She winds past the empty red brick structures standing forlorn on the weed overgrown island. Dutch shipbuilders once busied themselves here assembling hulking ships for Peter the Great. Now, their ghosts watch the unceasing ripples flowing past. She glides along the ramparts of Mikhailovsky Castle remembering the fate of paranoid emperor Paul I who built this lonely fortress to escape his imagined assassins only to be murdered in his new home forty days later. These are a few of the stories the Neva River has witnessed over the years as she courses through the heart of Saint Petersburg, Russia. Walking along the tidy streets of the city, it is easy to forget that this window into Europe was erected on the banks of waterways and canals. However, sailing on the Neva River furnishes a truer perspective of Peter the Great’s capital. Now, I visualize with perspicuity the anecdotes I have heard. What secrets did Rasputin’s corpse reveal about his murder at Yusupov Palace as he floated down the Neva? What were Catherine the Great’s thoughts as she rolled the dice to win back her lover Potemkin’s mansion? Did these silver waters know the tales Pushkin dreamt up as he played cards with countess Dolly inside the walls of Ficquelmont?The narratives of Saint Petersburg and the river that runs through it intertwine like a child well-loved by its parent. The two belong to each other, starting and finishing each others stories. Peter the Great’s vision depends on the waterway. Just as the river embarks and terminates a thousand times, forming tributaries, departing into side streams, carving deeper into its sluices, so the tales of Saint Petersburg and its people stop only to commence again at another turn. As I observe the town from its watery highways, I perceive that I think a lot about beginnings and endings when I should be concentrating on the continuity of all things. I recall Russian summers, when the sun halts in its track, elongating the day and shaming the darkness away. It is both a hypnotic and surreal time of year, held precious because locals know that its weeks are numbered, that as with all things these “White Nights” will fade away to bring coldness and gloomy days.
“Yet, the transient days do not break off; they only sough their way into hibernation certain of their return.”
As long as the White Nights reappear, so will the tale of this enchanting city and its liquid artery. Used as a transport road, a drinking source, and a sewer system, I wonder what the Neva’s future will be.
The Neva is ancient when compared to the history of the town, a relic in terms of a human life span. Yet, in geologic terms it is a young river, created only three thousand years ago by retreating glaciers. In Rachel Sussman’s enlightening book, “The Oldest Living Things in the World,” there are eight thousand-year old huckleberry and ten thousand-year old pine trees that give meaning to the word “elderly.” In their very existence, despite their age, these antiques of our earth can be destroyed. One raging fire or decades of misuse exterminates the durable things in our world.
“I contemplate with gravity that though we live ephemeral lives, our impact on the oldest of things is far from transitory.”
Saint Petersburg without the Neva River would be unthinkable and yet who knows which of these two characters will cease its tale first and become an altered legend? The histories told on the banks of the Neva, the poems influenced by it, and the books yet to be written because of it will only happen if the river is given suitable nourishment.
Now part of my adventure involves the Neva as well, but it will not abrogate when I disembark. Instead it will take an incommensurable pivot; my sequel has changed since I have sailed upon it. Poet David Whyte described each of us as “a river with a particular abiding character.” I am not sure I have discovered what mine is yet. As for the Neva’s abiding character, I believe her to be sweet-tempered and generous, a lover of gossip, and a teller of tales.
“Oh the stories she could tell me, if I continued to listen!”
Anthropomorphizing is often the domain of the poet, eschewed by those who study science. Spending time with nature, however, makes it difficult not to believe that rivers, mountains, and trees have personality and memory. Even in their prosaic geologic records, elements like the Neva River have powerful memoirs to reveal. It is up to me to take the time to explore their chronicles, hearken to their message, and broadcast some of their never-ending romances.
The Neva delta used to contain over one hundred islands. Though many have disappeared over time, forty-two of them still remain. The Kamenny Islands host the dachas, or summer retreats, of Russian royalty while Petrogradsky Island was the home of Russia’s first film studio.
What natural element has inspired you in your travels? Is there a story you have learned from a trip down a river?