Life by Rheotaxis: A river rat retrospective
By Wesley Houp
North of Center
rheotaxis: the tendency of certain living things to move in response to the mechanical stimulus of a current of water.
As the son of two aquatic biologists, I spent a goodly portion of my childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood doubled-over in benthological awe, wading through riffles and pools with a kick-net or seine, eager to pick through the contents of each haul as if I were skimming off the top of some vast and foreign treasury answers to life’s perplexing questions that elude the hoi polloi, hung just beneath the current, disguised against rope-swinging day-trippers and stoic, bank-hushed fisher-boys as an insignificant detail of the larger set—creek cobble and riprap scoured black and tumbled smooth. From intermittent headwater streams to alluvial river mouths, I associate the life in and of the current with all that is good and all that is essential in the life gently but seriously fashioned for me by gentle and serious people.
In every place I’ve lived as an adult, from Pennsylvania to Tennessee, mapping out and connecting to watersheds has been not only a constant, sometimes obsessive, undertaking but an outright existential necessity. We all need water to survive, but some of us need it in more ways than one and seek it out wherever and whenever possible.
I’m not talking about recreational pleasure or sport although I’m not necessarily opposed to those activities, but a fascination more akin to the elemental “draw” Harland Hubbard notes in the opening lines of Shantyboat: “A river tugs at whatever is within reach, trying to set it afloat and carry it downstream… The river extends this power of drawing all things with it even to the imagination of those who live on its banks. Who can long watch the ceaseless lapsing of a river’s current without conceiving a desire to set himself adrift, and, like the driftwood which glides past, float with the stream clear to the final ocean?”
I’m talking about a real ontological need to experience—to feel—the water, its undercurrents and biota, be part of its course, and live, if only fleetingly and as best a gravity-dumb biped can, by the alternating and life-altering charges of rheotaxis.
There’s no two ways around it. The Kentucky River courses through the geography of first, second, third, and even fourth-hand memories that constitute my life. Had not my ancestors fallen on hard times, left East Tennessee in the 1850s for the big woods of Eastern Kentucky, logged the old growth timber in Breathitt and Clay Counties, and experienced firsthand the spring tides above the forks of the Kentucky, the splash- dammed tributaries, log-rafts, and the precarious, serpentine run to downstream sawmills, like the one that operated near present-day Lock 7, the magnetism of some other distant current might sing to me from my subconscious.
But as it were, lucky for me I’m certain, the Kentucky delivered my grizzled ancestors to High Bridge, a small but promising river and (after 1877) railroad town. This sleepy corner of central Kentucky, with its mammoth cantilevered bridge transecting the deep-set ribbon of life, remains for me, even still, home.
They had, no doubt, first encountered this part of the inner bluegrass in the years preceding the Civil War, and after serving in the Union Army through Perryville, Stones River, and Chickamauga, Edmund and Robert Houp (father and son), my fourth and third great grandfathers respectively, shunned the rugged hills and hollows of Breathitt for the loamy and forgiving earth of southwest Jessamine.
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