Find out just what a people will submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.
—Frederick Douglass, in a speech concerning West India Emancipation, delivered at Canandaigua, New York, August 3, 1857
MEXICO, MAINE IS a small paper mill town that lies in a valley, or "River Valley" as we now call the area, because I suppose you can't have one without the other. The hills are low and worn and carved by the waters surrounding them, and trees line the rivers, which confine the town. Coursing through the valley's midsection, the Androscoggin River.
Just across the S-hook in the river, in the neighboring town of Rumford, the mill's smokestacks poke holes in the white plumes they create. That's money coming out of those smokestacks
, our fathers used to say about the rotten-smelling upriver drafts that surfaced when the weather shifted. That smell loitered amid the softball games we played beneath those stacks and lingered on our fathers' shirtsleeves when they came home from work, allowing us to forgive the rank odor for what it provided.
Where stack meets sky, the wide, slow-moving Androscoggin pivots and bleeds south and east, under bridges and over rapids, pushing through dams, slinking around islands and along inlets, skidding through other mill towns of Jay, Lewiston, Topsham, Brunswick and picking up flotsam and jetsam or passengers in canoes. In the calmer sections, its velvety waters press on with the slow caress of lava and despair. Vapid pools form when the water has nowhere else to go, sheltering the river's secrets in dark lagoons, where they congregate in the muck and fester like complicity. Sometimes the river pauses or eddies when it meets an obstacle and diverts into other routes, into unpredictable detours following the edges of its design. Yet it proceeds nonetheless.
Rivers are living bodies that need oxygen, breed life, turn sick, can be wrecked by neglect like human bodies, which we often think of as separate, not belonging to the landscape that bore them out; they tell a story, these bodies. They are the story.
In deep grottos of the past, the great polar ice cap melted into glaciers, and its calving mass crawled north, carving long, deep ruts that became the lakes and rivers of Maine. Our geologic past foretold everything about our future. But in this future, lives are un-lived, secrets never revealed, and stories remain unwritten about how much we all lose. In this future, I learn of asphalt lakes, people bulleted with disease, burning tires scarring the sky, the forsaken buried in unmarked graves, the evisceration and erasure of home. In this future, we pardon legislators who convince us nature will sort itself out. In this future, we will have forgotten everything that came before, and our only legacy for those who will supersede us is the promise of ruin. It started early, this ruining of bodies and the yawning of leaders who didn't care about a landscape so altered by us it's reciprocating the abuse.
When I walk along the Androscoggin and over its bridges, I try to see the river as it was or could have been. Even in its current spoiled state, it's still a thing of great agency, the transactions of its waters an awesome sight, wearing down granite and earth with the repeated force of its movement. Down at the rocky outcrops when my father was a boy, a park with a bandstand and grassy plateaus wrapped the town with music and tranquility. There, you can imagine the thunderous negotiation of the river's turbulent waters as they passed, defeating the submissive notes of flutes and clarinets. Before my father, my grandfather walked in the same park where shrubs and flowers and little stones drew a path amid the shade of chestnuts that were about to die. Before him, Abenaki crouched along the Androscoggin's edge to catch salmon lofting on its tide. Salmon had long flung their way upstream from the Atlantic to spawn, swimming past floodplains and alewives that gathered in the river's current. Gristmills and pollution and dams and the lawmakers discouraged their run-ups but the hopeful salmon pressed on until they disappeared except for the few each year who still hurl themselves up and over that first dam wondering if by tenacity they will prevail. Their fate, it remains unknown.