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Creek Walking

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July 17, 2011 by Joseph C. Neal

In early July there are serious questions about moisture. All is wilt in my yard. But as I head toward the Buffalo River’s upper valley, the sun is an iridescent orange mass pulsating pinks through a jagged green tree canopy, moisture-laden blue clouds scattered above. A cardinal sings fresh and new at the rise.

At the Buffalo in Boxley valley, fog is so dense there’s no sun and no mountain tops, and the humidity — or hume ah did ditty as my Dad once put it humorously – is close to light rain. But the valley is cool, moist, green, like an extended spring. Won’t need canoe, kayak, or anything fancy today. The Buffalo is low but flowing, and perfect for a creek walk.

There’s no one else at the Ponca low water bridge, like I’m the first post-Ice Age human in the valley. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds zip among astonishing pink flowers on an old mimosa leaning precariously over the river. I hear chips and soon have a close Louisiana Waterthrush, all pink legs and tail-bobbing across smooth brown cobbles. Nearby I spot another, also working for bugs, and it sings like May.

Powerlines run above the old bridge, and this morning fledgling Northern Rough-winged Swallows perch on the wires. As late as June 24, adult swallows were still feeding them nearby in rock crevice nests. Now adults forage up and down the Buffalo, snagging insects. At the powerline they pause briefly mid-air, poking food in open mouths. A Yellow-billed Cuckoo flies across the river and up on the mountainside, I hear a Scarlet Tanager’s hoarse singing, but can’t see it.

Here are the rules: walk like a Great Blue Heron, slow, watchful, one foot at a time. Stick to the shallows, look at and listen to everything. Don’t walk too far: think density of experience, rather than distance or endurance.

Already at 8:30, there are jug-o-rums of bullfrogs, and right in front of me, on an elm leaning 15 feet over the water, a thick midland water snake, with copperhead-like brown stripes. I’m imaging the wild frenzy of swinging paddles if a canoe floats under this limb and the disturbed but entirely harmless water moccasin drops off and into the boat. But today there’s water enough only for creek walking.

In the shallows, with my feet in flowing water, I attend the busy affairs of a miniature forest of water willow (Justicia americana). The engaging flowers remind me irises, petals with blue, purple, white. I sit on a convenient cobble and watch clearwing hummingbird moths making the rounds of flowers, plus spider-webby combos of black and orange on crescent butterflies, silver spotted skippers, various bees, and stunning damsel flies. Have I left anything out? Well yes, quite a lot, but it’s an empire unto itself, a universe indifferent to what we view as critical and important. You can’t convert butterflies to dollars, and that is the bottom line: whole and complete without us and our values. And a darter investigates the strange universe of my feet.

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