By N. S. Racheotes
Do you have a favorite river? Mine is the Charles. My Charles River is not the one where you’ll find the real cool lovers, muggers, thieves, and frustrated women of whom the Standells sing. Sports fans are familiar with the tune, and it is either annoying or enjoyable to them after some Boston-based team wins. No, the Charles of which I sing has a back strong enough to carry early American history. It wears on its wrist a perpetual calendar. Over its bridges, ideas—and the people who shop them—flow freely between Boston and Cambridge. Sometimes, leaning against their railings and gazing at the sunset, you might even hear the “Yes! Oh, yes!” of which real dreams are made.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had one of the most famous horsemen in American history ride along its banks:
One if by land, and two if by sea;And I on the opposite shore will be,Ready to ride and spread the alarmThrough every Middlesex village and farm,For the country-folk to be up and to arm. Then he said “Good-night!” and with muffled oarSilently rowed to the Charlestown shore,Just as the moon rose over the bay,Where swinging wide at her moorings layThe Somerset, British man-of-war;
Later, as America industrialized, the Moody textile mills of Waltham and so many other manufactories discharged their effluvia down the river and into the yawning Atlantic. The same was the case with the Watertown Arsenal from the era of the War Between the States to World War II until we decided to “beat our swords” into food courts and “spears” into clothing stores by building a mall where the weapons once poured off the assembly line. Historically strong was the back and shoulders of the Charles, so much so that these events have eclipsed the memory of the executed king of England for whom the river is named.
The river is also my calendar. As it begins to mirror the red, yellow, and brown of the changing leaves, the Charles greets students from around the world in September and thousands of rowers from around the world in the Head of the Charles Regatta each October. From November to January, as a gray cape of ice spreads over it, the river seems to suggest to those attending Harvard, B.U., and M.I.T., that the short days and long nights mean libraries, laboratories, and exams for you. Come March, and its undulating, pockmarked paths get massaged by the footfalls of all those runners training for the Boston Marathon. When the temperatures rise, as they eventually do, a United Nations–worth of children bicycle, skateboard, ride the swings, garden, and listen to music in observance of the fundamental right of all children to have fun.
The Charles greets students from around the world in September and thousands of rowers from around the world in the Head of the Charles Regatta each October.
It should go without saying, but when we think of the many ways rivers are threatened, maybe we need to say it anyway—rivers are important. Even historians who agree on little else concede that entire civilizations such as ours were cradled along rivers. Think of the Tigris and Euphrates, the Jordan, the Danube, the Rhine, the Yangtze, the Ganges, the Neva and the Volga, the Congo and the Amazon. Couldn’t you add many more to this short list?
If you have your own river, I hope someone is nurturing it, like groups such as the Charles River Watershed Association, which is protecting mine. And, if you don’t have a river, you are always welcome to share the Charles.
— V —