A Little Watershed
by Bill Vernon
My father, with help from me, my brothers and mother, built our brick home on a creek bank in its little valley. Creek, waterway, stream were the only names it had. Maps gave it no more specific title. Even before we finished the work and moved in, I wandered through the area with curiosity. The creek ran as clear and as swift as the water from our taps.
By the time we moved into our house, the creek had taught me to trust it provisionally, with healthy respect. I shared my enthusiasm, but mentioning the creek to others, especially parents, provoked talk of dangers, invisible contagion, polio.
A day’s hard rain could swell it so much, it roared and rolled, careening off rocks and the hillsides, filling the cave-like passage under the concrete bridge on South West Street, hinting that it could fling people larger than I was, the same way it flung those limbs into brush and trees, and, on the downstream side of the bridge, the fence of a pasture.
Once, the debris and the liquid’s force ripped twelve feet of metal mesh off its wooden posts, releasing three Holsteins. Exuberant, they broke free and danced in our yard, stomping holes. Within hours, though, at milking time, freedom without suckling calves was too much and they bellowed. The farmer took them to his barn. Father and I took longer, restoring the mess they’d left in our yard.
Resolving problems my little creek made was a family affair. In wet times like this our southern lawn became the creek’s shore. Our gravel lane became impassable. Cars had to park at its entrance, and passengers had to wade through grass uphill to the house in soaked shoes, socks, and trouser cuffs.
Our intrusions into the creek’s presence made us adjust to live in protective harmony with it. In the way Mom brought flowers and vegetables to our table, the creek offered red wing blackbirds in canebrakes, butterflies among milkweeds, finches in thistles, crawdads in holes on land and by rocks underwater, rabbits under waves of tall grass, cottontails that startled me, jumping out just ahead of my feet.
One morning, walking the first-flooded, lowest point of the driveway, I yelled, “It’s okay!” to Mom back on the porch, meaning the creek had receded after heavy storms so she could drive her Mercury to work. With thick fog over the valley, almost lost in darkness with a long trek to catch my school bus ride, I hurried on and near the street found myself among ghost-like creatures appearing and disappearing in the moving mist around me. Huge birds.
The birds were spread out from the creek to me, each on one tall, thin leg, with long neck lying backwards, each body a pillow for a head, emitting occasional guttural rasping. I continued silently on, unnoticed to the last one: a sentry. Head raised, turning, watching me, it suddenly trumpeted a cracking croak so loud I jumped. Bedlam behind me, thrashing wings, splashing water, screeching. They flew up over me, swirling my hair, their heads forward like prows of living boats, legs extended back under their bodies, awkward on the ground, sleek in the air. Migrating angels.
The creek fed me with hope, but friends seldom went there. Wary of wildness, parents preferred ball diamonds, basketball courts, sidewalks, churches, movie theaters, backyards. Exploring alone, I traveled the creek’s two- to three-mile length, every inch, even on private woodlands. I knew where I was on the creek.
Snakes: garter, black, the feisty massasauga that would bite. Beetles of all kinds, hellgrammites, water striders. Muskrat, mink, and the snappers I caught on trot line for neighbors who liked to make turtle soup. Fish, bass, bullheads, chubs, blue gills, sunfish, all too small for human consumption. Hundreds of minnows caught in store-bought wire traps for bait at pay lakes or rivers.
I dammed a few wide places for pools. The pasture had the deep holes in which I might have waded or swum, but cows over there spoiled my desire. Overflow from septic tanks did the same upstream, which occasionally reeked of it. Mechanics near the headwaters regularly dumped foulness into it, yellow and red paint one time. Bulldozers clearing off the hillside opposite ours, digging foundations, let topsoil wash down and smother wildlife.
The old bridge I’d sit on with legs dangling, now shows rocks under dense algae and a trickle of water. Those limestone rocks contain fossils of ancient sea life. Our steep hillside has layers of it like shale. Adults used to display trilobites and horn corals on sills and mantels. We kids kept bags full of fossils to play with. Every step on the limestone slabs I helped my father lay as a sidewalk at our house suggested the mystery of humans crawling ashore from the sea.
How could I not think about that? We fit. We were part of it all.
Bill Vernon studied English literature, then taught it. Writing is his therapy, along with exercising outdoors and doing international folk dances. His fiction and nonfiction occasionally appear in journals and anthologies, and Five Star Mysteries published his novel, OLD TOWN.