In about 1962 or ’63 I was given a gift that lasts a lifetime. I was introduced to a certain creek in western Tarrant County with clear running water rippling over white limestone and gathering in shaded pools. In deeper, still water the sunfish guarded their nests and hid in shadows. At about twelve years old, I would spend entire days there, chasing chalk-white earless lizards over jumbled limestone rocks and plunging into the water to catch the nonvenomous watersnakes that were common at the creek. With a friend or two, I’d wander the fields along the creek and sit where the grass and soil ended and the creek flowed twenty or thirty feet below us, watching turtles basking in the sun. It’s hard to imagine a more carefree existence than spending a day discovering the life of that creek.
I brought home mosquitofish, a surface-feeding little fish looking like a guppy without the fancy tail. Their blue iridescence, seen only with light at certain angles, is subtle but definitely caught my imagination. I was also drawn to the blackstripe topminnow, another surface-feeding fish like a little torpedo with a thick black line down its side.
The snakes, however, were the real prize. I was already hooked on gartersnakes, but the creek was home to incredibly graceful ribbonsnakes, seeming to trace calligraphy over the water as they swam. The bright orange and cream-colored stripes glowed in the sunlight when one of those slender little snakes swam across the water and traced its way through the streamside vegetation.
The creek was a place I returned to over and over. I walked it in summer heat when drought stopped the water’s flow and turned the pools into algae-choked saunas of warm water. I walked it in late fall when the water was almost too cold to wade, and flowed over yellow, brown, and rust-colored layers of dropped leaves. In the winter, I kept visiting even though most reptiles and amphibians were dormant in burrows and crevices. Cricket frogs, however, were out on almost any sunny day that gave them a chance to bask and hunt whatever tiny invertebrates were out and about. Fish didn’t seem to mind the winter’s chill and I could observe them while threading my way along limestone shelves and earthen embankments, trying not to step in the cold water.
Going to college spaced my visits out more but did not stop them. When we lived in Houston, work and distance kept me away. However, when we moved back to Arlington, I found times to visit. The creeping expansion of Fort Worth required that I enter the creek further out. Gradually, the city was gnawing away at my creek, as more land was sold to developers who turned perfectly good nature into bricks, concrete, and turf grass.
This isn’t the story of the loss of the creek, however. It is the story of sharing it and passing it along to new generations. The connection I formed with the creek was forged in childhood, while spending day after day there when school was out for the summer, exploring and discovering as if that time would never end. Maybe it never did end, at least for that place as I internalized it and made it an important part of who I am. I have taken friends to that creek many times over the years. Most of them share a sense that this is a special place, and I hope that they return or else find some place to make theirs. It is too late for the adults to form the same kind of connection that I have with the creek. I am pretty sure that such a bond happens only during childhood, when a place seems to be what people call “larger than life.” What I really mean is “as large as life,” completely occupying that wide open space we give it when we live in it regularly and get to know it intimately. As we become adults, that space narrows; by then we have spent our lives in a lot of places, often in brief and fragmented chunks, making use of places in utilitarian ways. Usually there is little room left in which we can open ourselves to some beautiful place and live in it, getting to know its little mysteries and its seasons in an unhurried way.
I recently took Elijah for a little exploring at the creek. He is in many ways a grandson. I saw him on the day he was born and have watched him grow into a wonderful six-year-old who has been on many walks in nature preserves with his parents and me. I dedicated my forthcoming book to him and to an old mentor of mine, once again mindful of how a love of the natural world is passed along from one generation to the next. And on the day of the walk at the creek, it was just Elijah and me. We were prepared with a net and walking sticks. When wading the creek, the stick becomes a third leg to help balance on algae-coated limestone, and while the old man didn’t fall, Elijah did get a couple of soakings.
Along a part of one side of the creek, in dappled shade, I saw some water pennyworts like parasols on thin little stems. I called Elijah over, saying “Look, they’re like little umbrellas.” At the time, I didn’t know what name to call them when Elijah asked. They were just some kind of pennywort. After another question or two, we moved on. He was on a Pokemon jag so that the dragonflies sailing on the sun-warmed air were “dragonfly-Pokemon,” and the turtles we looked for would have been “turtle-Pokemon.” We did find fish, all of which were too fast for our net. The group of shiners swimming close to the bottom scattered in front of the net, and the sunfish scooted out of reach with a flick of its caudal fin. We saw a small bass as well, but it was getting nowhere near the net.
We had to decide whether to walk into an area where the water was forced into a small channel and ran swiftly – the equivalent of whitewater for the creek. I let him test his strength without getting into the biggest and fastest part and being pulled down. It’s good to get just enough real-life lesson about the power of moving water so that you know when it’s safe to wade and when it will drag you into the current.
After our explore was done and we were back at the car, Elijah asked how I knew so much about nature. I explained that I had been doing it for a lot of years, had read many books, and had hung out with people who knew a lot, just as he was doing with me today. He told me, “When I’m older and I can read better, we will find things and I’ll look them up in the books and we’ll know which plant we saw.” Such a beautiful dream only comes along once in a great while, and I would gladly see it come true. Elijah, you’ve got a deal. I promise. If I can give you the gift of this creek, or a woods or prairie somewhere, I will surely do it.