Monday, June 21, 2010

The Floodplains of Sedge

I've decided to follow the River Truckle upstream. This close to the Great Shwamp, it's not far from being a swamp itself. It's comfortable in its bed and doesn't hesitate to stretch out into the surrounding woods. The road on the bank is wide and well-traveled - more so than the boardwalk - so there are fewer washed-out sections. Most of the ones that there are have been filled in with logs or little wooden bridges. The mice here - there are mice everywhere - keep their teeth short by chewing on the railings. They're more artistic about it than some; it's rare to see a bridge without fine traceries of carved scrollwork all over it. You have to look closely to see the tooth marks.

According to the Truckle Stoppers I spoke to,* this country is called Sedge. No one seems sure whether that's short for "Shwamp's edge" or a reference to the plants that grow everywhere. The country is a menagerie of seedpods. There's box sedge, pineapple sedge, pyramid sedge, bottle sedge, giraffe sedge, cabinet sedge, and the elusive invisible sedge. Hollow seedpods are used as much as pottery. Musicians who can't afford instruments just find a ripe rattlesack or whistling sedge, put a coat of varnish on it, and play that instead. Many of the seeds have spines all over, so they attach themselves to your clothing when you brush the plants. There are villages where they wear seeds on their clothes, stuck on in intricate patterns like beads or embroidery. Other plants have different ways of spreading. I was nearly hit twice today by rocket sedge, which can shoot its enormous seed spikes all the way across the river. They have a tendency to spontaneously explode during dry seasons. I'm glad this isn't one.

No one can agree on whether or not Sedge is part of the Great Shwamp. The border, like the land, is less than solid. After traveling through the Shwamp, where land is scarce where it exists at all, it's surprising to see so many houses. I come across three or four every mile. Most of them seem to be farmers or fishers, with nets hanging in the water or fields baking beneath the sun. One house had nets strung across the river, above the water, to catch skipperjacks. The fields are low and full of water; the water is shallow and full of dirt. People toss small stones into it as offerings to the river spirit. They believe that rivers ought to have pebbles to rub smooth, and the Truckle, flowing through a marsh, is deprived of them.

The river fills everything here. Ponds, inlets, and tributaries break up the ground into a thousand islands, which shift and change shape with the flow of the water. The land is so flat that you can see their outlines clearly, speckled across the landscape until they disappear behind trees. At night, the river rises into the air as fog; during the Spring, it climbs out of its banks (only a few inches above water at their highest) and floods the land for miles. The small forests and copses that speckle the fields are striped with the mud left by previous floods. The farmers can read the years on them. Every flood has a name.

"Here's the line from the Shell-Raiser. Highest water in my lifetime. I was only five, but I can still remember my mother taking us all up to the top of the old signal tower. First time I ever imagined what the Ocean might be like."

"There's the Great Perforation, when all the termite eels came up from Sporetower. You can still see the holes in the wood..."

Some trees have the detritus of floods caught in their branches. Children don't bother to build treehouses by the Truckle; they just find a tree with a wagon or a wardrobe in it and hang up a rope ladder. The farmers are thoroughly unconcerned about floods. Most of them are at least partly amphibious. They grow rice and mackerel grass, plants that don't mind spending weeks underwater; they build their houses low and sloping, with streamlined roofs that go all the way to the ground, so currents will go over them instead of carrying them away. Half the furniture is made of metal or ironwood so that it won't float away. The rest is tied to the houses. During floods, the farmers spend the day fishing and scavenging, then find their way home by looking for their furniture bobbing on top of the water. Nearly everyone has a bed or a wardrobe that can be turned into a serviceable houseboat for a week or two. It's not unusual to have the world underwater for five or six weeks out of every year. That's just the way things are.

Fortunately for travelers like me, there are rarely floods at this time of year. The land is as close to dry as it gets. The sun pounds dust from the road. Cicadas drone in the daytime, somewhere in the trees, hidden from view but audible for miles. Locusts make short, rattling flights in the grass. At night, katydids and frogs take over, moving from the lazy insect fugue of the daytime to the invisible polyphony of night.

I've never been fond of heat, but it's days like these that remind me of what I love about Summer.

* Most of the people I spoke to in Truckle Stop wanted portraits. There's a pipe crawler in the town that draws them, but it uses a geometric, highly stylized technique. Not everyone wants to come out looking like the carvings on a thousand-year-old tomb.

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