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River Silences

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

It was Emerson who pointed out that "nature always wears the colors of the spirit." The same winter snowstorm that brings thoughts of death to a gloomy spirit refreshes a buoyant spirit with images of new beginnings. Everywhere, the sights, sounds, smells, and touches of flowers and hills, of "nature naturing," are filtered through our inner moods.

Everywhere except on the Mississippi River, the great Father of Waters. Sitting along the riverbank, or adrift in a small open boat, the Mississippi makes hardly a sound. Here, it's the silence, not the sounds, that feed our spirits’ moods. It’s an immense silence, falling from shore to distant shore, broken only by the smallest of sounds: the plip of a single fish jumping nearby, the tiny regular slap of waves, the dip of an oar or a paddle, a gull's cry, low voices talking at a distance.

Mississippi River silence is more than just the absence of sounds. It's as if a hundred symphonies were already there, a reservoir of notes from which each listener selects his or her own, composing a melody for the soul's songs, to be played by strings, woodwinds, percussion, or brass depending on the moods. There is no mood—loving, sad, lonely, hopeful—which the River’s silence cannot enhance.

And it's a silence which seems to be amplified by darkness as night falls. Often, late on crisp dry October nights when sounds carry, bedroom windows cracked open in our house up on the bluffs, I am awakened by the whistle of a Mississippi towboat coming to Lock 15 two miles away, a faint sound bringing with it the immense river silence.

The ears of my half-awake spirit, suspended between dreams and the debris of day, catch the beginnings of an overture which will carry me along until I drift into sleep again minutes or an hour later.

Some mornings I wake up, having forgotten the river music of the night before, and so am unable to account for why I am already eager, or sad, or lonely, or soothed, even before the day has begun.

Rock Island Lines is supported by grants from the Illinois Humanities Council, the Illinois Arts Council—a state agency—and by Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.