The Shape of a Creek
That last post took the wind out of me. Thanks for your patience.
We've had so much rain lately, my morning routine now includes putting lifejackets on the cats before I head to work. They're not put off by water, but...cat-fish they ain't.
It's not the same as it used to be, the land. I could say that every day, if I'm paying attention, because a range of epic and subtle shifts occur around the clock (sun?) here: dead black walnut and mulberry branches in the driveway, a new mole hill or gopher den right where I'm walking, fresh footprints in the fudgy loam. But attuned as we are to noticing these things, I still expect that the Big Stuff (towering sycamores that line the creek, the old rickety potting shed out back, the bridge that let's us come and go as we please) will remain the same.
The first time we saw the creek break its banks was about four years after we moved here. We were eager to grow our own food on a larger scale than the 5-gallon buckets we were accustomed to in the suburbs, so we paced off and tilled an area in the meadow, wonderfully and dangerously close to the creek, about 70 x 90 feet, and transplanted 165 cherry tomato seedlings (ask Patrick the next time you see him, "why so many??"), Moon & Stars watermelons, Purple Dragon beans, snow peas, pink banana squash, eight-ball zucchini, Cherokee and Black Krim tomatoes, and more tomatoes. We used 7' t-posts to mark the rows, and weeded by hand like our lives depended on it. I still remember the feeling of satisfaction after scooting down a long row of those cherry tomato plants, one section at a time, on my bum, pulling the tiny sprouts of purslane and catmint until the ground beneath each plant was nothing but beautiful bare brown soil. I'd do this for hours, losing track of time and surroundings. Then I'd mulch with straw and grass clippings, and trudge up the slope to the house for tuna salad on wheat toast with illegally-sharp white cheddar cheese, and corn chips (not every hard-won accomplishment requires a coronation).
Then, late that summer, the rains came down. In a matter of hours, we watched those Moon & Stars melons tumble downstream, bobbing in the rushing water, and had no idea where the cherry tomatoes finally landed. The creek climbed up those 7' t-posts until only the last foot remained visible above water. Our once-grassy meadow was now turbulent and raging. The spectacle silenced us, as it dawned on us that we would not be bookending the hard work of planting and weeding in the spring with the equally hard work of harvesting and canning in the fall. We trudged up the slope to the house and waited for the waters to recede. Thank goodness for local farmers who showed up every Saturday in the town square with their produce, their gardens well-above flood stage all summer. We still ate locally-grown food, including cherry tomatoes. Just not grown by our own hands.
In the thirteen years that followed the first Great Flood (the garden found a new home in the field behind the house), the creek has had a merry bubbling run to it, and also seasons where it was dry right down to it's rocky bed. Time, and tending to other land matters, lulled us into the illusion of "creek business as usual". We'd take our visiting friends' children "creeking", walking right in the same spot where the flood waters raged, and tell the story about the floating watermelons. Patrick even rebuilt the bridge, with our brother Kevin's help, adding to my list of Things That Will Remain The Same No Matter What. We'd walk the meadow, notice the familiar path of the creek as it wound its way through the cottonwoods and quaking aspens, delicate willow saplings and dangling grapevines, and let our eyes land on the curves and bends of its reliable banks. All was as it should be; all was as we'd seen it for years.
A weekend last fall was all it took to strip away our complacency. The sand and the creek banks once again had no choice as the rains fell, in buckets, for days. Dirt, branches, old tires and anything else that called the creek "home" went rushing through the meadow's once-grassy slopes and flat places. The creek rose again, calling up the ghosts of watermelons and tomato plants from the Great Flood, and eclipsed that event beyond our imaginings. The planks of the re-built bridge now submerged, we were "trapped" on the north side of the driveway, wondering what would be left behind when the waters receded. We put on our tall muck boots and walked through the soggy grass to the edge of all that drama , once again silenced by the power of water. Just seeing it changed us.
And, when the water finally did recede, we saw it had moved the banks of the creek to new places. One entire section to the north had been rerouted past a lovely stand of willows, shifting the banks inward now, and creating a small sandbar right between two flowing tributaries. We would now be able to hop across that section, when the creek ran shallow, and cross to the other side, barely getting our feet wet. Those dry feet of ours hadn't ever touched the ground on the other side of that section of the creek. Wow.
How can we not let the metaphor wash over us? What powers reshape us and the directions of our souls, by chance or by choice? I am not the same person I was before we moved here. I'm not the same person I was before my parents died, or since I took the recycling down the road last week to those large dumpster-like bins that the township put in place more than 6 years ago. It's not about just the big moments, the floods, and the rains. Sure, those are the most memorable from the perspective of scale and magnitude, but...a light bubbly run of water in a creek still carves out new banks, eventually.
I think what matters, dear readers, is what we notice, and how we receive those moments of "hey, this is different". I'm still happily startled by how much greener the trees that line the driveway are at the end of the day than they were in the morning, going about their own work while I did mine, tucked into a window-less office for eight or nine hours. So I slow down the truck in the last few feet of my evening commute, to notice, and to thank them.
The shape of our creek has changed in the last 18 years. So have our lives and our hearts. I say bring on the rushing waters.