The rivers of the Southeast I cross
By Tom Polland
Rivers make me say things out loud. As I drive alone over a river I often say its name. In fact, some rivers’ names beg to be pronounced. On trips to Florida, I cross the Altamaha. Saying its name is pure joy. Other river names delight me. Ocmulgee. Chattooga, which is Cherokee for “He crossed the river and came out the other side.” I cross rivers and come out the other side.
In my travels across the Southland, I cross a long and beautiful list of rivers. The Savannah. The Broad (Georgia). The Oconee. The Satilla. The Broad (South Carolina). Little River (South Carolina). The Saluda. The Congaree. The Wateree. The Chattooga (Georgia and South Carolina). The Edisto. The Great Pee Dee. The Little Pee Dee. Lynches River. The Haw. Cape Fear.
On my expeditions to eastern Georgia, I cross the Saluda, Little River, and the mighty Savannah. In Athens, Georgia I walk across the Oconee River twelve times a year. If you know anything about me you know why I do that. Slow and laden with brown silt, the Oconee shows her sky-blue face down in South Georgia but by then she goes by another name, Altamaha. Say it.
Years back I crossed the Cooper River a lot. My memories of it are not the best. Sorrow tinges them blue. If you knew me better, you’d know why. Coastward bound, I cross The Santee. Waccamaw. Black River. The Sampit. When I head to the Tar Heel state I cross the Catawba, the Lumber River, the Haw, and Cape Fear River. (What an ominous ring it possesses.)
When I head south to the aforementioned Florida, I cross the Salkehatchie. The Combahee (cumbee). Saint Mary’s. Over toward middle Georgia I cross another river whose name begs to be pronounced: the Ogeechee. Say it right now. O-gee-chee. And the Ocmulgee too. It and the Oconee join to create the Altamaha. Say it right now. Al-ta-ma-ha.
Thank you American Indians, you and your memorable tribes and your memorable names for rivers. You remind of us how great this land was before wholesale change arrived. I will not sully you by referring to you as Native Americans. How technical, how devoid of color, cold politically correct language is. PC is the language of, are you ready for a biting word? Are you ready for two words that cut and bite?
It’s the language of dolts and duds and their insipid underwhelming intellect.
You can conclude from my list that I travel three states mainly: Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina. Other states harbor rivers I want to cross, such as the Clinch River in Tennessee and Virginia. The Snake River out west. The Colorado.
I stood by the Mississippi in Memphis, Tennessee, and gazed at Arkansas. I like to stand by the Chattooga and watch kayakers fly through white spray. I love standing by a stretch of the Broad River known as Anthony Shoals and watch rocky shoals spider lilies move to a river rhythm.
Standing by a river is good for the soul. You see just how life is so like a river. And so, crossing a river makes me think. Where and how does it start? I know where it ends. My life is a river. I know how it started. Where will it lead? Where will it end?
Sit down and list the rivers your life journey crosses. Write one memory of each river. It can be one word, one sentence, several lines. For example, each time I cross the Savannah, I know that for a split second I am in two states at once. I am in the watery heart of that land I designate as “Georgialina.” When I cross the Chattooga I think of the river poet. When I cross the Ocmulgee near Macon, Georgia, I see it as a kind of River Styx. Souls cross the Ocmulgee and encamp for eternity in the vales of Rose Hill Cemetery.
List the rivers your life journeys cross and remember. My guess is you’ll find it revealing. And see if you don’t cross a river or three whose names implore you to say them out loud.
Now, one more time, Altamaha.