As the Water Rises

A cedar waxwing almost brushes my forehead, drawn by mosquitoes who are drawn by my warmth and my breath exhaled into the evening. I am standing at the edge of the water on our land. The sweet bright air seems absurd against the backdrop of floodwater rising in Houston and Miami, in the St. Martin and Barbuda, in India, Bangladesh, Nepal. So many people waist-deep in the streets. Islands destroyed. I feel acutely aware of my dry feet, dry home.

Across the wetland in front of me, common gallinules shout to each other. They are new here, with their purple-black bodies and red-orange bills voicing raucous sounds—clucks, whinnies, cackles, squawks, and yelps. I am glad they are here, drawn by our cattails and wetland expanded this spring by beavers. I welcome the beavers, too, but they are aggravating the neighbors and the township that clears their dam from the culvert to keep water below the road.

Like us, beavers engineer water movement and levels to suit themselves. Effects on others simply happen. Some species, like the cattails and gallinules, share the beavers’ priority for more open water. Some, like our human neighbors, require dry land for roads, hay fields, and one guy’s private landing strip.

I consider the widening wetland-now-pond in front of me. Drawn by gravity, water moves downhill until something blocks it. Both beavers and humans spend considerable time helping water defy gravity. We stopper flowing water, backing it up into reservoirs that spread over previously dry land. Or we guide it away from low wet places, draining them into livable, workable landscapes. When our engineering is destroyed, we rebuild it the same.

Humans not only rearrange water, however, we also rearrange carbon, dragging from deep in the earth and burning it, releasing it. Beavers’ activities change the landscape; our behaviors have changed the entire planet.

In this changed world, water misbehaves. A year’s worth of water falls from the sky in a few days. Water surges from the ocean. Having been so tightly reined into unnatural riverbanks and reservoirs and gutters and sewers and channels, all of this extra water no longer absorbs into wetlands or flood plains or deltas or shorelines. Water rises, now seeming to defy gravity on its own.

One more stride from where I stand, and I will be calf-deep. Do I deserve to sink into the wetland, being unprepared for this moment, having walked towards the water wearing only my worn leather boots, not quite paying attention? None of us has the right shoes on at all times. I do not deserve misfortune, even for my mistakes. I do need, however, to pay attention. My actions have consequences, and not just for myself.

My actions and my lifestyle have contributed to what seems like a tiny shift—just one degree of warmth in an ocean. It’s not tiny though. Even a small change on a large scale can have big consequences—melting permafrost, epic storms.

Standing at the edge, I am lucky. I have the option to step back onto dry ground, to return to a dry home. We work hard for our home, but we would not have it without both help and luck, neither of which I earned any more than I earned the nose on my face. Help and good fortune mean that I am more buffered than some people from the consequences of our actions on this planet. Many people live in vulnerable places. Many people do not have options.

The evening here is so calm it is hard to believe there are catastrophes. It is hard to believe that those catastrophes have anything to do with me. But I am not separate or alone. I am here with the beavers, gallinules, and cedar waxwings. And with my neighbors—that is to say, our neighbors—Houston and Miami, the St. Martin and Barbuda; India, Bangladesh, Nepal. Now is not the time to struggle with believing what is abundantly evident—we are creating disasters. Now is the time to stop changing the climate. We are all here together.

 

The Dangerous Thing About Searching

The dangerous thing about reading maps is following them out your door into the world. So I am out the door at noon and across the barnyard and into the woods and topping our hill. In my mind, I carry a map of the Barrack Zourie cave system, seemingly named by Tolkien. A map can resemble a good book in this way, taking you so far beyond yourself that you seem different when you return.

The dangerous thing about going out your door is wanting to keep going, which I blame on the sunlight setting crisp shadows onto the snow. My laced-up waterproof boots and insulated overalls—rugged and encouraging—are equally to blame. Luring me on, though, is also the Barrack Zourie, the mountain close to our hilltop and the long complex of tubes and caverns traversing underground, Southwest of the depression where our farmstead sits: Buried Valley.

Thin black lines squiggle across the cave map. I begin to read the circled numbers—depths, heights. Rappelling into Barn Entrance from the surface would drop you 98 feet into the Sewers, where the water is two feet deep and the ceiling is two feet above the water surface. An ill-advised left turn out of the Sewers ends at Death’s Door, but a right turn leads to Bluestone Highway. Further on, a tunnel called Bloody Hell leaves La Grande Chambre, connecting to Nothing Yet Passage, with a twelve-foot ceiling. In Whale’s Belly and The Swim, the ceiling is four feet above the water, but the water is six feet deep.

The dangerous thing about going onward is beginning to feel like you’re searching for something. Based on the map, I should be able to find a cave opening somewhere just off my path: Cave Mistake. Not a real entrance, but irresistibly named. As I zig-zag through the almost frozen woods, I wonder if Cave Mistake is the kind of cave opening that would require rappelling into, and if so, how obvious would such a drop be if disguised by leaf litter and light snow cover. I watch the dog covering twice my distance, trusting that if she remains up top, so will I.

The dangerous thing about searching is not finding the thing, which might be more relief than disappointment when searching for Cave Mistake. Instead I find rabbit urine staining the snow like red wine, a turkey feather’s velvet spread, curling ice designs, a tree hole rasped by a pileated woodpecker. Beavers have tackled an impressive tree along the wetland, in view of Barrack Zourie Mountain. I keep hiking in the bright woods, with my mind traveling underground and here at the surface, finding exactly what I came out here for.

 

 

This Squirming Pile of Fortune

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Spotted salamander

On the road, it is wet and warm and dark, except for some distant lightning. And my flashlight. This kind of night invites amphibians, so I have come. I walk slowly, looking down, to avoid stepping on anyone.

The night is not peaceful. Spring peepers—sweet sweet!—and wood frogs—chuckle chuck—yell into the steady wind, which carries a promise of lower temperatures. It is raining. All around me, there is sex and death, and soft, shiny lives are running out into the open.

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Jefferson salamander

I am a hundred paces from our front door. I am the last one out here tonight. Sam and Andrew went first, to check the cylindrical metal traps we have been placing in the wetland’s edge for several days. Every day, we check the traps, squealing together at lively Jefferson salamanders, grape-sized tadpoles, and one newt with a bright yellow belly. We admire the predaceous diving beetles, who carry an air bubble for breathing underwater and pinch your hand faster than you can drop them.

Tonight, knowing it’s a restless night for amphibians, the guys squelch out in tall boots, while I read books to tired Stella in bed. Then, footsteps pound up the wooden stairs, and Sam’s laugh bounces into the hallway. They burst into the bedroom with a new species, a spotted salamander, vibrant with her big yellow spots and tall black eyes. Sam caught her near the wetland. We cheer and admire, then they take her gently back.

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Newt

Later, with both kids asleep, I walk out alone. Rainy spring nights coax salamanders from the woods across the road to our wetland to mate and lay eggs. Male frogs emerge too, beckoning females. Squashed frog bodies litter the road, and I dart around—as Sam did an hour earlier—scooping up the living and slipping them into the grass.

Seeing no dead salamanders, I wonder. In European mythology, salamanders could walk through fire, even lived in it—an untrue, but stirring image. On our road, are salamanders smarter or faster than frogs? Luckier? Are they fewer in number, and less likely to be hit? Or do they just stick to tires, leaving no evidence? It is always complicated to assign reasons for one group’s apparent fortune in the face of another’s losses.

When we wake the next morning, the grass is green. Wood ducks have splashed down into the wetland. Standing among cattails, the din of frogs surrounds us. Sam yells when he lifts one trap from the water, “It’s a whole family of spotted salamanders!” We grin at each other, thrilled by this squirming pile of fortune.

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Our Place in the Family of Things

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You do not have to be good. / You do not have to walk on your knees / for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

The dishes can rot. The laundry languishes, washed and dry. Each morning, I make the bed and updump the basket onto it. My optimism is freshly piled as high as those clean clothes—all wilting by nighttime, when I scrape the pile back into the basket, then fall into bed. Will my failures outlive any good work I have done?

 You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves.

My son is tardy again this morning because I cannot uncurl his warm limbs from my arms, where he sought comfort from some fear that finds him in the night. When I open my eyes at last, the sky is aflame, so I run into the yard in my pajamas, camera in hand. Then the chickens need to be released from coop to run, and the light, splitting across the garden makes them glow so fiercely that each of their feathers demand my attention.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

October is cool on my skin, warm in my eyes, and feels like all of the places I’ve left behind. The shrinking daylight crescendos its intensity—the autumn sky making love one last time to the passionately dying leaves. There is a soft poignancy. How did it happen that I am this age in this place? Why am I still distant from so many that I love?

I peel my son from my bed, rousing him towards French toast—the only consolation I can offer him for forcing his instinctive self into such prescriptions of waking, walking, sitting, eating, and learning by the clock, a condition of growing up. Beside my bed is a wooden crate, stacked with prose and poetry that I turn to whenever I ask myself, “And who will take care of me?”

Meanwhile the world goes on. / Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain / are moving across the landscapes, / over the prairies and the deep trees, / the mountains and the rivers.

The beauty of this season stands me still, gasping. The hills burn red, orange, yellow, brown, green—bright on sunny days and strong, with depth, on clouded days when the wind carries my breath dancing across the hayfield with the leaves. Everything is restless. I see birds normally hidden, deer grown bold despite being hunted, small furry creatures gathering for the coming lean times.

 Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, / are heading home again.

Their calls percuss the morning, making a racket over our farm. They lift from the lake at the end of our road each morning and throng over the treeline towards us. Evenings, they honk back across the sky and swirl down—hundreds of them? A thousand?—to our neighbor’s hay field and the lake he calls his wildlife preserve.

Such numbers in flight, choreographed to move as a whole, make me think swarm or school, but these are Canada geese, averaging eight pounds with five foot wingspans, not bees or small fish. These ordinary, unflinching birds carry weight alone and together. Soon they will move on.

We hurry to the lake one evening and park by the road. The kids tumble out, racing across the field. “Stop! Wait!” I yell. “Those geese will chase you.” They’ve dashed amidst a small group of geese who seem unperturbed, still resting and grazing. I catch up and see that I am fooled. Delighted, my daughter embraces the nearest decoy, hoisting it high and twirling through the grass. The real geese call from their safe floating beds on the lake.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, / the world offers itself to your imagination, / calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting— / over and over announcing your place / in the family of things.

Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”

We spin apples on our new gizmo, which peels and cores and slices them. “Where have you been all my life?” I ask this gadget, as it fills the dehydrator in minutes, then creates a mountain of uniform, peeled slices that we toss with sugar and cinnamon, top with butter and oats and more sugar, and bake into a crisp. The kitchen is warm apples, wriggly puppy, kids making a racket louder than geese. I have cracked a window so that I can hear all of them this evening, inside and out, announcing our place.

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Up a Creek

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True to character, Sam will not release the crayfish, even while its pinch on his finger is making him howl. His persistence is one of his strengths, I often remind myself.

“Just let it go,” I tell him.

“No. Owww! I want it,” he says, juggling his fingers while the claws keep grabbing him until he manages the unpinchable tail hold, looks up at me, and grins.

We’ve been creek swimming with our kids since they were in diapers, across Alabama and Georgia. They grew up in sandy creeks, swamp creeks, creeks cobbled with multicolored stones. Now we’re dabbling in the shallows of Schoharie Creek, not far from where it joins the Mohawk River, our watershed here in New York, which lacks the South’s poisonous snakes and diversity of native freshwater mussels.

We’ve heard rumors of mussels in Schoharie Creek, and Andrew brought snorkels and a viewbucket to search for them here. He wades a short distance upstream from us, straps on his snorkel mask, then flops into the water. Our puppy, Skip, with the overactive sense of responsibility that plagues herding dogs, follows him up the bank, then plunges in heroically behind him, swimming towards his prostrate body. She reaches him, scrabbles up onto his back, and perches there, keeping watch while he searches the creek bottom for mussels.

These native mussels, not good to eat, offer a feast of biological wonder. They captured our hearts in the South, the global hotspot for mussel diversity. First, I loved their names: fatmucket, pistolgrip, heelsplitter, shinyrayed pocketbook, pigtoe, snuffbox, washboard, three-horn wartyback. Then, their reproductive tricks astonished me; they lure fish to host their parasitic larval stage. Also, they’re endangered, thanks to human-driven damages to creeks and rivers.

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Freshwater mussels range in size from thumbnail to dinnerplate. They encase themselves in smooth or ridged or pimpled shells that are brown or black or yellow, some with dark stripes fanning across them, some without. Mussels always have a pearly lining—white, pink, deep violet.

This lining glimmers on the few shell shards that Andrew can find on the creek bottom, marking them as the remains of native mussels. Otherwise, this piece of Schoharie Creek seems mussel-less. A creek without mussel seems less alive to me, but the beauty here woos me anyway.

Forested hills frame some cliffs of angled stone, that has shed chunks of rock along the creek bank. Across from where the kids and I wade, the water pools invitingly, and Sam will later practice his own snorkeling there.

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Just upstream of our crayfish and snorkeling spot, large rocks form a shoal, where the creek speeds up and thins over the rocks. Water pours over edges, curving into cracks and churning in holes. The water level, lower than average, allows us to wade across the creek on this rock pavement.

Sam and Stella monkey along, dangling from our hands and squat-scooting through the water. Skip worries, unable to follow at our heels, shivering as her fluff slicks against her surprisingly scrawny body. We carry her until she warily curls onto a warm rock, still vigilant as we swim.

This is how we play. We need hours like these, away from farm projects and jobs and the daily needs of everything. Our limbs loosen in the flowing water. The creek sings over the shoals, constant trickle-rush sounds that both invigorate and relax us. We can see our challenges as our strengths, our own pearly linings. We can watch each other laughing and jump in together.

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