Pictures from early spring; after the leafing, before the snakes. This essay was published in a literary journal last summer. The story begins after the photos.
Summer air here can be felt, almost fingered, it’s so succulent with moisture. At high temperatures, it’s chokingly humid, but in more moderate weather, it’s velvet and invasive against the skin. In Alabama at the southernmost end of the Appalachians, everyone wades the water/ air mix many evenings during the warm seasons. This state has an abundance of water resources; some popular forms of water contact are boating, fishing, water skiing, and swimming. When I was in college swimmers went to old strip pits or ‘swimming holes’ on streams; the romantically inclined went ‘creekbanking’ with picnic lunch and beer. My own tastes run mostly lower profile. I have a lifelong history of plunging and sampling my way through the pleasures of lakeshore and seashore sitting, walking beside streams with my mother and lifting colorful stones out of the water, viewing swamps from moving autos, and following creeks to guide me through forests with no trails. After college, my husband and I lived with a view of water out the window, on a houseboat. I tried swimming in a slough off the Black Warrior River. One day he pointed to two traveling lines of splash on the surface where I had just been floating. “Snakes,” he said. I stopped swimming!
After moving back to town we often drove out to the places near water. I’ve watched the cobalt blue radiance of cave walls receding downwards under huge spring waters; I’ve walked with a group up the middle of a large shallow creek instead of alongside. In quiet, pooled places, I learned how to send stones rippling across the water surface by throwing with spin. An everyday haze obscures these enjoyments like protective colorations hide toads, and they have to be noticed instantaneously and often privately. Huge fun for us, they didn’t always make for sparkling party conversation. But by keeping the visual and tactile senses tuned, you can lead a life of sudden amphibious incidents, making smaller but intensely meaningful splashes.
The old southern phrase ‘bourbon and branch water’ reflects back to the original freshness of watersheds in America. In my lifetime, both state and region have always been in need of economic growth, and sometimes its bountiful waters haven’t always had the attention I feel they should. That said, this can be true anywhere. We’re now seeing it in the news every day.
In the eighties we moved into the country and I began recording riparian lore: I now live in a dense forest, among the oaks, pines, maples, sweetgums, poplars and dogwoods that help keep the moisture content in the air high; an Appalachian jungle. About a hundred and fifty yards away is a branch that’s five or six feet wide. Creekside is actually the place I prefer to be, my water of choice. In late spring and early summer heat, after walking through the yellow-green razzle-dazzle of the plushly leafed woods, and on through the brush of a now empty, scraped down lakebed, we arrive at the rapids area.
Small sensualities are here for the sampling. Reddish and charcoal colored, the rocks underpin the froth, water at its most frivolous, scattering light into glitter. The orange-red, mud-laden torrents from the early spring rains have gushed off, so we can easily step across now, stone by stone. Flanked by a steep bluff, we look across at the march of the scrub pines on the lakebed shore, with a garnish of yellow wildflowers near the edge. Upstream, we glance towards darkening shades, as the sun-gleam of the rapids fades into stiller, reflective areas, a muted frieze of shadows and leaves. Here the branch twists and frets against its sandstone trough; downstream it deepens and pools into a swimming hole with fish, and then quiets and scrapes along in a mud and pebble bed in the shallows. It empties into a winding lake, probably man-made, that narrows back to stream. Farther on, it goes into a longer, wider body of water that eventually reaches a major river. Upstream, the map shows its origin in a lake fed by two other creeks that also issue from lakes. In all, it is the recipient of run-off from three thousand acres of watershed. Known for biodiversity, the area has a bounty of flora and fauna. Feasting senses now, I would later think about the coursing of streams and their connecting points, about why the word ‘branch’, taken from the structural joinery of trees, means ‘creek’, and about the fixed amount of water on earth.
Visitors who come out to the house always want to go down to the branch. Some of my fondest memories with visiting friends happened alongside the water. From my selected sitting area of the creek we view the presentation of incidents from the stories of many passers-by. There’s the constant flux of the rapids water itself, pattering loudly and with voice-like effects, and the volcanic blue jots of damsel flies. A spotted sandpiper has pranced the edges to our chorus of “Look, look, look”. There are quick glows through the brush – glimpses of the Yellow-Breasted Chat in the daytime; eyes of small animals towards evening. Tracks of deer, raccoons, and foxes appear periodically in side mud, the creek’s ledger of the previous night’s visitors. Driftwood arrives; bushes go upend after heavy rains, and fossilized calamites ferns keep popping up among the lichens and fallen mountain laurel petals. Poles gnawed by beavers appear, although these animals themselves are never seen. For a quick cool-off on a day when summer air is shimmering and heavy as quilts, I take a playful notion and go into the water. Nothing beats reclining in the shallow rapids, being slicked and soaked by cross-eddying water fingers, smelling fresh stream and moss reek. Back on the sand, seeing bubbling places, it’s easy to imagine varieties of monsters under the water’s surface. This is water you can get close to and be intimate with. (1) We had the best visits and celebrations beside the water.
Up a smaller tributary, in deeper woods, it’s a different scenario. The change in the forest has come about by the time we approach this spot, leaf configurations shifting slyly around us. Here there are broadleaf wild magnolias skirting the stream, with their tropically sized foliage, and thicker expanses of ferns. The oaks and pines are gigantic in this less accessible area, with trunks a foot-and-a-half to two-feet in diameter. Our destination at first appears black amidst the irregular spaces of candlelight green. To reach this cozy nook we have to descend the sharp drop of the banks, bracing against the twisted trees that grasp the edges. The brook is about half the width of the branch it flows into. Directly ahead several boulders have intruded into and blocked the streambed, pinching the water into two falls, one ferocious and roaring unseen through a subsurface crack, and another arcing the other direction, a visible spray.
We have come the last few times wondering how long this rare cranny of a streamspot, and the surrounding forest, will remain as they are now. It is the late 80’s and a ‘sea changing’ new industry has arrived in the area. We not only want to slake our senses by taking in images, we are seeking comfort, strength, purpose and recharged spirits; and as a bonus, we’ll take metaphor and story. We stand on the islands of mud and sand, rivulets of all descriptions flowing at our feet. The water is pooled and murky in one place, mounding with cross-hatched ripples over pebbles another, rapids in miniature yet another. Dark boulders are furred with avocado and chartreuse mosses; the water is slithering and silver over their flat tops. Upstream the dazzle pales off like twilight. Holly hangs low over the creek cut. At our feet a rock engulfed by moss sprouts the first yellowish tendrils of an unknown vine. We see one perfect raccoon track and one black-winged damselfly. Not much of the sky is visible overhead through the meeting of prodigious ovate leaf variations. The peculiar humidity sizzles on our skin. The scenes here are more somber and contemplative than those at the barn dance of the main branch. We soak and steep our psyches in the waters and woods, until we’re sated. Civilization feels farther away, but we dwell on the threats to this remoteness that have begun to surface. Going back, we head into the graying scallops of forest.
All of these less splashy scenes occur in local ways. Without tremendous visibility, these types of water sports are sometimes as unintentionally plainspoken as the deeper toned places under the still water’s surface, as unknown as the day roosts of giant night-going moths in the adjacent forest. Notation is by those who prefer frogs, turtles, crayfish, and mental color-gathering along small water to the boating and swimming activities of big water. But as awareness grows there are more out there watching, besides the little wildling animals. I recall springside from the past, the words, ‘if I had this I would never let it get away from me’, rural accents joining those from the cities. It’s easy to imagine many other spots along these branches, many others savoring such moments unobtrusively. Creeks repeat themselves, inspiring and gathering infinite other unsung scenes and stories. A friend’s great blue heron sighting downstream mixes in with my recalled pleasures. Water, always on the move, “stops by” at our personal locations, having already been to many singular locales along the way. It brings a feast for the senses and refreshment for the spirit to each person; from this, intentions form.
Freshwater tributary systems have been intruded upon. Washing on, like the individual moments, pollutants also travel the waterways. The sequences of the natural world are blatant in these cases – what goes in upstream gets downstream, what happens to one part of water, essentially, eventually, happens to all. Water we see today travels to the Gulf, flows into the ocean.
Summer, peak water sport time, is going pell mell. The first cicada ‘screes’ sound, a few frogs chirp from the distant trees. The woods are an immense rooted salad seasoned with noisy buzzing bits. Away from the branches, sitting in the house with cats, evening steaminess stirs a reverie of remembrance and worry. I’ve had a long walk for many years along many waters. Past creeks I’ve known gleam like party crepe strands in the mind, celebratory, crackling as August suns. They attach like tributaries to the present translucent spray, green-black currents, and skeins of moss. Raining in my head, treasured images, like the frog hatch of hundreds at another streamside twenty years past. Along with them, the flotsam and jetsam from the wreck of humankind’s contact with nature, flows in: the first casual mention of the word “pollution”, heard thirty years ago from other children; excessive siltation; medical wastes on beaches; the former frog-yelling chorale after rains of five years ago lapping against many years of drought and decline in amphibian populations, distinctive voices from a puddle outside the window, gone; veteran fishermen talking about the deformities they see in their catches; sewage odors in former swimming places; fish kills; a crystal clear stream devoid of life due to altered pH from industrial run-off. Floating in on this effluence of information come facts that stir actions. My sweet mental creeks swell and spill over the banks, turning from molten silver during twilights to the red mud color of erosion run-off seen after spring gullywashers. Moments spent deep in forests turn to motives. Somewhere in this soup are my intimate creekside perceptions with their festival airs, like the stubborn greenness of plants in the branch, or seaweed in the ocean. The bitter experience of environmental devastation mixes with those joyous brookside times we’ve all had, times that revealed why we need to tune our psyches to our natural surroundings and work to preserve them. Soon all up and down the branches, private fights about water are bubbling up and running together as everyone jumps in, trying to save personal slivers of stream and woods. After years of writing letters about distant rainforests and rivers, I am now faced with the defense of my own forest and water spots.
Two decades have gone by since that old defense, those past maneuvers. In some ways we won, protecting some lands and giving much offense to industrialists; in others, we lost and there were sad changes to our forest forever. Now, in 2012, I frequently learn of new citizens’ groups protecting Alabama’s natural resources, and a growing number of members of the International Waterkeepers’ Alliance devote themselves to our waterways. The larger stream has its own Creekkeeper, and its own advocacy group. Their efforts go to preserving both water quality and the scenic beauty for all to enjoy. Here upstream, our water will make it down to that creek, one day. At meetings about Alabama water keeping after the Gulf oil deluge of 2010, the speeches are rousing and the sentiments are fierce. “…These are our waters,” says John Wathen, Hurricane Creekkeeper. “They belong to all of you. Everyone in the United States has a right to eat a clean fish from these waters”. Real-life stories and poetry about creeks are being recorded; volunteers have helped clear debris out of them after the 2011 tornado.
I became fascinated with wilderness at the age of eight. In the foothills of the Appalachians of Virginia and Alabama, my attachment to nature was ripened and burnished. But my anecdotes are raindrops in a downpour, and these stories are far from done. The cool frenzy of rapids against the skin, the plunk-gulp sound of the unseen wild escapee that scurries into the water as we approach; small sensualities and quiet moments, flowing together, make a flood of resolve.
(1) Note: Recently there is new knowledge of a hazard, a rare but deadly amoeba that has occasionally been contracted in warm Southeastern US waters, calling for a new sense of caution about jumping into creeks and lakes and rivers, the way I used to do. The links below are the source of information about the rare, but fatal amoeba infection of the brain in southeastern waters: