Our river journey launches with a push off from the shore of the Neris River east of Vilnius. We are now bound for Kaunas.
Or maybe it began last night, around midnight when, against my expectations, the airlines found my lost bag containing much of our camping gear. At any rate, this morning, Rosa and I packed up and left our hostel with Justus Pipiras, the extraordinary Lithuanian kayaker who has so generously taken on the task as our support team leader for this journey. He picked us up in his van around noon and drove us to a park on the right bank of the Neris around 10 km east upstream of Vilnius. He is providing us with the kayak and equipment, shuttling us, and taking care of so many logistics. And he is excited about our trip. It seems that Lithuania has many kayaker, but it is unusual here to spend a month on the rivers, camping and covering the length of the country. We'll be checking in with him regularly and he's planning to follow and post our progress on his Facebook page--I encourage readers to look him up and "like" his page. He is our "angel" on this trip--we could not do it without him.
We paddled an hour through the countryside before arriving back in Vilnius, which was familiar after three days here. But it was good to see it by river. The city has done something great for paddlers, hanging three large contemporary metal sculptures from the bridges that we pass under. Great fun to have art displayed on the river!
After another hour, we reach the end of town, which is marked by a big television tower. From there, we passed through a green park space, then an industrial zone. Lithuania is decidedly not flat. There are no real mountains, but the banks are marked by rolling hills, much like the American Midwest, and there are so many shades of green. It's lush, verdant country. And birdsong is omnipresent. We saw mallards and gulls on the river, but the forest is full of songbirds that we do not see but decidedly do hear. Their music is lovely.
We also floated past many people on the banks, mostly silent, a few shouting their hellos ("Labas" in Lithuanian). We saw many boats parked along the bank, too--very narrow and painted black, essentially hollowed out logs. They looked quite traditional, a kind of craft that folks have probably been paddling for hundreds of years. Very different from our bright red hardshell plastic Perception tandem kayak!
Made camp around 7:15 pm. It stays light until nearly 11:00 in this Baltic late spring, so there is plenty of time to paddle! Set up our kitchen on a mudflat by the river, with the tent further up the bank, tucked into a clearing in the woods. Had dinner and thought a lot about a passage I'd read from Ellen Cassady's deeply moving story of her Lithuanian sojourn, We Are Here. She gleaned it from the memoir of a Lithuanian survivor of the Shoah, Levi Shalat, who wrote it in July of 1944, upon the liquidation of the Shavli ghetto:
Through the half-open doors of the cattle cars, we could see the lush Lithuanian countryside, the golden-yellow sheaves of rye standing in the fields. The aromas of field and forest were intoxicating. . .
The train sped through the stations, past the very towns where we had been born and raised. With wistful eyes we looked out into the Lithuanian provinces where we had friends and family, places that had long since become Judenrein, cleared of all Jews. The train sped through Lita, as if offering a final farewell tour--one last look at all the years we had dwelled in this country before hurling us into purgatory.
In that beautiful and terrible moment, Levi Shalat's words point to a question that still haunts me, all these years later. How does one reconcile the beauty of the landscape, of the natural world, with the human horror that happened here? Rosa and I are camping in the same forests, by the same rivers, that flowed with the blood of my people. And yet the birds sing, blissfully unaware, as they likely sang then, too. I think we humans want to anthropomorphize nature, to have it share our experiences. We want landscape and weather to echo us, to respond to us, to care about us. But they don't. They don't give a damn either way. And yet that, too, is part of nature's attraction, at least for me. It is bigger than us, not immoral but amoral.
The Rabbis recognized this, of course. In Talmud, they ask why stolen seeds will germinate and grow for the one who stole them--and why raped women still get pregnant. Their answer: "Olam noheg k'minhago--the world pursues its natural course." So it is. God offers Job essentially the same message.
Should the birds stop singing because so many suffered and died here? I can't understand this crazy world, natural and human. It boggles my mind to contemplate. But I am glad they sing. I am grateful for their songs, and for the river's, even--or maybe, especially--here.
The work of ticking, of consciously repairing the world, is not theirs. It's ours. I hope that I am worthy of my tiny portion of that task.