Looking downstream from the rope swing tree at Fox Hill Shipyard in Norwell.

I spent ten days this July house-sitting in Norwell, not far from the North River. The house itself was an ideal retreat: tucked into the woods and surrounded by wildflower gardens, it featured a large screened porch, which stayed cool, even on the hottest, most humid days.

A lot has been changing in my life lately — with work, with the people I know, with the way I feel about myself. All of these changes have been positive, but the sheer volume of new experience has proven heady at times, and sometimes overwhelming. That quiet place by the river provided just what I needed — time to be by myself, to think over all that was happening in my life, to reflect on it, and let it all sink in.

Every morning during my stay in Norwell, I would rise early and, before anything else, walk through the quiet, early morning streets of the neighborhood, down to the river. At Shipyard Park, the site of the Fox Hill yards, I would sit down in the grass at the water’s edge, lean back on my elbows, and gaze upstream toward Hanover. I rarely did anything more than that — just took in the scenery and let my mind roam wherever it pleased — but after a few days, that time spent by the river each morning was something I was unwilling to miss. It helped me remain grounded and tuned in to the things that were most important to me.

From my seat beneath the Fox Hill historical marker, my eyes would follow the path that ran up the hill and along the steep ridge of the forested riverbank. In the distance was a small clearing, well-trodden and worn. It was a place that had obviously experienced heavy use in the past, but had since begun to reclaim itself. Brush was creeping in, filling the places so many human feet had worn smooth. Tree trunks and branches, broken by the wind or removed with a chain saw, revealed tender green shoots of new growth.

The clearing was the site of the rope swing, a place that I visited nearly every day during the summer of 1990. The rope swing attracted crowds — often young and boisterous ones like my friends and I, just home from our first year of college. The park was private, owned by the neighborhood association, and although no one I knew was ever confronted on the matter, I suppose technically we were all trespassers.

The liabilities must have been staggering — more than a few people got hurt at the rope swing, between ropes giving way, ladder rungs slipping, and poorly executed jumps into the river, which was rocky at low tide. It wasn’t much of a surprise, then, when one day we arrived to find nothing left on which to swing. Not only was the rope missing, but the entire branch that once supported the swing had been sawn down and carried off.

Each morning, when I walked down to the river and observed from afar the clearing and the tree that used to support the rope swing, I would be flooded with memories of the time I once spent there. In many ways 1990 was a difficult summer, filled with the usual sort of anxieties an eighteen year old might expect, but it was a magical summer as well. What I remember most is the way, by the last few weeks of the season, I knew the tide chart inside out. Even from across town, I could somehow sense when it was time to visit the swing. It was as if I felt the river rising and falling inside of me. That summer, more than anything else, is what I comes to mind when someone asks me how the North River became so important to me.

A couple years ago I began spending time with a young man I’d met through work. In the beginning, we knew very little about each other, so I was surprised when, almost immediately, he referred to me as The River Girl. I balked at the characterization, but his argument was strong. “Every story of yours that I read, every time I see you or talk to you, you’re on the river,” he said, “Or you’re headed there, . . . or you’ve just returned from canoeing or kayaking or swimming.” That much, I had to admit, was true.

Still, I insisted he was wrong. After all, I knew plenty of people who got out on the river more than I ever did — people who lived on the river, or worked there, or made a point to go kayaking at least once a week, regardless of the season. I was lucky to get out in my kayak more than a few times a year. And the reason why I wrote and spoke of the river so often was that, though few and far between, the experiences I had there always seemed worthy of a story. “No, I was hardly The River Girl,” I said. “A River Girl wanna-be, maybe.”

Back then, I was working for the NSRWA, a job that might appear, to the outside observer, to be one which involves regular contact with the rivers. But the work was a lot more of sitting at a computer and talking on the phone than anything else. While the rivers and the people who care about them were the focus of my job, the only views I took in on a daily basis were the photos taped to my office wall.

Whenever I meet someone new, particularly someone I’m hoping to impress, I inevitably find a way to bring the North River into the conversation. If I really like the person, I will find a way to bring him to the North River. The river itself is impressive, but my intention in mentioning it is, more than anything else, about my desire to place myself within the same frame of reference. It’s not that I wish to show off my knowledge of the rivers (indeed, I have become an authority on the subject), but rather that I feel that there is a side of me, one I really love, which only comes out when I am on the river.

Those ten days in Norwell, each one beginning with a walk down to the North River, were some of the most serene days I’ve had in a long time. Sitting at the water’s edge became my morning meditation: I watched the tide come in . . . or go out. I watched the marsh, green and tall and just beginning to turn gold. I watched the breeze — when there was one — stir up patterns on the river’s surface, distorting the reflected image of the hazy summer sky.

The river was a mirror. I would marvel at how serene it seemed, and then marvel at my own serenity in the face of all that was changing in my life. I would go back and forth between studying it, questioning it, and simply being present and appreciating it. I would remind myself that, just like a storm can rise unexpectedly on the river, so could the peace I felt very easily be shaken.

Am I The River Girl? It’s a question that crosses my mind fairly often. Maybe the identity doesn’t quite fit, but neither is it entirely inappropriate. The time I spend on the North River ultimately brings me to a place of peace — with myself, with the world. No one has ever defined it, but if being The River Girl is all about tuning in to the spirit of the river, honoring it, and accepting guidance from it, then maybe my friend was right. Maybe The River Girl and I are one and the same.

by Kezia Bacon, Correspondent
August 1998

Kezia Bacon’s articles are provided by the North and South Rivers Watershed Association.