A Moonlit Float on the Silver James

September 25, 2014 · 9 minute read

Ralph White…

In that brief, wordless pause your mind perhaps conjured up an image or formed some other association. If you work or play much in the Richmond outdoors you probably know not only the name but can picture the man. The short, twinkle-eyed park ranger walking a riverside trail in his mauve button-down shirt, shorts, hiking boots and socks to his knees.

If you are younger than 15, your “Ralph White” is probably a snake charmer and a storyteller. He comes to you as translator – as though he has learned to speak “rock” or speak “reptile,” and would very much like for you to receive the message of those quiet, almost forgotten languages. If you are a city of Richmond administrator, your “Ralph White” may be a troublesome rule breaker who once made you work harder and think harder about the often ridiculous nature of your own rules.

If you owe your association to reporters of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, your “Ralph White” is a complex character wearing either halo and wings or horns and a tail, alternating in accordance with the schizophrenic weather of public opinion. In fact, if you are a well-read Richmonder, you may even have mental associations in which your “Ralph White” wears a green peace halo and the red horns of civic malpractice all in the same instance. Such is the inevitable characterization of a nature lover living and working in a modern, progressive city.        

The Ralph White I met for the first time in 2004 was a bright-eyed and earnest man whose life story is very much dominated by the intimate bond he has formed with the river James. A healthy, sustaining relationship that has before, and will forever, instruct his behavior and politics.

Fortunately for us, this special relationship between Ralph and James is not an exclusive one. He wants other Richmonders to know and appreciate the age and wisdom that flows through our little town each day.  He thinks maintaining our own healthy relationship and bond with this pre-historic flow of water will enrich our lives. Crazy, right? Hell no. Pure, quiet truth.

I hadn’t known him long before the flesh and blood Ralph White, always more interesting than anything you could read or hear about him, interrupted one of his own animated nature translations to proclaim “Scott, here’s what I recommend you do.”  I have never found Ralph’s voice to be overexcited or melodramatic, and yet he still seems intensely interested in his subject and communicates his thoughts with precise enunciation. A classic NPR voice (I can’t believe they haven’t snatched him out of retirement yet!).  It was in his best Americanized Elizabethan voice that Ralph pronounced, “It would serve you well, my friend, to float the river beneath the uncommon light of a harvest moon.”

Aaaah! Nice idea, me thinks. Floating gently in a canoe as the soft blue rebound of yesterday’s light silvers the James. Should be great! I’ll grab some beer, pack a cooler, push the kids and the wife out of the house…we’ll all have a sweet nighttime boat ride.

“No. no.  Here is the best way.” Ralph advised, a bit more earnestly.  “I recommend that you don a life jacket and float your body limply at the thin interface of air and water. Immerse yourself in both mediums simultaneously.”  

“In early September,” he continued,  “the air and water are so mutual in temperature and feel that floating on the surface and watching the stars and harvest moon rise above the river is the nearest you can come to space walking without leaving earth’s atmosphere. As you float along in quiet suspension, earth, James, and cosmos meld into one.” With eyes now shining above smile-inflated cheeks Ralph White added, “It’s a marvelous experience, this floating.”

Ok. Ok. Wow! I was in. The Press Secretary of the James River had passed me privileged information on how to access the inner chambers. How to go on a special trip with Richmond’s Great Flow! Yes, I was in! Or so I thought.

I got busy. Every September I was haunted by the notion, the remembered conviction in Ralph’s voice, and the tempting description of a transcendent experience, and every September the harvest moon came and went as I worked and lived my way under and past.  10 times. Kindergarden thru 10th  grade for one, toddler thru 7th grade for the other, puppy thru senior citizen for another, parties, recessions, recedings, deaths, births — 120 moons of that stuff.

The haunting would finally end on September 9th, 2014.     

Only with the help of Ralph’s wonderful description did I encourage my wife and one of my daughters, as well as our friends and their two young children, to try a space float with me. According to Ralph, for the best trip you should float through the celestial changing of the guard, watching the sun disappear in the west only moments before the harvest moon rises in the east.  This year, the clouds that had obscured the sunset and threatened to cancel the whole trip disbanded just enough for the moon to shine through.  That’s when we rushed to the river’s edge with our friends and pushed away from the southern bank a quarter mile or so west of the Huguenot Bridge.

The world was black in its wooded places, but purple and blue in open air or field. The grey clouds of daytime were breaking up into sorcerous white puffs, electrified and illuminate somehow by the sun’s strange afterthought. We started our trip by paddling to the opposite bank where the moon was more visible. The water received the canoe with only the quietest ripple. My daughter was giddy. I stirred the shiny soup with my paddle, heard the light chuckle of water on plastic, and I too grew giddy. Shrinking down, my wife Amy grabbed the sides of the canoe with each awkward tilt. She was sure, I think, that this was the big one. This was the time when one of my crazy ideas was finally gonna do us in.

Straight away I knew Ralph was right about leaving the beer at home. Beer, or any other mental laxative I might use to release the tension and stress of my day. On the river under a full moon, the proper frame of mind was awakened by the strangeness of the experience, and the quality of the light. After paddling through the rock garden separating us from the northern bank we gathered on the sand with our friends at the eastern tip of Long Island. The kids were the first to try the water, laughing and splashing near the edge. Then we all leaped in. We leaped away from earth and into the gentle space connecting water and sky. With our canoes drifting alongside, we floated. The kids were noisy and boisterous at first, but we encouraged them to quiet down. To look at the moon, and the stars, and to float.

I shined like the Silver Surfer when I lifted my arm or leg from the water, as though I had been dipped in molten steel. Under the harvest moon the surface of James had the creamy look of liquid metal, and the ripples from our motions made the reflected light dance and quiver around us.

As we neared the Huguenot Bridge, I complained that the noise and light were separating us from a more peaceful experience.  Floating a few yards away my friend Susan, always wise but perhaps wiser still after the recent loss of a precious life companion, reminded me to let those noisy speeding flashlights on the concrete above have their own place in it all. To let nothing we were experiencing seem alien, disruptive, or deficient. Susan reminded me to float.

Our bodies were widely dispersed on the surface, but 30 or 40 minutes into the dark drift, Brooke pushed through the liquid silver and attached herself to my chest. My 12 year old made a fetal curl against my left side, and a few minutes later said she didn’t want to go home. Me either. We became a strange, metallic sculpture noticed and shined by the harvest moon of 2014. We floated.

What was the point?  How does it end?

My wife says that when she tells the story of our little space float to a friend, the listener seems prepared for some dramatic ending or punchline. “And then, on our way back, the canoe tipped over and we all nearly drowned,” for instance, or “That’s when the moon spoke to us as the reflected face of God.” 

No. Nothing like that. Then what was the point?

It’s impossible to know for sure. Some kind of communion occurred, and as with any communion, the value of the experience is, strangely enough, difficult to commune-icate.  I find it difficult to package the experience into some bag or box labeled “Moral” or “Meaning.”

I do know that as I float limply on the moonlit surface of the James River with one of my spiritual piggyback riders curled close against me, I begin to lose my shape or outline. I begin to lose that often most painful element of my humanity – my identity. When my daughter, my wife and I are reduced to two hydrogens and an oxygen immersed in nature, responding only to universal instructions, and shined like liquid silver by the harvest moon, we transcend the human experience. I don’t so much leave my body as I dissolve into outer space. The space outer from “me.” And as my modern physics teaches me, once I dissolve my “self” into atoms, and then further into subatomic entities, I enter the realm where matter and energy are interchangeable. I become a more pure being, and feel welcomed into a universal experience that has no end, and for all I can tell, no “moral” or “meaning.” A place where stories are forever starting but never ending. My little human packaging efforts become nonsensical.

Yes, yes. Sure. But then we climb back into our shells of flesh, and back into the larger shell of fiberglass. We paddle back to our car, and then drive the rolling shell back to our house. And that’s when the strangest of all things happens. That’s when I pick up a pen and paper and scribble these small symbols, hoping to share with you something about the floating. I try to tell you about that special place of dissolution where it seems “OK” for it all to mean nothing at all. I try to tell you about a place where you stop wanting, flailing, treading, and exerting – a silvery, moonlit place where you only float.

Ralph knows all about these little spiritual bathplaces. About scrubbing between the atoms and getting refreshed for another difficult day in the life of an identified and named compilation of spirit and matter. Ralph knows how cleansing it is to explore places where identity fades and “meaning” is meaningless. To float in outer space.      

Ralph White…Spacewalker and Experiential Guide.

Thank you, my good Sir. Well Recommended.