Walking the Banks

Part 1

A spring seems like a miracle every time. In the middle of the woods, no place in particular, clear clean water bubbles gently from the ground. A magic trick. A birth. At once, from nothing, a watercourse exists, one that will not quit until it reaches the sea. Six inches wide and one inch deep, it follows the path of least resistance, flowing north down a gradual slope and across an acre of meadow. Like all springs, it has only one direction – down – and one mission –keep going. A fine philosophy. Let’s adopt it and follow along.                                          

It is midmorning after a cool August night and the meadow has belatedly come alive. Monarchs, Tiger Swallowtails, Admirals, Fritillaries and Sulphurs choose among the Goldenrod, Joe-Pye Weed, and Queen Anne’s Lace. Hundreds of bright butterflies dance, half of them Monarchs, perhaps the third generation of the year, now with tickets to Mexico for the winter. There is a constant hum from energetic bees and bugs, the song of the meadow. Grasshoppers bounce away with your old sneakers with every step through the waist high grasses. As if uncertain, the little rill slows crossing the colorful field, triples in size, and as it passes again into the trees, it widens enough to include a bunch of cattails thriving in the sun.                                 

Just past the open space is a pond, partly shaded. This young waterway will discover patience here. A housing development abuts the area, although it is mostly out of sight, and a dirt road once went across this brook into a sandpit, perhaps a place to get extra fill. Though any kind of bridge is now gone, the road has slowed our streamlet even more, thus the shallow pond. Only a third of an acre, it is full of fallen trees. What kid can resist these walkways out into the middle? Here the marsh is maybe a foot deep. Shade keeps it from being overwhelmed with sun-loving aquatic weeds and turning into a genuine swamp. The horizontal trees host painted and spotted turtles. Saucer-sized bullfrogs hang in the film, as does one snapper, who rules. Small bass and assorted bream are his hors d’oeuvres. Young frogs join the turtles and dive and dart to safety before you even see them, leaving you with only widening circles. The snapper’s head sinks slowly from sight.                                                          

The sandlot, which doesn’t host a baseball game today, has a steep uphill bank on the far side. The near side, even with the brook, is hidden in a tangle of brush. Home run balls to left field are usually gone for good. This edge, sun to one side, shade and water to the other, is warbler heaven. Insects abound. Gone now in late summer, the migratory birds have left the repast to the Box Turtles and Wood Turtles. A Worm Snake hides, a whole life spent below the bark of a fallen tree. A Ring-necked Snake, so large that it is pale grey, slips out of sight so fast it seems a ghost. Walking out of the sandpit, you enter a hemlock dominated ravine along the spring-fed brook, and the temperature falls a few degrees.

Not just darker and cooler, it is much quieter in here under the conifers; the gentle gurgle seems louder than it is. Lively now, the stream averages two feet wide and has holes a foot deep. Cool ground water seeps from the hillsides have added to it. Increased gradient means a faster flow. Rocks break up the downhill progress and undercut banks hide brook trout. Adult trout are four or five inches long, their primary colors invisible in the shade. Ripples on the surface, gone at once in the quick water, are all that give away their presence. You can lie on the moss and reach ever so slowly into the brook, under the bank, and move your hand upstream until it touches one, finning alertly there, a miraculous lifeform in another world. I bet you can do it if you try. Be a kid. After a mere hundred yards of this, our equally adolescent creek runs under a road and hesitates momentarily.

 

©George Jacobi 2016