October 2021

Which Part Is the River?

© Matthew Word Bain

a long time carving
a steady channel

water flows

stone through its
relentless yielding

is the river the water?
or is it the earthen groove?
is the river the rain that falls?
or the tributaries contributing?

what is the difference
between what a river is
and what a river does?

when I think about it
I can see why we pluralize
headwaters, as there is not really
any one place where a river
begins, just as there is not really
any one place where a river ends

and that is as much the case
laterally as it is longitudinally:
have you ever tried to determine
the precise edge of a river on its bank?

the more refined the attention we bring
to any object of study, the more ambiguous
we find the very boundaries we use to define it

can we separate the river from its context?
must we not instead rely on the context
in our attempts to define the river?

definition and boundary are
themselves inextricable
from one another
we cannot have definition
without employing boundary
is there a clear boundary
between the two?
need there be?

is there anything in this picture
which is separate from the river?

Ancient Dynamics

© Matthew Word Bain

This is a broad scene for such a narrow frame, but what we see here is the intersection of currents between the James (pictured) and the Maury (left of frame). The flow from the Maury is quite nearly orthogonal to the flow of the James as it enters, and from the vantage on this bank of the James it looks almost as if the Maury’s discharge actually pushes a bit upstream in an arc before being coaxed downriver in alignment with the flow in its new home between the banks of a broader river.

Confluences are fascinating to me. There is so much energy present in these places where two distinct flows merge. Rivers represent irresistible forces (water under the influence of gravity) encountering immovable objects (bedrock), and the courses they take across terrain represent the path of least resistance. All of the energy of water falling from the sky and emerging from the ground are channeled along these most yielding lines of earth, combining again and again as watersheds empty their tributes into ever larger channels.

Being in the presence of these flows of energy as they come together is a remarkable experience for me every time. Given how much energy is present, the effect is oddly soothing. Perhaps it is the gravity of the ages inherent in the landscape, the reassuring durability and resilience of the channels that have carried these flows for so long, through so many adverse circumstances. Perhaps something along these lines is imparted to my nervous system by the place, instructing me by example and without words.

Bedrock Contemplation

© Matthew Word Bain

This view is from the same vantage as “Stillness and Flow,” to the right about 90º. The aforementioned rock garden starts right about where the edge is dark on the right edge of the frame.

Spending time with these images after traipsing about this spot has increasingly made me want to locate a geologic map of this confluence. The rock garden and it’s sudden and relatively precipitous drop to the level of the James suggests a boundary between two substrata or a vein of a different kind running perpendicular to the flow of the Maury (seen here) at this juncture. Given that this is also located right at the northern bank of the James, it would make sense that there is some harder geology here, a boundary which has contained the James from moving further north at this location.

The movement of water through a landscape has always fascinated me, and continues to instruct me as well. There are so many dynamic aspects to the flow of water which I have either found in other contexts across life experience or which have served as useful metaphors in coming to understand why things happen the way they do.

What have you learned from water? Where have you seen dynamics present in the flow of water elsewhere in your experience?

Stillness and Flow

© Matthew Word Bain

This railroad bridge is an enormous presence in this location. It is a double track bridge, so it’s wide enough to carry two trains at once. To get to this vantage I have to walk underneath it alongside the Maury, which we see here passing beneath it.

Because of the steep bank on this side of the river, and the confluence immediately downstream, this is about the only option on this side of the Maury for a clear view of the bridge from below on this side.

Arriving at this vantage involves a short but steep descent to the very edge of the water and then ducking down to get beneath the overhanging branches. Upriver all is still; standing here my right ear can pick up the sound of rushing water as the Maury descends suddenly the last handful of vertical feet to the level of the James.

It is difficult to relax into focus, squatting here to frame this picture. The mosquitoes here are large and plentiful and do little for my comfort. But perhaps at such an energetic juncture, a flowing together of two rivers, an emptying of one watershed into another, stillness is an unlikely quality to access. Odd, then, how peaceful is this scene.

Available Light

© Matthew Word Bain

As perhaps you can tell from the blurry quality of this image, this was made with a pinhole lens. Some pinhole lenses make sharper images, but the one I’ve been using tends to make for quite a bit of blur.

Making interesting images with a lens that reliably blurs what it sees has become a welcome constraint. I have found I must look at the world a particular way if I want to frame a scene in a compelling way.

I have found this lens needs more light than other lenses. I have found that conceiving of a scene by way of “painting with broad strokes” is helpful.

One way to do this is to grok the landscape in a simpler way, to see the simpler lines and shapes and light and shadow. Another way is to focus on tiny, well lit objects, to use it like a macro lens.

This image in particular was made a little past that time of day when there is enough light to make this lens happy. The result is an even further simplification of the scene than I would have preferred.

And yet, this image further instructs me as to the limitations and possibilities of working with this lens. This in turn teaches me more about my own interaction with light in the landscape and what is asked of me in this dance.

When do you find constraint useful? Do you ever get excited about working with constraints? What have you learned about your work or yourself from the challenges constraints impose?

Above the Confluence

© Matthew Word Bain

The confluence of the Maury with the James River features what kayakers call a “rock garden.” It’s a whole lot of whitewater in a small amount of space. I have navigated it by canoe once or twice, by inner tube more often, and I have also seen a kayaker capsize halfway through and travel the second half upside down without a helmet (while he emerged unharmed, somewhat miraculously, that was a startling way to begin a journey!).

The scene in this image is immediately above this rock garden. Standing in this spot the whitewater begins within twenty or thirty yards downstream to the right of the frame. It’s amazing how the character of a river can change over such a short distance, and how upstream of this change there is no indication whatsoever of that sudden shift.

Of course, we are looking upriver in this image. Traveling on the river one can see that a change is indeed imminent (although it can be difficult to see exactly what that change will consist of). Yet gazing at the tranquil reflection of this railroad bridge in the nearly smooth surface of the river belies the roiling current immediately downstream.

What a rich source of metaphor rivers offer. The river of time is one that shows up a lot, but also the river as the path one takes in life, with its rapids and its long slow flat stretches, and the way we can never see what’s around the next bend until we travel around it ourselves.

What riverine metaphors suggest themselves to you? What have you learned from rivers, either by being near them or actually being on them? Have you ever thought of a river as a teacher?


© Matthew Word Bain

layers of ridges
reflecting facades
an image of an image
a storefront landscape
skewing perspective
confusing the view
unmooring reference

this town really does appear
to be nestled in the mountains
there is something pleasing to me
about this sort of disorientation
I feel invited to float into this scene
to allow myself to be unmoored
and imagine my way through
this oddly layered landscape


© Matthew Word Bain

soft, soothing coruscations on gentle ripples
as the sun continues its descent to the west
the leaves of these trees soon too will fall
their color sliding down the spectrum
from green into yellow, orange, and red
it is a peaceful scene on this river today
belying the passage of recent storms
though the confluence just downriver
paints a muddier, more accurate picture
this weather feels like a welcome pause
between summer’s heat and autumn’s cool
an invitation to balance and recalibration
in advance of what’s coming downstream

Lucinda’s Bakery

© Matthew Word Bain

When I was a child I heard a funny saying about dusty floors under beds and the like: “There’s somebody under there either coming or going.” This, of course, was a reference to verses in Genesis and Ecclesiastes, e.g., “…till thou return unto the ground; for out of it was thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” (Genesis 3:19)

I think about this a lot these days – or at least what it points to. What is life but a nested hierarchy of cycles in and out of death? In and out of the purported inertness of matter, constituted, dissolved and reconstituted with energy, life goes on.

When I wander the streets of an attractive old town I am drawn to those places within it in which time seems to have been let off its leash. Places like the corner of a garden that is left as an offering to Pan, a concession to chaos, an allotment that allows for regeneration.

Finding these places in a quiet old town gives me a small sense of what finding Shakespeare’s Cardenio might be like for a bibliophile, particularly if such a play is found buried beneath later layers in a palimpsest. There are layers of history to read in these places, endless stories that will no longer be told aloud, but which can be read by the practiced eye, and which invite the curious viewer to imagine and explore.

This old place – is it coming or going? I know it’s not a very clear image – my pinhole lens affords little in the way of crispness. I still can’t quite make out what this sign used to say, but it might be easier to do so through this representation than while standing and looking directly at it from the other side of the street. Sometimes the introduction of noise on top of signal can actually make it easier to decipher meaning.

Regardless of what this building once was, what it was home to, it has clearly seen better days. It is in an obvious state of disrepair. And yet, walking around the corner to the right, to the side facing US 501 Business not far from the center of town, there are clear indications that there is one in the oven – the yeast has risen behind this dilapidated grey wall, and soon enough a bakery will be born.

This scene then is just another case of small town enantiodromia, the process whereby things at their extremes become their opposites. This is a real dynamic that is all around us.

Soon enough it will be autumn in the Northern Hemisphere, and we will turn the corner of the fall equinox toward the winter solstice, the point at which summer begins its inexorable return. Funny how that happens right at the very outset of winter, isn’t it?

The seed of one polarity is contained in the fullness of the other. Flow is what happens as we cycle back and forth through the cycle – life and death, death and rebirth. Hard to tell if it’s coming or going.

Orthogonal Confluence

© Matthew Word Bain

I’ve been running low on photographs lately. One way or another I have not had as many incidental opportunities to seek out images, leading to a need to seek out intentional opportunities instead.

I had an unexpected chance to do just that one day this past week, as the weather overnight had cleared up my schedule for the whole day. I went on a wander and eventually found myself at the confluence of the Maury with the James River. This place is dear to me, having been the launch site of many memorable water journeys some decades back.

I had the place to myself on this weekday excursion, save for several folks out for a walk. The weather was gorgeous and the light was divine. There was that settled feeling of late summer, when the worst of the heat is over and you can feel the earth breathing a little easier after baking for the past few months.

I used two different cameras and three lenses, but the images (including this one) made with the adapted CCTV lens may be my favorites. I’m still learning to use this lens, and this afternoon in particular a few things clicked in my understanding of how best to dance with it for the sorts of images I want to make.