River Tongues

Megan Erkoboni


Day lifts the green from the soil
Dips her fingers in the dirt
Pulls a thread to wrap around her waist

Sister River, we are cradled in the same great arc

The Susquehannock people received their name from the Algonquian word meaning “people of the muddy river.” The first written accounts of the tribe come from Captain John Smith in 1608, but their history on the land in the river valley must stretch back far before this point of contact. The Susquehannocks bear the name of the great river of the region, but they are far from the only Indians to have inhabited the area. The Susquehannocks themselves were an Iroquoian tribe, and other Iroquois people populated the forests around the river at various times. Delaware, Lenape, and Shawnee people thrived along the Susquehanna as well.
The confluence of the North and West Branches of the Susquehanna was a location well-traversed by tribes from modern-day Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and Delaware. The village of Shamokin was located at the confluence and served as a center of trade and congregation. The village’s populations were fluid, with many different peoples combining for trade, war parties, or settlement. The river was an essential part of Indian navigation, not due so much to travel upon it, as to travel along it. Countless trails cut through the wilderness surrounding the water, and eleven of these trails lead into Shamokin alone.
 

■ ■ ■

Sitting on the bank of the summer Susquehanna, the overwhelming, eye-filling observation is: green. So many shades and facets and ruffles of it, and we betray nature’s articulate discourse with one word from our own clumsy tongue. The trees reach out over the water and the brush grows down to the very last point where it can grip the solid ground. The river cuts through the lush growth, throwing each side back to itself along the edges of its broad span. Calm and composed, the river has let the patient life of fauna inspire its pace.
 There is a story about the great chief Shikallemy and the missionaries that met him at the village of Shamokin. Shikallemy was a diplomatic leader, and when the missionaries chose to settle in Shamokin, he discussed the terms of their mutual habitation. He told the missionaries, “You may build me a house. You may put a fence around my house. But you may only plant what is native to this soil.” Otherwise, he explained, the settlement would look like a plantation. For Shikallemy, it was easier to change his god than to change his land.   
 ¬-Account of Shikallemy based on unpublished journal findings from the Moravian Archives, courtesy of Katie Faull


The Three Sisters

     They swiftly come

Corn and beans and squash they swiftly come
Sisters three they come and swiftly tell
Swiftly tell of heavy bellies
Heavy bellies round with child or full with food
They tell of fertile fields
Of fertile fields and swiftly go
Swiftly go to babies of their own
Their own who cry
Their own to feed

     They swiftly go
 

Small towns with roots deeper than any white pine or hemlock cling around the confluence of the Susquehanna River. Built primarily around coal mining and iron work on the North Branch, and the lumber industry on the West Branch, the towns have seen their peaks come and go. Once predicted to transform the confluence region into a booming center of commerce the likes of which would rival Philadelphia, many confluence towns have had to cope with the disappearance of their founding industry. The logging era entered a swift decline after the 1889 Johnstown flood, the worst disaster of its kind to take place in the 19th century. However during Pennsylvania logging’s strongest era, the steep banks of the river were completely clear-cut of timber. Much of the dense and seemingly primordial vegetation in areas like Weiser State Forest is actually second-growth forest.

Anthracite coal was dug out of plentiful veins surrounding the Susquehanna beginning in the 1800’s, but the mines often decimated the landscape and acid-mine drainage poisoned the river and its tributaries. Along with environmental damage and resource depletion, the Knox mine disaster of 1959 pushed anthracite mining out of the Susquehanna Valley’s industrial scheme. Old coal towns now stand in disrepair, the mining companies that employed the majority of their inhabitants long since dissipated. The anthracite mining stronghold of Shamokin had a population of 21,204 people in the year 1920. As of 2007, 7,378 people call Shamokin home. Ashland, another aptly named coal town, also had it population cut by more than half since its prime. In the 1990s alone, Ashland suffered a 12.8% decrease in inhabitants. Even Sunbury, the town located directly at the confluence of the branches, which engaged heavily in neither industry but drew the coal wealth out of Shamokin, is plagued by empty and abandoned storefronts on the main drag.

Danville, PA owes its dated prosperity to the iron mills that dominated the town for most of the 19th century. Although the mills have experienced serious decline, like the anthracite and lumber industries, Danville is still proud of its heritage as an iron town. Banners announce the annual Iron Heritage Festival and shirts and hats in store-front windows celebrate the Danville Ironmen of the high school sports teams. This fierce loyalty to the past is a common sentiment among the remaining inhabitants of declining confluence settlements. Not only do the people hold defensively onto their towns, the towns seem to hold onto them, anchoring them, somewhat inexplicably, to a place where scars are worn out in the open.

■ ■ ■

             The old building was set darkly in the continuous lineup of facades that fronted the block. The guide motioned to her left, lifted her palm as if cuing the responsorial hymn from the parish. “This used to be an old opera house,” she explained, “but now they sell mattresses in the gallery.” She said that when her mother was young, she had to wash her face, and put on a dress and good shoes before she came into town. This was a puzzling woman, suddenly ageless in her oddity. An initial survey would have placed her at an awkward and unbecoming early-twenty-something. But the antiquated way in which she described her mother suggested something older. Or maybe Sunbury was the one in the time-warp, not the guide, maintaining an expectancy of downtown Sunday-bests long after other places had settled for jeans and polyester. She didn’t give another hint, just smiled on the group wearing her t-shirt that read “I’M FROM HERE.”
            Thirty miles away in Ashland, two men tore at a red house, white porch, lots of junk. The house sat on its concrete perch, the back shoved into the mountain, the front looking dizzily down its nose, past the crumbling ledge to the sidewalk. The monument stood one lot to the right, giant chair with Whistler’s seated subject, proclaiming “A mother is the holiest thing alive.” They glanced up, indifferent. Lean, shirtless, tattooed, they ripped the walls to shreds.

Bank Song
Bottles sweatin
Baby’s frettin
Daddy’s brow drips in his eye
My hair’s kinkin
Sister’s thinkin
Runnin’s gotta let you fly

Dogs is pantin
Auntie’s rantin
River’s thick up in the sky
Blacktop’s wavin
Brother’s shavin
He still thinks he’s gotta try

Nothin’s bakin
Nothin’s drainin
Nothin’s burnin
Nothin’s fried
Mama’s hair looks better curly
But her tears ain’t never dry.


The Nature of Name

The double call of Vulpes vulpes
bounds among the frozen rows.
To where he slinks betwixt
the icy stalks
like splintered scarecrow bones.

The stubbled jaw and paleface tongue
that said the word to sow the seed –
the trestle for his step -
births a twin to chase the first
and him.

Indeed it is the same that spoke
Strix varia to talons in the pitch.
Where is his almanac
when lightening splits the porch
and spring-rains loose the hitch?
 
Mount Carmel, Pennsylvania was once a coal mining town supported by the collieries of Coal Ridge and Locust Mountain. The mining industry was supplemented by the factories and mills that produced everything from textiles to cigars to machinery. Mount Carmel is known throughout the region for its cityscape of worship – at one time the borough of less than a square mile held over twenty churches, and presently well over half of those remain. Just outside of the town, a collection of cemeteries lies grouped closely together on a single hill. Appearing to be one continuous stretch of grave sites, the property actually consists of 6 individual cemeteries, each one with a predominating ethnic background. The grounds are named for St. Mary, St. Michael the Archangel, St. Stanislauf, St. Edward, and B’Nai Israel, along with the Transfiguration Ukrainian Catholic Church. They largely contain the area’s Slovak, Lithuanian, Polish, Italian, Jewish, and Ukrainian Eastern Orthodox deceased, respectively. The cemeteries’ location on the secluded hill was chosen based on the knowledge that it was one of the few stretches of land that didn’t contain coal veins.

Mount Carmel borrows its name from the northern Israeli mountain range of the same designation. Har HaKarmel in Hebrew and Kurmul in Arabic, the landscape was held sacred by ancient Canaanites. The prophet Elijah, a figure in Christian, Jewish, and Islamic culture, is strongly associated with the mountain range. In the bible, Mount Carmel is referenced most often as a symbol of beauty and fertility. For the land of Carmel to wither however, is a sign of devastating judgment.1 

1. “Mount Carmel.” BiblePlaces.com. 16 June 2009. 
<http://www.bibleplaces.com/mtcarmel.htm>

■ ■ ■

The cemetery chorus, strange and lilting, drifts down from the hill. The double crosses sing out do pobachennya, do svidaniya, sweet and heavy goodbyes. Fingers spread over them in eternal blessing, the people without a temple for miles still sleep soundly. The –inski’s and –accio’s face off against each other from behind their cobbled walls, but in the air above all is mingled into beautiful dissonance. Each song settles on the town like ash.
 
Coal Miner’s Prayer

Our bones are in their beds.

Brush the black from all you can
and lay our lids with lace.
Steep with satin every man
and wash my weary face.

Dig me in where I once dug
and drop me far from drills.
I want to see my home beyond
these dark and rolling hills.

Unbend my back with feathered lift
and bathe my brow with light.
Breathe sweet breath through parted lips
and free my feet with flight.

Raise me up, not from this depth,
but from my deeper hurt.
I beg the light instead
for I’ve seen darker than this dirt.


Over and over again, man has seen the glimmer of Eden in the Susquehanna. Dreams of utopia nourished by the tides – Priestly’s Unitarian community, the French colony of Azilum, Charles Everett’s Pandenarium. The landscape speaks of hope, of peace, of freedom. The first Mormons were baptized in the river, and the Susquehanna became their Jordan. The Quakers, the Amish – there is something pure here. Beautiful and pure. This legacy makes the sound of each stone thrown from a bridge become the slip-dunk of tentative crossing feet, of a forehead pushed under in blessing. 
The Susquehanna is broad and flat like salvation. Her promise is so ancient that every ear can hear it, but few can mimic the call. She will wash everything smooth. There is a providence that transcends “which God” and “what church.” A spirituality shining on the water, making the shadows deeper, the air sweeter.
Out in the fields the clotheslines present their wares, always pinned perfectly, always ordered largest to smallest. The farm houses are confident, even in their occasional disrepair. The houses and their barns, plots, and pens sit both directly upon the dipping road and well back from it, benignly indifferent to the pavement because they know they were there first. The land is smiling, generous. Each acre, green or brown, is held to the chest of the rolling hills. When it rains, these hills send up spouts of silver clouds. The water is turned to vapor by the warm heartbeat that courses through the ground.

Susquehanna’s Call

Slake your soul among the shadows of my shore.
You thirst in hues of red and white and blue
and more –
Of black and white and brown and red
Hues of heart and hand and head
Freckled bronze from sun, aglow with gold and God and blood.
Cures for one and all within my flood!

For one and all, one nation, underfoot.
The undercut of currents slice the stone
and carve the bathing basin.
Dip your face in, wash the sweat and dirt and race and sin
These human hurts can’t worry waters staid as mine.

You walk through the valley of the shadow of life
The spirit in the sky and in the pipe
That holy smoke will hang forever just above my brim.
The verdant fringe I’ve thrown around my shoulders
My corporal curve
My surgent swell
My fife and drum of “Hallelujah, Susquehanna ho!”


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