A Poe Suprise

by Radio Somewhere

There’s something soothing to me about accounts of traveling on rivers in times gone by. The pace is slow — and it’s reflected in the writing. Reading Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, you almost fancy that you’re floating down the Mississippi yourself, watching forested islands and desolate sandbars pass by; and the drifting lanterns of other vessels by night. And as you turn the pages of Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, you almost hear the sounds of oar on water, as he paddles the canoe.

But I wasn’t expecting such a discourse from Edgar Allan Poe. The Journal of Julius Rodman, written in 1840, describes a fictitious (I assume, although it might be based on an actual journal) expedition up the Missouri River. It’s slightly funny in a dry way — especially the descriptions of the members of the party, including the dog — but the charming descriptions of riparian scenery and the lands beyond took me rather by surprise: “fairy-looking” islands; majestic forest oaks; wild grape vines, plum bushes and cherry trees; profusions of blossoms of all colors; riverbanks of velvety green grass extending down into and beneath the water; other grass giving off a vanilla perfume pervading the air; and the prairies exceeding “in beauty any thing told in the Arabian Nights.” (I mentioned the Arabian Nights in my last post, so when I read that passage this morning, I enjoyed the synchronicity.)

Most charming of all is the narrative describing a gang of beavers felling a tree; around fifty of them working in shifts of six or seven; gnawing away at the incision; and somehow knowing exactly when to move to the opposite side when the incision is about to give way; and then nibbling away at the other side until the tree finally falls with a crash, quite conveniently over the swamp they are working on — and the gang promptly ceases their labor and begins to play in celebration.

I can’t recall a single instance of Mark Twain describing the work of a beaver. It would be appear to be much of an oversight — so perhaps I’m wrong. For now, I’ll enjoy Poe’s account. I still haven’t finished with Julius Rodman. I hope nothing happens to the dog.

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