Riverdave's Journal
This essay appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun on 3/1/1998

Often I will paddle upstream on the millpond at West Point Park and rest my boat on the water at the western end of the pond. At that point, clear shallow water tumbles downstream over small rocks, falling into the stiller and deeper millpond water. This is an ideal spot for listening to the restful sound of falling water. It is best if the descent of the water produces only a riffle. Pausing next to a large rapid or waterfall can be exhilarating for a short period of time. But the gentle trickle or murmur of a riffle is a sound that greatly enhances my outdoor meditations. 

I recall one occasion when I took my children camping for a week in the mountains of western North Carolina. We found a campsite by a creek that had a large beautiful rapid where water poured over the rocks at a three foot vertical drop. Visually it was an exceptionally nice place to be. But after a day or two we began to miss the peaceful interludes that one is eager to experience in an isolated natural area. The morning chorus of singing birds could not be heard above the roar of our rapid and the entertaining evening call of katydids were completely drowned out. My mind became numb. Halfway through the week we were positively overwhelmed by the constant roar of the water and had to relocate our tent. 

In contrast, when water sends a much gentler babble wafting my way, it becomes only one voice in a chorus of other river sounds and harmonizes well with the wind, birds, frogs and insects. The sound of shallow water gently running over small rocks carries with it a most unique quality of peace and restfulness. It can be likened to the melody line of the river's song, to which different voices and calls play harmony. As other notes wax and wane, the sound of the riffle remains fairly constant. 

But in the stillness of a relaxed moment at the edge of a riffle, I like to further focus my attention on detecting slight irregularities in the sound of the descending water. One would think that the melody of water falling over rocks would not vary. But careful listening reveals many minute changes in volume, rhythm and pitch in its voice. Unpredictable plops and splashes also seem to occur at random. 

It is fun to imagine what may be causing the fluctuations in sound - upstream a teetering twig breaking loose from a logjam, a miniature sand slide on a bank as water erodes away its base, a fish snapping at a surface insect, an ever so slight earth tremor jostling the river's bedrock, or some child at play stirring the water upstream, the effects of which are only now reaching the riffle near from my ears. There are a thousand possibilities. Even the dipping of my paddle into the river has some infinitesimal effect in the way the water will fall on the next riffle downstream from my position.

I find that the sound of gently falling water is particularly helpful in freeing both spirit and mind for creative ideas. If I had to choose just one sound as my favorite backdrop for relaxed rumination, it would be the restful riffle sound of a creek or river. Logjams in my mind are finally freed, and a miniature sand slide in the recesses of my spirit clears my inward channels. The music of the riffle then releases a stream of fresh ideas with inspirations from the headwaters of the realm of Spirit.

Riffles seem so gentle when their activity is measured in minutes, hours and days. They are faithful transporters of fine river silt, depositing it just a few yards downstream. But when measured in years, centuries and millennia, riffles are movers of continents. Grain by grain the Eno River Valley and its surrounding slopes are being transported away by the constant action of riffles. Some day, many eons hence, the entire valley will be worn away and escorted down to the sea.

Riffles are home to some of the river's most delicate and sensitive creatures. This is the habitat of tiny fishes known as darters, chubs and shiners. Together they constitute almost half the sixty total species of fish in the river. A riffle is the habitat of mussels and snails. They are tiny friends who depend on clean, cool, oxygenated and free flowing water to maintain their existence. They never will receive the notoriety of the popular bass and sunfish that lurk in deeper pools. But it is easy to imagine that I discern the tiny voices of mussels in the murmur of riffle water. They remind us not to flood their bubbling habitat or to spoil their fresh waters with the runoff from development too close to their specialized riffles.

One dictionary suggests an interesting etymology for the word riffle, stating that perhaps it is a blending of the words ruffle and ripple. Its meaning is stated as a stretch of choppy water caused by the presence of a rocky shoal or sandbar just under the surface. So as not to stifle the spontaneous evolution of our southern English idiom, I think I will call the area just downstream from a riffle, where one can waft and relax to the music of magical murmuring - a wiffle ...
Photo by Riverdave - the beginning of the riffles below the Sennett Hole at West Point on the Eno Park