Monday, November 22, 2010

Nature proves you can step in the same river twice

There's the old saying that you cannot step in the same river twice. It’s credited to Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher who lived from 540 BC to 480 BC and the full quote is: “You could not step twice into the same river; for other waters are ever flowing on to you.”

Meaning, of course, among many other explanations, that you can’t try and retrieve or recover the past – the current has flowed on, there is another sense at play, you are a different person, you cannot grab at the intangible, at what has been and is over.

I thought so, too. Recreated experiences fall flat and yet, I think, after several experiences this year, that you can succeed in nabbing back a bit of the past, and making sense of what has been.

The experience will be different, you look on with older eyes, perhaps less naive, and you must make peace with that. For you can step in the same river twice, and sometimes the experience is ultimately satisfying. I attended a 20-year school reunion earlier this year – and found that while we had all moved on, a different sort of connection was achieved and ultimately cemented.

A few weeks ago, I returned to Utopia. I first went there at the age of eight with a large crowd of adults and children. Set within the mountains of the Magaliesberg, there are more than 100 self-catering, rustic A-frame chalets dotted around the wild nature reserve.

A river runs through it, you can hike the nearby mountains, swim in the pool, play tennis near the clubhouse. The name Utopia is aptly chosen – it’s an idyll. And never more so than for an eight-year-old child running wild, swimming the river that’s flanked by dusty pink and golden rocks.

I’ve never forgotten my time there, through all the years and subsequent travels to other places and other continents, although I did not consciously plan to return.

But a few years ago I was asked to write a short story for an anthology, and the place came back in my imagination. It had been too long – the story didn’t gel, memory really had dimmed the tarnish and the details – but the seed had been born.

I had to go back. Instead I went overseas a handful of times, travelled around the country, and always the memory of Utopia remained, I even Googled it a few times.

But the idea had taken root and one day I was explaining this place called Utopia to a friend, telling her all about it. She interjected – she knew the place well and had been going since a decade before. She had bought one of the units with her husband.

A hushed silence followed this statement. A plan was born.

Weeks later, we made our way to Utopia for a weekend. As soon as we drove through he gates and I looked at those strange, almost eerie looking -frame homes, most constructed of stone mined from the area, and topped with charcoal wigs of hatch, I remembered. Entering her unit, the place simple in its usticity, views of mountain, bush, trees, I remembered.

We scrambled down to the river to swim after lunch, and there was the same road, undulating slabs of rocks, the deeply flowing river, the natural cool of water, darkly inviting. I remembered. I had stepped back in time in some strange way.

I had managed to step in the same river twice.

Yes, it was 30 years later, but memory had sustained me, vague and shimmery as it was. I really had stepped back into the same river twice, and found the same source, the same strength. There are times when you experience nature in ways that you can’t quite describe. Going to Death Valley in the US produced a similar feeling in me: a sense of awe, a sense of homecoming, a stillness, and also a deep longing to return to that place of parched landscape and salt flats.

Similarly, sitting on the rocks at Utopia, taking photographs of the clouds moving across the water, the green reeds shimmering hazily in reflection, I’d stepped back, and yet also forward.

(Published in The Sunday Independent, November 21, 2010)

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