On bright, cold winter days with the sun shining warm on our faces, I like to walk the creek bottom woods with my daughters. The swamp chestnut oaks, white oaks, sycamores, and hickories—some of which have been growing here since before my grandfather was a boy—have thrown a brown blanket of leaves fresh upon the woodland floor, ankle deep. Our steps break the quiet. A crunch that lasts the length of a stride. Not unlike the sound of tin foil being unrolled.

               Wrens and titmice, chickadees and squirrels scold us as we pass. Brown-burnt beech leaves cling to dormant limbs. The oversize leaves of sweet-bay magnolia and the short, wavy needles of towering Virginia pines scattered among the hardwoods are the only greenery found this time of year in the overstory that will glow with lime-green newness of life come spring.

               We walk single file, balancing ourselves atop giant fallen tree trunks left prone on the leaf-strewn ground by some past wind. Roots pulled free in a great mass of bottomland dirt leave craters in the wet earth. We come across “V”-shaped clearings in the leaves left by the scratching of wild turkey claws. Occasionally, we see their flocks wander through, clucking softly to one another. We stand on moss-covered limestone rocks the size of a small coffee table and look up between the silhouettes of bare branches to the deep blue clear-aired sky. It’s hard not to smile.

               As we near Limestone Creek, a woodcock flushes from the leaves, briefly startling us as much we, him. He flies off deeper into the timber. We stop at the creek next to a beech tree too large for any one of us to reach around. A pileated woodpecker cackles its crazy laugh at us. Nearby, ancient bald cypress trees reach their gnarly roots into the clear waters of the creek and push their knees up through the cast-off brown needles and leaf-strewn creek bank, where the mud is creased with deer tracks.

               The water is cold to the touch. It would feel just as cold in the dog days of August. Limestone creek has its origin in a large spring called “the Blue Hole”, which lies about 2 ½ miles upstream to the northeast. Countless smaller springs well up from the limestone underpinnings below the thin sandy bottom of the creek as it flows along this old path to empty into the channel of the Flint River, now submerged beneath the waters of Lake Blackshear.

               At times, following heavy or extended periods of rain, the creek’s water is stained chocolate-milk brown from the silt that makes its way to the creek. But, on clear days such as this, the water is so transparent we can see the sandy bottom itself. If we look long enough we notice fish—mostly bream and fingerling minnows that feed on the particles of life nearly too small to see. Freshwater mussels lie scattered in the shallows and along the sandbars where raccoon tracks decorate the water’s edge.

               The creek meanders. Winding its way around trees and bends beyond which wood ducks flush whistling their wings as they seek more seclusion. Occasionally, sticks, branches, and old tree trunks find the bottom and alter the current. Leaves catch and swirl in the eddys created by the obstructions. Those escaping the swirl find the current’s path and flow on downstream at a steady pace.

               My youngest daughter asks why the water is so obviously tinted bluish-green in the deepest sections of the creek. I explain that the color results from the particles of calcium carbonate eroded from the limestone which lie suspended in the clear water of these pools.

               On this particular day we are searching for what few green leaves are present—mostly from the small water oak, laurel oak, and bay trees rising up anew in the understory. They owe their opportunity to the winds that fell their scattered superiors, opening patches of sunlight in the dark summer of the forest. The leaves we gather will be pressed at home between two heavy books—The Audobon Encyclopedia of Birds and The A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants—for inclusion in the collection she is making for her Dendrology class. I never had opportunity to take Dendrology before college. I think the world would be a better place if we all did. If, at a young age, we all came to know the trees that compose our surroundings. The same trees that breathe out our own very breath of life. The same ones which filter out the pollutants in the water shedding off the land before they reach our creeks. The same ones which feed the soil with the shedding of their leaves and the shaded out or wind-broken branches and sloughed bark on which untold multitudes of unknown living things feed, renewing life out of death and decay.

               When the girls were younger we roamed this same creek bottom, jumping fallen logs, inching out onto a tree laid across the creek, letting our legs dangle down to the water. We sat on the ground and laid back into the cavernous crevices between the buttress roots of the largest trees. On a few occasions, if we sat quiet enough at the right time, we would see deer slipping past. We used to visit one tree in particular. A water oak, that for some reason had grown with its trunk stretched horizontally and low to the ground  for a ways, before starting its ascent. There was room enough for all three of us to sit and rest comfortably along its length. We called it the sitting tree. The girls named this patch of woods “Valentundria”—a made-up name for a made-up, magical world.

               As we walk, I lay my hands on the trunks of certain trees just as I have many times through the years. Individual trees I recognize. This gesture, a greeting. One I hope the trees recognize themselves in some way. Old friends. I know every bend in this creek along a stretch of about 1 ¼ miles, which forms the eastern border of our farm. I know it in all seasons and at all hours. I know it as a friend, a companion, a teacher. It flows with a steady current, even in dry seasons. It flows even in the worst of droughts. I’ve never seen it dry. My grandfather told me he never did either. An endless flow of water and stories which make their way to the river and on to the Gulf of Mexico. Flowing out into the wider world.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s