Monday, January 30, 2012

The Creek - Reminiscence and Discovery

As a frigid north wind battered the edges of our winter coats, Annie and I carefully chose our footing across the clods of frozen dirt and stalks of forgotten corn silage in the field that lay south of my opa's rural farmhouse. The sun shone brightly on the snow, eluding to warmth that was nowhere to be found. Reaching the bottom of the hill, we followed the edge of the field, past the derelict barn that had been neglected and in decay since I was a child, and on to the creek that lay below. Drawing closer to the trickling water in its frozen bed, Annie and I noticed that we were not the only ones looking to navigate the water at this crossing. several tracks of forked prints revealed the recent presence of turkeys in the fresh snow. The cloven prints of a deer could be seen a little further on. Raccoon prints abounded, their articulate fingers making soft indentations around the running water. A little further on, a marking that I first thought to be a coyote revealed itself to likely be a bobcat, as the prints looked more feline than canine. Annie and I paused a moment, taking in all the traffic that had evidently commuted through this crossing since the snow had fallen the night before. The scene must have been breathtaking.

Growing up, my cousins, my sister, and I would take any spare summer chance available and steal down that field-sown hill, disappearing into the magical wonder of the wood-shrouded creek. Carefully over barbed-wire fences, callously sliding under fallen logs and into the cool, swollen banks of a spring-thawed creek, we'd traipse up and down the creek as adventurers in search of lost civilizations, or stray toads. Generally the water remained below our waists, but on the occasion that we found a bend in the bed that sank to depths unknown, we'd immediately scramble to the nearest bank in search of a lazy grape vine. Convincing the gnarled root to come loose from it's tree, we would swing from the high edge of the bank, momentarily leaving the confines of earth and gravity alike, then slip loose from the begrudging vine and tuck into our best cannonball impression, landing solidly in the murky water of that deep, cold pool. The shock of the enveloping water, the darkness of the mud all around, and the velocity of impact made it difficult to breath and disorienting. But when solid ground was felt below, the body would instinctively know to push off from the murky depths, and catapult your body from the pool. Shooting back into the sultry summer heat, all the fleeting thoughts that accompanied the journey down were immediately replaced with laughter and the thrill of the experience. Scrambling free of the creeks slippery walls, we eagerly awaiting another chance to launch ourselves again and again.

Annie and I picked our way through the underbrush that protected the creek from the encroaching fields. Past burr bushes and thorny honeylocust trees, we meandered in tandem with the wandering path of the water. Our destination was unimportant. We followed the path of least resistance and greatest interest, keeping our senses open to whatever the woods offered. Where once I would have launched myself across the embankment with reckless abandon, we crossed the creek with cautious trepidation.

When Opa still raised cattle, they'd be quarantined to graze in the field west of the house. On occasion, I would assist my grandfather with his chores, which included haying and checking on the animals. Riding down the hill in his rusted-out Chevy Scottsdale, we'd bounce over the uneven ground, scattering the skittish bovine with our hay-laden presence. After dropping the square bales into the feeder, the travel was by foot as we took count of all the cows. Accounting for the animals in the field was easy enough, but finding those that had wandered into the woods was more difficult. Opa trudged down to the creek, and I bounced along, eager for an adventure. When we got to the water, I was given the order to "stay put", while he went across to herd the beef across the bank. I followed that command for what seemed to be an eternity, but in reality was probably no more than three minutes. Spying a patch of sand in the middle of the water below me, I determined that it would be of no harm to jump down, pick my way across the creek, and meet my grandfather on the other side. I'd done it plenty of times before, after all. Judging the distance with a squinted eye, I made the jump, landing squarely on the sand bar below. But as firm as my landing was, the sand did not reciprocate. The viscous collaboration of rock below me was in reality no more solid than the water around it. Immediately, I sank to my waist in cold mud and sand. The water flowed around me, trickling into my pockets and swirling about my socks. my initial reaction was horror, which quickly turned to shame as I realized that I was not sinking any further. I torqued my body in an effort to free myself before my Opa returned, but soon found that effort in vain. I realized what I then had to do. At first meek, I called for the aid of my grandfather. Hearing nothing but the swirling water around me, I hollered again, this time with more gusto. After a few more bellows, I saw my grandpa crashing through the trees. From my vantage, he looked like a rhino, charging to the rescue, uprooting trees that stood in his way. He grabbed me round the middle with his massive arms, hauling me from the mire and plopping me onto dry land. After a brief assessment of my health, he gave me a much less abridged scolding, reproaching me for my careless and dangerous actions all the way back to the truck.

Continuing along the banks of the frozen creek, Annie and I stumbled upon a fallen tree surrounded by shavings of fresh almond-hued wood. The base of the tree was trimmed to a point, and from the looks of the fresh wood, the beaver who's handiwork we were witness to had just recently finished. A few feet away, another tree was fallen, with all the smaller branches removed by similar method. We scanned the banks for evidence of construction, but we saw no dam in close proximity. The beavers must have traveled quite a distance before choosing these trees for their engineering work.

Annie and I picked our way back across the creek, carefully choosing our footing as we scaled the embankment and navigated the underbrush. Upon clearing the treeline, we found ourselves south of the house, and began our trek through the uneven terrain of the field, back to the warmth of civilization. The wind had died down slightly and the sun continued to shine it's bleak, heatless light down upon us. Though we had began this trip with no particular plan or purpose, we ended it coming away with exactly what we needed.

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