Rants & Essays

Legend of the River Pumpkins

By Robert Klose

The other day, shortly before Halloween, pumpkins were bobbing in the river behind my house in Orono, Maine. Pumpkins on the Penobscot! I later learned that they had fallen from a truck as it rumbled over the small bridge just upriver.

I had gone out to the riverbank for a quiet moment before leaving for work. The mist slowly lifted revealing the orange globes bumping against the shore like aquatic mammals coming in to feed. I watched them for quite a while as if there were something more they could show me. But the mere fact of pumpkins in the river was remarkable enough. I headed for the university yet I couldn't get them off my mind.

As I lectured on the basics of ecology my thoughts constantly jolted back to the pumpkins. I came precariously close to giggling. When one is teaching freshmen, however, control is everything so I persisted in describing how animals and plants are physically and behaviorally adapted to their environments. Then I was jolted again.

Here I was explaining why the snowshoe hare's fur turns white in a winter landscape and I had pumpkins bobbing in the river behind my house. I felt the strangest need to get back to them - to see what they were up to.

I drove home with a special urgency at the end of the workday. Relief didn't come until I saw the pumpkins safe and sound by the riverbank. Only they had increased from eight or so to an even dozen as an eddy herded them against the bank.

As I turned to go into my house I was greeted by the boy next door who had come over for a visit. Actually eight-year-old Russell had moped over. I had never seen him so sad. The problem was that "all the kids" had jack-o'-lanterns for Halloween. Except for him. His mother hadn't yet bought him one.

A child's dreams are often impossible - to fly like superman, to travel to another planet - but sometimes they are small and manageable and the solution is foreordained.

"Russell," I said, bending low, "your friends have field pumpkins." I could get him something far more special.

Russell screwed up his face and cocked his head to the side. "What?"

"A river pumpkin," I whispered.

After dressing up the story a bit with the growing habits of such pumpkins and explaining why they migrate downriver in the fall, I turned Russell toward the river and pointed. He was bug-eyed. We clambered into my canoe and set out on the cool, leaf-littered water.

Within a couple of minutes the canoe was nosing in among the pumpkins. Russell grabbed hold of one the size of a basketball. I steadied the canoe as he wrestled it in.

Like the whalers of old we sailed home with our bounty. I watched as Russell, now grinning from ear to ear, stumbled out of the canoe and up the riverbank. I followed at a distance as he did a bandylegged two-step up his front walk, struggling with his pumpkin. His mother came out of the house, hands on hips, obviously building up steam for a reprimand. "Where did you get that?" she demanded. "You didn't steal it, did you?"

Russell told the story of the river pumpkins word for word as it had been given to him. But the part about the migratory habits was too much for his mother. There are times when a legend related by one person must be sworn to by another. "Mighty fine river pumpkin you've got there, Russ," I said as I came up behind him.

The mother's eyebrows took flight. "A river pumpkin?"

"I have five myself," I said. "Easier to carve. Beats a field pumpkin hands down." I pointed to the river, and Russell's mom dropped her guard when she saw the remaining pumpkins bobbing for recognition.

That night a jack-o'-lantern flared in the bay window of Russell's house. And it had stories to tell.