white with copious amounts of fine clay and sand. It seems contradictory to criticize gravel mines and the (state’s) river management while lamenting the river’s lost ability to transport sediment to enrich floodplains and build deltas and marshes at the mouth of bays. Truthfully, it is an equation based on time and place.
Take freshwater mussels, for example. These mostly ignored creatures are the most endangered group of organisms in North America. An important part of the food chain (both terrestrial and aquatic), they are a link to water quality—not only because they require unpolluted water to live but also because they filter and clean a tremendous amount of water. Mussels suck in water, feed on the algae, bacteria, and miscellaneous organic particles, and flush out cleaned water.
Sudden, out-of-season deluges of soft sediment can bury and suffocate the mussels before they have a chance to move (yes, some species can move—but not far and not fast). Cloudy, silty water inhibits photosynthesis in the algae that some freshwater mussels depend on for nutrition. Changes in water level will change the number and kind of fish in a section of stream or river.
Mussels have developed close—and very peculiar—reproductive strategies between themselves and fish. A number of freshwater mussels can only reproduce if a certain species of host fish is available. Some species of mussels attract the host fish into close proximity with mantle lures resembling food or other fish; others expel tiny larval mussels (called “glochidia”) that float until they find the right fish. When they do, they attach to the gills or fins, depending on species, to feed and grow until they drop off to the riverbed. If they try to attach to the wrong species of fish, the fish’s immune system will reject the hangers-on.
Without the partner species, the mussels do not reproduce, the population dwindles, and the river’s filter brigade is lost.