Our club has a fellow who serves as guide when visitors want to see the state of nature in this part of Texas. Journalists, environmentalists, even open-minded U.S. Congressmen - he takes them on canoe outings to saltwater marshes, cypress-lined bayous and silt-lined lakes. He talks about Texas history, geological and aboriginal times, shorebirds, shipwrecks, rumors of Russian subs, animal shapes in clouds, aquatic squirrels and Red Velvet cake recipes. When some quite important people came to Houston recently, that fellow was unavailable. I was tapped – perhaps only because my canoe seats three.
One visitor was Gabriel Yen Gash, a refugee resettlement specialist who had survived the civil war and other fighting in South Sudan. In black lace-up shoes, tan trousers and a white short-sleeved shirt and undershirt, he sat in the canoe’s front-most seat, back erect, noticing everything. Even a bulky orange PFD could not engulf his dignity. Amidships was an artist, Philippe Metternich, from Vienna Austria. He said he is an understudy to Christo (apparently a prominent artist) who plans to cover the Arkansas River with luminous fabric. “Without any deeper meaning,” Phillippe said. Philippe wore a cobalt blue shirt and suit and tan shoes of fine leather. He chose a dark blue life preserver after some deliberation. Orange, I sat behind them, paddling.
I chose Floorboard Creek north of Houston because parts flow between steep banks while at other spots cattle can amble down to the water. The creek’s name comes from settler’s times when a heavy rain burst Tinker’s Dam and washed a cabin into the creek. The walls were carried away but children clambered around on the floorboards for many years afterwards.
We launched from a slope beside a bridge – not a paved ramp but a series of deep ruts in the hardened mud. Flanking the put-in were trees worn out from being backed into, and trampled banks from which locals casted and fished. I apologized to the dignitaries for the awful stench. Clearly people were hunting wild pigs from there, then butchering their kills next to their trucks. Dumped in some bushes were two decomposing hog carcasses with skulls, spines, black folded hides and greasy flattened piles of entrails. At other places were giant liquefying catfish heads and scattered baitfish. Philippe looked distressed but Gabriel said this did not compare with what he’d smelled “at river fords outside of Juba”.
As we launched I had to ask Gabriel to sit down in front. Philippe was already clutching the gunwales, diligently lowering our center of gravity. Gabriel gazed into the trees near the river bank. “What a country is the United States,” he said. “The fishermen leave floats, hooks, lead weights, and plenty of line up there in the branches. I said I usually watched pretty carefully, to not get hooked in a nostril.
Philippe surprised me by going into raptures about shredded plastic that hung from trees, when we went through a section with steep banks. He praised the different colors of weathered bags – white, blue, yellow, dashes of pink, the teased and shredded edges, and the way the anchored plastic bags floated up on the breeze - here, then there. One section of the trees would sigh and rattle, and then another. He took deep breaths and looked all around. I kept mum rather than indicating this was routine after every flood, and it wasn’t anybody’s site-specific installation. Gabriel broke the spell by saying that plastic bags were much prized among the refugees to carry their belongings, and more importantly, in the absence of enough latrines in the camps - “each bag is a toilet” he said, “and then one throws it over the fence.”
Philippe from his reading had some funny ideas about Texas. He said it had mostly been settled by folks from Tennessee and Kentucky. “These people” he said, “moved here after they’d ruined the soil, and when they’d used up places in eastern Texas, they’d go further west.” To some extent I felt like I was supposed to be the official voice of Texas, so I didn’t say anything.
After reaching a log blockage I took them back downstream, through the ravine of plastic, past an alligator or two that I didn’t tell Phillipe about, past the reeking put-in, to where the creek broadened out approaching the lake. I paddled us past the long backyards of big houses, each with a dock and one or two boats hauled up in the rafters of a boathouse, always a powerboat with water-skiing platform. Philippe asked Gabriel if he had himself been a refugee, and Gabriel said yes, two times, and he’d lived in the camps. At no point did Gabriel turn his gaze from the houses, backyards and docks, even while speaking. I didn’t ask him any questions but I thought about looking out of airplane windows at night over Washington, Escondido, Austin, Laredo, Tucson or Houston, seeing below miles of lit residential neighborhoods, and thinking: “wealth”.
A powerboat surged past us without powering down, though we were in a “no wake zone.” On deck lounged twenty-something men and women in swimsuits. I wondered whether Gabriel was Muslim. Tweens on Ski-Doos powered deafeningly past us on either side, rocking us. Nothing changed Gabriel’s good spirits. While he was watching a boy on a dock, the boy scooped a pale fat catfish into a net. In all my time in Texas, I’ve never seen a person catch a fish while I paddled by. The boy screw-drivered it in the head. Gabriel gave the boy a thumbs up, and Philippe looked seasick. I took them back.
If they’d been with the other club member, the one that’s good at giving tours, they’d have gone to a better destination, Texas might have shown to better effect, and Philippe wouldn’t have retched at the end of it. The canoe loaded, riding back, after being quiet a bit, Philippe said, “Where I come from, no one will swim in the Danube. One can suffer burns.” Gabriel said, “Where I come from too – the Pongo, the Sopo, the Lol, the Bahr al Jabal. It’s best not to drink from these if one can help it.”
By David Portz