In an essay entitled “The Site of Memory,” acclaimed writer Toni Morrison meditates on the memory of water. “You know,” she writes, “they straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for houses and livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. “Floods” is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was” (98-99).
When I was a child, my father – a geologist – shared insights about the land on which we lived, and the waters that carved their stories into our landscape.
“You know,” he said, “you can tell how old a river is by seeing how much it bends.”
I looked at him, confused.
“A straight river,” he said, “is a young river. A river that bends and bends and bends is an old river.”
Since that time I’ve followed the river stories, tracing paths across the landscapes I’ve called home. Some rivers rush forward, carving straight lines across fields or between rocks. Others snake around. Meandering through the landscape, they deposit layers of silt at every corner, snaking their stories through soil and rock.
Water, both Toni Morrison and my father told me, has stories to tell. It tells them not in words, but in the way that it sculpts and shapes the landscape.
Water ‘floods’ this research project, too. Water as a site of migration, certainly, but also as a site of memory. I’m interested most in the points at which water meets land; that is, at the curives and bends, where the water tells its age, or at the point of encounter – the mud between water and land – where stories shift and change.
Our shores are pebbled, not sandy, the beaches filled with small stones worn smooth by ocean waves.
Here the water roars. It rushes. It heaves. This is not a gentle water; it’s a powerful, raging, wild water whose imprint is felt not only in jagged edges of our landscape but also in the memorials to fishermen lost at sea.
But in other parts of the world, the encounter between water and land is different. In Suriname, for example, it’s all about mud, about a turbulent space of opacity and erosion.
Last February, I flew back to Suriname for the first time in 41 years. “Back” is perhaps the wrong word, given that I’ve never lived there. But my passports tell me that I visited it often when I was a toddler and pre-schooler, my parents taking me from nearby Venezuela, where we lived at the time, to visit relatives in Paramaribo. I have very few memories of these visits. I remember the high staircase to my aunt and uncle’s house, and I remember blubbering myself to sleep in a warm room after my great aunt – a nurse – pierced my ears at the hospital. But other than that, it’s mostly a blank.
And so, on the plane, I eagerly devoured the in-flight magazine, Parbode. Most magazines like this are relatively fluffy publications designed to introduce the reader to the sights and sounds of the country they’re going to visit. Parbode, the magazine produced by Surinam Airways, was no different, offering readers superficial look at a range of possible activities. But one article, “Het slavenleven door merg and been” – Slave life at the marrow – stopped me in my tracks. The author, Wouter Strik, tells the story of random skeletons that had washed up along the shores of the Warappakanaal in the Commewijne district (near the capital city of Paramaribo). These skeletons, it seems, were those of former slaves, their bodies – and the stories in their marrows – now exposed due to the workings of erosion. Indeed, not only bodies, but whole plantations disappeared into the water as it ate its way into the land. In the words of Rhakieb Khudabux, a doctor and Anatomy teacher,
“Door afkalving zijn verschillende plantages opgeslokt door het water …. In de Almanakken lees je hoe eerst Plantage Alsimo door de zee is verzwolgen. Daarna verdween Waterloo. En zo verdwenen de plantages op rij.”
“Various plantations were swallowed up through erosion …. In the Almanacs, you can read how first Alsimo Plantation was engulfed. Then Waterloo disappeared. And so, too, did others disappear, one after another.”
Water, here, asserts itself; it swallows things up, it engulfs land, and every now and then, it spits things out again, revealing otherwise hidden stories. The skeletons at the Warappakanaal, for example, tell stories of bodily stress: arthritis was common, as well as numerous illnesses such as syphilis, yaws. They also tell stories of inadequate nourishment, the bones showing periods of disrupted growth and development.
Another area of this district, the Warappakreek, is also revealing its stories. The creek, dug out by slaves in centuries past in order to connect more than 20 plantations to the canal and then to the ocean, filled itself in over time, burying its histories in layers of silt. Eight years ago, they dug it out again, reconstructing its history, but also, in the process, revealing hidden and long-lost stories. At Bakkie, the former plantation now restored by a descendant, there’s now a small museum that showcases some of the finds.
What stories of encounter might erosion tell? What stories does the water hold? What happens in the muddy spaces between water and land? More questions. More reading. More thinking. And more stories.
Photos credit: Sonja Boon
© Sonja Boon (firstname.lastname@example.org). 31 August 2015