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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

It's Elementary

The Four Pillars of the Paddlers World

Part 2: Earth, Fire, and Air

By Farwell Forrest

January 23, 2007

What do canoeists and kayakers have in common with the academic philosophers of ancient Greece? More than you might think. Despite the 25 centuries that separate us, we share a common worldview, one that takes modern paddlers very far from their familiar workaday world of traffic jams, shopping malls, and cell phones. Or at least that's what I suggested two weeks ago. Is this too much of a stretch? I don't think so. In brief, the world of the ancient Greeks was constructed from only four elemental building blocks: water, earth, fire, and air. These are very different from the 100-odd chemical elements known to modern science, obviously, but the Greeks understood the world only through their unaided senses. That's one of the things we have in common. Whenever we put our binoculars away and shut off our GPS receivers, we're transported to a world not too different from Aristotle's, a world in which all knowledge comes from direct experience, a world that's always up close and personal. Of course, we paddlers interpret the evidence of our senses in the light of 21st-century understanding. We can't help that. But if we only step back a bit, we find ourselves in a world much like the world of the ancient Greeks, a world of water, earth, fire, and air.

Last time, I took a look at the first of these building blocks: water. It's arguably the element that's most important to paddlers, but it doesn't stand alone. So let's continue our exploration, beginning with…


If water shapes the landscape — and it does — the land endlessly returns the favor, channeling the moving water, sending it twisting back on itself and turning it round, creating eddies and plunge pools and holes. The eroded earth, in the guise of sediment, even gives water the cutting tools it needs to shape the land. Water and earth are like two partners in some cosmic dance. Each moves the other, sometimes by means of subtle nudges, sometimes by brute force. And each is moved in turn. The Greeks didn't have an analytic understanding of this hydrodynamic interplay, but they certainly had a seat-of-the pants grasp of its implications. This was summed up in a wry observation by the philosopher Heraclitus to the effect that "you can't step in the same river twice." In other words, the river that wets your feet today is different from the one that wetted your feet yesterday, in ways both small and large. Most paddlers share this instinctive grasp of water's dynamic nature, and while we'll never grapple with the intricacies of the van Karman equation or study kolk generation, we can move our boats into midriver holes (and out again!) with an easy grace born of long practice — and deep understanding.

Earth also greets the paddler everywhere he turns, an infinitely varied boundary uniting water and sky. From the dramatic cliffs of Maine's ironbound coast to the seeming sameness — and the sameness is only seeming — of the James Bay Lowlands, this endless spectacle of the mutable earth is one of the reasons why we paddle. Few canoeists or kayakers would be content to thrash in circles around the margin of a flooded quarry for very long. We thrive on the change and variety of the wider world, the world beyond our immediate horizon. And many of the changes that confront us as we travel are mediated by the third of Aristotle's four elements:


Paddlers are no strangers to duality. After all, water erodes the land in one place while it builds it up in another. And fire, like water, is simultaneously creator and destroyer. The immediate effects of wildfire on ancient forests are terribly familiar to many paddlers from first-hand observation. But fire's constructive role is no less important, no less sweeping — even if it is less obvious. The all-consuming flames liberate nutrients locked up in mature trees, enriching impoverished forest soils and stimulating new cycles of growth. Long before modern science began to unravel the mysteries of nutrient recycling, early farmers exploited this paradox of nature, using fire to clear fields in the middle of great forests, fields which invariably yielded bumper crops. Nor is wildfire always an instrument of total devastation. Many fires sow the seeds of regeneration even as they destroy. This isn't a metaphorical flight of fancy. It's hard fact. Not until they're heated by fire do the cones of lodgepole and jack pines open to release their seeds. And what of the groves of birch and aspen that offer welcome relief from the monotony of cedar, spruce, and pine on so many northern rivers? These, too, are often the children of fire, the work of pioneer species whose only chance at light and life comes when flames open a window in the everdark, evergreen canopy.

Fire also lifts paddlers' spirits on cold, gray days in spring and fall, and sends shadows dancing through the long half-light of northern summer evenings. The flickering flames of the campfire warm us, cheer us, and entertain us. And that's no surprise. From the ribald story of Raven's theft of the sun to the cautionary tale of Prometheus, myths and legends remind us that the conquest of fire may well have been the watershed event in man's evolutionary history. This much, at least, is certain: Where not prohibited by regulation or precluded by common sense, a fire remains the social center of any riverside or beachfront camp, a place of warmth and joy and camaraderie. A fireless camp can be a chilly place indeed, even when no cold wind blows.

Ah, yes. Wind. And what is wind, but moving…


The last of our four elements. The Greeks were a seafaring people, sailors whose lives were shaped and circumscribed by the wind's compass. Today's canoeists and kayakers also keep a weather eye on the wind. Not many of us sail — though more of us could, and should — but as John McPhee once observed, we're united by a hatred of headwinds. Few things do more to blight a day on the water than a strong, relentless, contrary wind. The 19th-century voyageurs feared the wind more than anything else, even going so far as to invest their invisible enemy with a malign persona, the fickle, evil-tempered crone they christened la Vieille, the "Old Woman." When they spoke of her at all, they whispered, hoping to get their canoes safely across the big lakes before she turned against them. True, the Old Woman sometimes smiled, swelling the square sails that each canoe carried in hopes of just such a lucky break. More often, however, she scowled — and not infrequently she raged, sending icy waves crashing over the gunwales of any overloaded canoe she caught in the middle of a northern lake.

The Old Woman. La Vieille. The epithet is French, but the Greeks, whose square-sailed triremes were no more weatherly than the voyageur's big canoes (or the York boats that replaced them), would have recognized her immediately. After all, they, too, ventured out on the shining, shifting interface between water and air. And so do we.

The world of the ancient Greeks was a world of water, earth, fire, and air. And this is the modern paddler's world, as well. It's a place that's best understood — and best appreciated — by direct experience, a world that's open to anyone, anywhere, requiring no passport other than a paddle. If canoeing and kayaking are a form of elective anachronism, a voluntary return to an earlier and simpler way of life, then the Greeks' four elements are enough for any paddler. Canoeists and kayakers have no need for more.

Copyright 2007 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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