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In the middle of the 5,000-acre wild area, itself surrounded by tens of thousands of acres of state forest, a sturdy footbridge spans a large creek. Twin telephone poles serve for its beams, supporting a four-foot-wide deck of pressure-treated planks and a single railing on the downstream side. It took a National Guard helicopter to airlift the thing in, ten years ago or more. And there it sits in the middle of this mini-wilderness, a tribute to something-or-other. Hikers who would never consider spray-painting a rock or carving a tree – not even a dead one – have scarred the railing with names, dates, even a crude etching of trees and a campfire. I wonder how many of these graffiti artists would have ventured so many miles off the pavement were it not for our country’s draconian drug laws? But then, I suppose we all go out in the wilderness to alter our minds a bit.

I don’t know why this comes to mind now; perhaps it made an appearance in one of last night’s dreams. So often in the dreams that I can remember I have found myself suddenly on a bridge, staring at the water. Living where I do at the head of a small stream, and having grown up here, I have never felt threatened by floodwaters, though they’ve cut off our access to the outside world more than once. But a river marks the physical end of this hollow and the ridges that enclose it. When I was a kid, the school bus always dropped us off on the far side of the river, and our mile-and-a-half walk home began by crossing the one-lane county bridge. The first time I did this, as a five-year-old kid returning from a highly traumatic first day of public schooling, I was terrified. The bridge has open metal decking, a grid with three-inch-wide squares. Twenty feet below, the river ran brown and gave off a peculiar odor. It was all my big brother could do to coax me across.

During last autumn’s flood – the result of two hurricanes a week apart – my dad and I made our way down the hollow with some trepidation about whether the bridge would still be there. It was. The roiling, chocolate-colored waters were barely a foot below the deck of the bridge, and a massive pile of logs and debris against the upstream railing showed that the river had crested several feet above that. The highway beyond was still flooded; only an occasional pickup truck ventured through. We stepped gingerly out onto the bridge, venturing maybe a third of the way across. The bridge shook with the force of water thundering against its single, stone pier; once or twice a minute something large would strike against it with a hollow boom. We quickly retreated, remembering stories of how the previous bridge had been taken out by a floating oil tank back in the flood of ’36.

It seems a little odd, even to myself, that I’ve never run a river – not in an inner tube, a raft, a kayak or a canoe. On the one hand, it does seem like fun. On the other, I don’t relish the thought of spending all that time sitting, and in the hot sun to boot. I’d rather be walking in the woods, thank you very much. It has nothing to do with any fear of water, the fact that I’m a poor swimmer or that I almost drowned once while swimming in the ocean. No, sir.

I do enjoy walking beside streams and rivers, and I imagine I’d enjoy fishing if I ever got into it. There is something undeniably refreshing about running water, even in a small stream like Plummer’s Hollow Run. Not only Baptists, but Cherokees with their “going to water” rite and Hindus bathing in the Ganges are all convinced of the curative powers of streams and rivers. I’m not too well-versed in the science of this, but a Google search of “ions” and “flowing water” brings up a commercial website for some purveyor of home water fountains called – I kid you not – Holy Mountain.

The air all around us is electrically charged with positive and negative ions. Positive ions are emitted by computers, microwaves, air conditioners, heaters, televisions and other conveniences of modern-day life. These positive ions in the air we breathe can result in feelings of mental or physical exhaustion and affect overall health.

It has been said that the movement of water releases negative ions which in turn make you feel refreshed, and bring peace to your heart and mind. This is because these negative ions naturally attract airborne particles, such as pollutants and dust. A waterfall or water fountain acts like a magnet to pull these particles out of the air. As a result, the air is purfied [sic], humidified and noticeably fresher.

So “troubled water” – as in “a bridge over” – may be far less troubling than we think. A little more web searching reveals that, as one might expect, these claims are regarded with some skepticism in the scientific community. But then, scientists are supposed to be skeptical. Given the title of this blog, I am intrigued by the notion that something referred to as negative can be regarded so positively.

Another site, peddling high-tech negative ion generators, summarizes a couple of experiments that seem to bear out some of the claims of mental health benefits. I was interested by the suggestion that long periods of negative ion depletion – caused by, say, sitting in front of a computer monitor – can lead to “an increase in serotonin and its attendant drowsiness and relaxation.” Serotonin, eh? No wonder blogging is so addictive!

Does this mean that if we want to be properly productive Americans we should all be rushing outside to stand beside waterfalls, or installing miniature waterfalls from in a corner of the office? Well, not necessarily. Apparently, far simpler options are literally right at hand.

Josh Backon, a member of the Department of Cardiology, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, writes in an Internet posting that in order to increase left-hemisphere activity (linear, language, logical), one can block the left nostril and engage in “forced unilateral nostril breathing.” Likewise, to increase right-hemisphere activity (creative, holistic, emotional), the right nostril should be blocked. This practice increases the supply of negative ions to a specific hemisphere.

So the astounding mental agility you’ve come to expect from Via Negativa probably owes something to the fact that I am an inveterate nose-picker. Whenever I pause to think – which is more often than the evidence might suggest – either one nostril or the other is getting blocked, you can count on it. And while the thumb goes diving, the index finger leans comfortably against the bridge of my nose, high and dry.

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