Thursday, June 7, 2007

A River of Deer

Photo Credit:  Andrew Feight, Ph.D.
This spring, hundreds of different species of migratory birds returned to the Lower Scioto River Valley, as they have done for thousands of years. Having now spent my first spring living along Turkey Creek in the Shawnee State Forest, I can testify to the amazing variety of birds who have stopped by my home on their way to some other place further north.

The passenger pigeon flocks that once darkened this valley's skies have long since disappeared and while the great American bison, the deer, bear, and panther no longer seek out the saline waters of the Scioto Salt Licks, migrating human populations who first came to this valley because of its abundant game have definitely settled in and left their mark. As with the birds, there are old human migratory flows that drew and, to a certain degree, continue to draw people into this valley. There are little eddies here and there that swirl about and over the years they have managed to overpower many a rambling bone.

Though I am relatively a newcommer here, I followed the path of many of the first white and black American immigrants who came to this region from the southeastern side of the Appalachian Mountains. From the foothills of Georgia and South Carolina, through the Cumberland Gap and into the Kentucky Bluegrass, I eventually made my way to the mouth of the Scioto River in Southern Ohio.

Over the millenia a number of different civilizations have inhabited this region - migrants all. They have come and gone and returned. Whether the prehistoric Native Americans or their European, African, and Mexican American successors, many decided to stay here and sow their seeds and reap their life's joys and sorrows. Yet, like the migratory birds of this spring, there is no doubt that more have simply passed by and through our valley than have made this their home and laid their bones in our soil.

If one stays in this valley long enough to know it, the layers of its history, reaching back to the earliest days of contact between Native Americans and European explorers, reveal themselves to be as rich as the valley's primeval forest, when the passenger pigeon turned day into night and the doe and the buck were so thick that the Shawnee spoke of a river of deer.


  1. The river is for drowning girls
    every song says it's true
    hair blooms in the cold current

    the little fish rise like angels to meet them
    they go down into the dark
    in the good black mud

    they roll, white-eyed
    through brown water
    arms out in benediction
    fish-pale bellies and breasts
    a basement full of mushrooms
    roots and blind things

    they say
    there are catfish big as Volkswagens
    near the dam, the divers come back up
    and never go down again

    they say
    when the drought drops the water
    low enough the old carved stones
    break the surface

    and only say
    that you'll be mine
    and in no other's arms entwine
    down beside
    where the waters flow
    down by the banks of the Ohio

    here, once
    they humped the earth like new dug graves
    in the shape of serpents, eggs, moons
    wheels and bears
    buried bones,
    copper axes, obsidian hands

    but the river is for drowning girls
    every song says it's true

    Train trestles cut across
    flat stones and mud, ring top beer cans
    tangles of fishing line
    the river swells with rain and swallows fields
    making mirrors of the mud
    leaving fish to die for the corn
    leaving the old stone blades of knives
    arrowheads, bone beads and broken pots

    the river is for drowning girls
    hungry for their white flesh
    it beats against the city walls,
    glutted with chicken coops, detergent bottles
    syringes, empty jugs, tampon applicators
    slick black logs and fishing floats

    dark as a rotted oak leaf, as a cold night
    as the smoke of a fall fire on the bank
    dark as a barge filled with west Virginia coal
    electric light of a lone house
    and a song ringing out

    go down go down you Knoxville girl
    with the dark and roving eye
    go down go down you Knoxville girl
    you'll never be my bride

    the river is for drowning girls,
    girls drunk and dancing
    girls fucking
    boys fresh from jail
    in cars

    girls with hair too high,
    with painted faces, and slit up shirts
    girls in towns with cold smokestacks
    who run blue lines up their noses
    smoking beside a bonfire
    swapping speckled eggs for candy bars

    the river is for drowning girls
    they go down to the last line of land
    and wait to be taken away

    Jacob Rakovan

  2. JR: Thanks for the poem. These rivers -- the Ohio and the Scioto -- make fertile creative bottom lands, where the detritus decomposes, at least the non-plastic flotsam, that is. Perhaps some creative/tormented souls have to leave this confluence of waters to make sense and poetry out of that "good black mud." Thanks for reading.

  3. well, i don't know about "having" to leave, but it certainly made it easier to see clearly. I think you will have a different historical perspective on the region being a naturalized citizen of appalachia ( as i am, also) as opposed to a native one. I think an interest in that history at all, at least history in the traditional sense is atypical of the region. History in the river valley is viewed by it's residents as an outgrowth of geneology, primarily, as a repository of familial myths and as a touchstone of values important to the clan ( for example, the curious way in which the labor struggles, union shootings of the depression and the race riots of the 60's are viewed by portsmouth residents. they are almost entirely divorced from any kind of relation to the history of the country as a whole, and instead serve as cautionary tales, as tribal myths used to explain the poverty, the racial divisions. There is no more fact in most southern ohio history than in a mythopoetic story of origin for some tribal sun-king. Most interestingly is the romanticized view of the original inhabitants, i think, and the way in which local historians paint an edenic, arcadian picture of the moundbuilders, the scioto, etc. They serve as mythic ancestors, an age of gold in contrast to our post-industrial malaise. I don't think this romantic picture of the past is unique to southern ohio, but i do think it plays out in a particularly interesting way there.
    local "blue eyed cherokees" running gas mowers over a simulated mound that they insisted be fenced for it's preservation seems to me particularly telling, an almost deliberate inactment of the resident's relation to the simalcra of the past.

  4. Very good Andrew and very interesting. I'm looking forward to more postings on the history of the area. Maybe you could enlighten some of us on the settlement of the "white man" in this area.
    I have lived at the confluence of these two rivers from time to time and it is quite an interesting place, as I'm sure it's history is.

  5. JR: I didn't mean to suggest that one HAS to leave, but I do think distance and time away from a place can help the creative process. I, for one, have a slow (deliberative) mind that far too often takes its time. Somethings perhaps are meant to lay in the mud until they surface in their own time and place - like your poem, or is that an old piece written down here?

    CF: Thanks for reading. I've been contemplating my next post and it turns out that it may very well be about first contact at the confluence.

  6. it is an older piece, i just realized i had not sent any of the newer things home, and thought you might get a kick out of it. working on a manuscript, 50-ish pages a the moment of fairly edited stuff, just need to work on order, and then start sending it out i think. keep posting


    thought you might enjoy these

  8. your river sucks it could at least catch fire once !

  9. I take this most recent comment to mean that we should judge our rivers by the number of man-made fires they have experienced. I suppose, next to the Cuyahoga in northeastern Ohio, the Scioto does pale in comparison. But, seriously, the Scioto also has its own pollution problems. I wouldn't knowingly eat fish from its waters.

  10. The Cuyahoga is burning HOTT!!

    the Scioto is not

  11. You have stirred up the wrath of Leatherlips-he hates your deer eyed river!