June 28, 2005

Into the River

I love going to academic conferences. Maybe I'm a nerd. I like to hear papers and presentations. I love talking about books and ideas. I make it to just about every plenary speaker and as many concurrent sessions as I can. The roundtable I had planned for this conference attracted a good crowd, and many of us went out to dinner later that night to continue talking about the ideas. It's wonderful to escape for a week from all the pressures of raising kids and teaching students, and spend seven days with colleagues, talking about ideas and goals and dreams.

The conference I just came from has an additional benefit, beyond the intellectual stimulation that an academic conference can offer: cool field trips.

Saturday, I went with a group of colleagues on a conference-sponsored raft trip. It was a cool sunny day, and we travelled by bus to the put-in spot, all of us eager to get onto the swiftly flowing river. This part of Oregon is overwhelmingly beautiful, lush and green, curving with mountains. We could hear the river as we got close, a shallow river tumbling over rocks, churning, dancing, calling to us.

It was late in the conference so most of us had dispensed with the name tags, but there was a certain camaraderie present as we all climbed onto the blue and white rafts, calling to each other, joking around. Often on these field trips, there is a certain reversal in power: the young fit grad students have a decided edge over the old famous tenured professors. And by this point in the conference, everyone is sleep-deprived from way too many nights at the pub, so an informality born of exhaustion presides.

I sat next to Artist Friend, who kept pointing out butterflies and birds, and who always knows the names of trees and plants. Not long into the trip, we got into a water fight with another raft. After five days of sitting still in classrooms, listening to presentations, it felt great to slap at the water with my paddle, splashing everyone in sight. I'm not sure who started the water fight. It may have been me. But once started, there was no turning back. And soon we were all sopping wet.

It was mainly a float trip, but we did go through a few stretches of white water. Oh, I love how it feels to crash into big waves! Maybe it's because I've been a water rat my whole life but this motion did not make me motion sick in the least. Who could feel sick outside in the hot sun and cold wind?

The best way to see any landscape, I think, is from the perspective of a river. The river knows where to go to show you the mountains, the trees, the rocks covered with moss. Oregon has a lush climate, even greener than the landscape I live in, and the mosses shone brilliantly from the edges of the river. An osprey flew overhead, reminding me of the osprey we have up at camp.

Near the end of the trip, we came to a calm stretch, and the guide said we could jump off the raft if we wanted to. After being chilled through for a couple of hours, I was not sure if I wanted to jump into the icy water. But Artist Friend nudged me. "If you don't, you will regret it."

And he was right. The only way to experience a river is to be totally in it. To leap from the raft and let the water pull your whole body along. I swam for a moment, then let the current take me, surrendering to the coldness, the movement. I looked up at the mountains, and all the lush greenness around me.

And now, back home in sweltering heat, sitting at my desk to do the tedious job of adding up and submitting my conference receipts, I think over the conference. I loved being plunged into the current of ideas and thoughts; I love being part of a community of people all concerned about the big issues that face our times. And when I think of the river trip, I am glad I jumped in. I can still feel that tingly coldness. I remember how easily the current swept my body along -- and how humble I felt in the presence of that power.


PPB said...

As always, amazing.

Rana said...

Oh, so so envious!

Friday Mom said...

Wow, we never doing anything so cool (and I mean that literally) at professional meetings in my field. Maybe I could start a trend.

Lisa V said...

I wish I had known you were coming to this part of the country! There are places in Portland I would've suggested you see or eat. It's rainy and cool here again today and yesterday too. You make me jealous with your heat!

jo(e) said...

Lisa V: Darn! That's the problem with anonymity. And all these pseudonyms. I didn't realize that I was coming to your part of the country ....

Was I within driving distance of you? I would have loved to meet you.