water, stone, moss

(Jackson the river otter.)

(Originally published in The Sewanee Mountain Messenger. Reprinted by permission.)

Jackson the dog and I were headed to one of our favorite trails, which follows a large stream for a quarter-mile or so. On the five-minute walk on the feeder trail to get there, I noticed the brittle sunshine and the frozen perfect pear-shaped drops on leaf-ends like Christmas ornaments.

I was too focused on the return of the sun after several days of cold fog to think about water, until we neared the fire lane which led to the stream-side section of the trail. There, for the first time in months, I heard the stream before I saw it.

My heart leapt. Today the water was back. As I rock-hopped across it and turned left on the trail to parallel the stream, something I can only describe as gratitude filled me as I encountered the miracle of flowing water.

I was enveloped in sound. The all-suffusing rush filled the small ravine and covered up all other noises, including our footsteps. As I hopped down and up the rock-strewn path, I had glimpses of flashing movement to my left when the stream revealed itself through the rhododendron and mountain laurel. Further downstream I felt and heard the soft booming of a cascade below an overhanging rock slab.

It occurred to me how perverse it was of the water to be so icily plentiful in winter. Not so long ago, in the dry heat of autumn, when Jackson needed desperately to cool off, there hadn’t been so much as a belly-flop’s worth in the deepest pool.

As I walked, I thought of my youth in the Mississippi Delta, a massively-engineered and –adulterated landscape, former swamp turned into farmland, streets, and yards. What water there was sat still, or flowed imperceptibly; the rich alluvial nutrients leaching into it made it the color of tea. (Even, in my town, as it left the faucet and filled glass, sink, or bathtub.)

It was therefore an indelible experience when I drove with my family through the Blue Ridge Parkway as a young teenager. There, at a roadside stop, was a small waterfall: clear, cold water, mossy boulders, and sound – the inimitable dance of free liquid motion.

Decades later, the existence of the tiniest rapids, such as the ones we cross on our Sewanee trail, seem like magic. Those tiny gurgles, flashing the thinnest sheen of water over baseball-sized rocks or roots, the occasional leaf pinned beneath, hold as much wonder for me as the deafening power of the main stream.

There are several places within a block or two of my house where I can encounter flowing water in something like its natural state. I study it for lessons in hydrology on a miniature scale: tiny pebbly sandbars form, heavy rains pile flotsam against the small bankside trees. I can’t resist taking a stout stick to the small logjams that sometimes impede the water, feeling satisfaction as the dam breaks and the pent-up water rushes to restore equilibrium.  

I think it’s no accident that I live where the basic elements of the landscape are water, stone, and moss. They speak to me in a way that other ecosystems don’t, answering some deep internal need for connection. As some people feel at home in the desert, valley, or shoreline, this terrain answers for me some deep internal need for connection. I am home.