Sunday, June 12, 2011

We, the Water Babies

What are the influences that shape us into people who love the water and the creatures who live in and around it? They must be myriad, and many are perhaps unknown to us. And some we forget.

I can readily point to the fact that my father was a fisherman, and took his kids fishing, as a strong influence on my becoming one who fishes. But when I read today on The Writer's Almanac that it was Charles Kingsley's birthday, I suddenly remembered another powerful influence.

Kingsley was a clergyman in England famous for his book-length poem The Water Babies. I hadn't thought of it in years, but when I was a very young child we had a book of stories that included The Water Babies.

Our version didn't have color plates, but it did have wonderful illustrations by Jessie Wilcox Smith. As I looked at these images today I remembered my fascination with the pictures in our book.

The story is of a sad little chimney sweep who is chased out of a house by an upper class girl, falls in the river and drowns. There--as he is informed by a caddis fly!--he is transformed into a water baby. He makes his way down the river meeting many trials and tests, and learning many moral lessons, until finally, by his good deeds, he wins a second chance at life.

It's actually an allegory attacking child labor in England at the time.

But when I was a child looking at those pictures I couldn't read yet, so I didn't know the story, and I certainly had no idea what an allegory was.

All I knew was that I wanted to be a water baby. There was one illustration I loved, and it came back to me today. It shows the river at night as it flows through the dark and quiet city, and there in the middle, in the reflection of the moon, is the water baby leaving a long ripple as he swims slowly downstream away from the world of pain and hardship.

Maybe that's why I love to stand in a river today.

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