Eno Mud
Riverdave's Journal
This essay appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun on 6/7/98

We often think of Earth as being either rock or soil. But where the land meets the river there is also mud. For various reasons, mud has always had negative connotations associated with it. It is the reason our mothers had us take off our shoes before we came into the house so we wouldn't track it across the living room carpet. It belonged down by the creek and we were scolded for trying to make mud a domestic experience.

But wafters will get muddy. Millponds deposit silt on the river bottom as the water slows down. Slow moving coastal rivers often have rich, black, muddy bottoms. Banks and beaches at put-in and take-out points along the river are muddy, especially after rains. The Eno turns a muddy orange-red color after a rain storm with the runoff from corn fields and tobacco fields along feeder streams up in Orange County.

I have observed two kinds of negative reactions to mud from wafting participants. The first group are the type who, when I finally get them seated in their boat, cross their legs and realize that their shoes are covered with mud which they picked up from the river bank. There usually follows an vocalized "eeuuww'' recognition to the mud which has just stained their Calvin Klein jeans and muddied the inside of the boat. For this compulsively clean crowd, the aesthetics of the wafting trip will be greatly diminished if there is not an immediate resolution of this problem. I usually accomplish this by looking about for a twig to use as a scraper so they can knock the mud off their shoes back into the river.

The second group of people may be a little more accustomed to the outdoors and rivers. But upon seeing the Eno red and muddy after a rain, their conclusion is that the river must be "dirty.'' It would not be clean enough to dangle your hands in, much less immerse in. Often individuals from this group are from mountainous regions where clear flowing streams are the norm. Or possibly they are from Florida where clear, spring-fed lakes and streams have been their experience.

The Eno River, without city runoff or any neighboring agriculture, would flow clear most of the time. But that is a very pristine ideal for a river so much a part of North Carolina's populated Piedmont region. In fact, considering the intense agriculture along its banks during the 19th century, at present the river probably has less silt than it has seen in two hundred years. I have come across old photographs of the river showing that in past generations it was farmed right down to the water's edge.

Mud is wet earth. If it comes from a Piedmont clay bank it is mostly inorganic and often reddish orange from iron oxides. If it lies in a swampy river floodplain with decaying vegetative material, it is richly organic and usually black. Serious wafters will get muddy handling their boats. I always experience mud-covered feet and legs on a typical wafting day. As I drag my boat in and out of the water it gets muddy. As I pack my river gear in my car, my vehicle gets muddy. As I often park off of the road to get to river accesses, my car frequently gets muddy from spinning tires, casting up splotches of mud on the fenders and doors. One could become repulsed about all this shlepping around, but hey, we are out to have some fun! And what is mud and dirt, but wet earth ...

Sometimes I wear river shoes when wafting, especially if I think I may be around an area with the possibility of broken glass or lots of sharp rocks. But my favorite days of wafting are when I abandon all forms of footwear and go barefoot for the day. The feel of muddy river bank squishing up through my toes and around my feet is marvelous. Organic mud can be even more exciting as I step into its thick soupy form and sink up to my knees, as I recently did along a mangrove creek in the Amazon River delta. Coastal swamp river mud has a rank smell to it that is positively delightful. It clings to the skin and cannot be wiped off, only scrubbed off with more water.

In A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Henry David Thoreau sensualizes such an experience: "I can fancy that it would be a luxury to stand up to one's chin in some retired swamp a whole summer day, scenting the wild honeysuckle and bilberry blows, and lulled by the minstrelsy of gnats and mosquitoes! ... Say twelve hours of genial and familiar intercourse with the leopard frog; the sun to rise behind alder and dogwood, and climb buoyantly to his meridian of two hands breadth, and finally sink to rest behind some bold hummock! To hear the evening chant of the mosquito from a thousand green chapels, and the bittern begin to boom from some concealed fort like a sunset gun! Surely one may profitably be soaked in the juices of a swamp for one day, as pick his way dry-shod over sand. Cold and damp, - are they not as rich experience as warmth and dryness?''

While cruising the Amazon River with my winter ecotourism groups we occasionally stop at the villages of the riberenos, or bank people. These locals, a mixture of both Spanish and Indian descent, eagerly flock to the river's edge to visit our boat. The very first thing I notice about these people is their bare feet. They are feet that are not separated from the earth. Those feet are comfortable in mud and sand, brush and briars. I sense the organic bond that the riberenos have with both land and river. I have come to believe that the meeting of bare feet and mud is where humankind and earth make their most sensual and intimate bond ...
Photo by passerby: child doing mud art along the banks of the Eno River