A piece of writing from several years ago.
I was Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. I was 6 years old and with bucket in hand I was exploring the creek that ran through my backyard. I scrambled over a bridge and saw the splash of a frog jumping into the water ahead of me. I quickly ran over to that patch of water only to create vast swirling pools of silt that turned the water brown. Moving on, I went further than I had ever gone before, off my property and followed the stream through the blackcap bushes into my neighbors yard.
I followed the stream down, with a grass lawn on one side and a forested easement on the other. All the while I turned over rocks, chasing crayfish and salamanders. Under ever rock it seemed I would see a creature dart quickly out and I would frantically try to catch it, inevitably stirring up the swirling pools of silt. The stream turned around a bend and went into a black plastic tunnel under a road. I decided to ignore the signs of civilization and continue forward.
After crossing the road, I made a discovery. Ahead of me in the stream was a native! He was blond boy about my age. Quickly I learned that his name was Austin (after the city) and that he, like any good seven-year-old, enjoyed exploring stream too. I gave up my game of discovering where the stream went and we set to work catching a crayfish. Austin was fast and unafraid of their pincers and soon in our bucket we had a large crayfish and several smaller ones.
Over the next few months we became close friends and a routine developed. Whenever we wanted to play and explore the stream together one of us would go outside and scream at the top of our lungs. We lived close enough together that the other would often hear the war cry and respond. I would then walk through the blackberry patch in my backyard and meet him along the stream.
We would then spend the day exploring the stream. Sometimes his dog would join us and sometimes he wouldn’t. The ultimate goal every day would be to catch a frog but they were fast and once you caught one they would often slip out of your grasp. We were content flipping over rocks and grabbing at salamanders or carefully digging with tools through a crayfish’s layer. We were always discovering something new and terrifying whether it was a giant black water spider that suddenly ran across the water scaring the bejesus out of both of us or a giant white larva of some kind which we took joy in squashing. We were amazed by how when a salamander lost its tail the tail would continue to wiggle for several minutes as if it was still swimming for freedom.
One day we discovered that the plant with oblong green leaves growing in the section of the stream going through my yard was spearmint. This set off a frenzy of tasting different stream plants. We discovered the spicy watercress and decided the translucent red berries must be poisonous because of there bitter taste. My sister was not so lucky when she did similar experimentation, deciding that a flower was delicious only to begin puking nonstop several hours later. A frantic call by my parents to poison control revealed that this flower contains the chemical from which ipecac is made.
Growing up thousands of miles away from the mountains and lakes of Montana where my mom grew of or the city parks of London of my father’s childhood meant that in some ways I was alienated from the natural world from my birth. I learned to see the world not through the eyes of someone intimately attuned to flows and rhythms of the local bioregion but through the eyes of my parents who were still surprised by the heavy snowstorm or the beauty of the changing of the leaves. This separation manifested itself in my vocabulary from the earliest age. The plants that I learned to name were not the species of trees in the forest easement behind our house or the plants in the stream but rather the daffodils, Norwegian maples and irises which my mother planted. Thus, the adventures in my stream with Austin helped me develop a direct relationship with the land and learn about the flora and fauna of upstate New York streams.
As the years went by, Austin and I learned the times of the year when tadpoles were in the stream and the times of the year when the stream went almost dry and the crayfish and salamanders all clustered to several pools of stagnant water. We built dams out of rocks and mud and pondered why water levels didn’t rise in till it had been raining for several hours.
I regularly would eat meals at Austin’s house, enduring the two-fold awkwardness of making sure the food was vegetarian and listening to his family pray for my Jewish soul during grace. These differences became more pronounced as we grew older and began to develop a political consciousness. I remember one afternoon in fifth grade discussing with Austin how Dick Cheney wanted to drill in Alaska on publicly held lands. He thought that god made the earth for man and that it was ours to use. I couldn’t understand this position because I felt that my experiences with Austin, more than anyone else, showed the value of nature existing for itself.
Austin eventually moved away and I lost my friend to play in the stream with. Still, every year I watched it and noticed the changes. The stream began at the edge of Sapsucker Woods, near the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and I spent 9th and 10th grade walking in the woods adjacent to Sapsucker woods with a close friend. A local developer also had his eyes on those woods and, despite the fact that they were an incredibly important ecological buffer area for Cornell’s lab of Ornithology; he managed to begin expanding the neighborhood with tacky suburban homes. Thoughts of ecotage and rage at the reckless destruction of the environment filled my mind.
That spring, the rains were as hard as ever. I watched the stream expecting it to behave as it usually did slowly rising after an hour or so of rain. Instead the waters came fast and strong, overflowing the banks of the stream and flooding my backyard. Plants we washed away and my gentle stream frothed and raged. Neighbors complained of flooding and it soon became painfully clear that the destruction of the forest had removed the natural buffer that prevented a surge in stormwater.
The stream of my childhood helped me develop a deep emotional and spiritual connection to the land, what environmental author Barry Lopez would call a “sense of place”. It is this sense of place that feels threatened when I hear about hydraulic fracturing poisoning the land and water and I feel compelled to defend the land whatever the cost. Yet the stream of my childhood has transformed over the past few years into something almost unrecognizable. Erosion has dramatically increased and spots that were once quiet pools of water perfect for tadpoles are now larger and are no longer still. Heraclitus rightly pointed out that a river is not the same from one moment to the next and I have no doubt that this stream will soon be filled with different plants and animals better suited to the new environment. The stream of my childhood now exists only in my mind and serves as a powerful reminder of my relationship with the land and my responsibility to it.
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