Whether it’s the streams themselves or the welter of memories I’ve accrued along them I’m not sure, but I’ve stopped guessing. Magnets pull what they pull, and my life and the most important relationships in it have been largely shaped along small, rocky creeks – alone, with my dad, now here, with my two daughters.
“Look, Flan. There. Fishies. See?”
Breaking off her efforts to catch a pickerel frog, my five-year old pulled out of the bank grasses, looking past me to the pool’s hip-high depths. Stippled by what sun the oaks and hickories let in, four fingerling brook trout faced the weak, late summer current. Two larger fish, hand-sized, vanished beneath mossed-up stones on our arrival, but these brasher four I’d missed despite having been here for some time.
Downstream I could hear Flannery’s wordless older sister Shannon shriek every time a palmful of gravel hit the water. Stained by autism, it’s her passion, and usually gives me and Flan an hour or so to cavort. One of the brookies ascended the water column, dabbing an emergent larva before re-stationing along the bottom. Flan pointed, stepping deeper.
“Oh yea! Fishies! Fishies! I see them!”
“Those are trout. The ones I caught with Grandpa when I wasn’t much bigger than you.”
“Can we catch one too? I want to catch one! I want to catch one!”
Her encroachments sent the little fish scurrying, with four short-lived silt puffs marking the rock chamber each had found, while through the jewel weed obscuring the pool below Shannon peeled further delight.
I shouldn’t have been surprised to find brookies in Rhode Island. Its creeks have everything they do in Pennsylvania, where through my dad I grew up with the fish. Heavy forests, heavy shade, cool water. Not long after my wife and I moved, though, when Shan was an infant, I double-took the first time I peered over a bank and saw those creamy, soggy-rice squiggles on a dark green back.
Then as always I couldn’t see a brook trout without the same memory rising, that of my father’s hands unfolding like morning petals, an exhausted, gilling little fish centering it all – the first green back I’d seen, that sunrise belly, scarlet freckles encased in blue, the barbless hook piercing a jaw. All of it chiseled deep, like a petroglyph.
Fishing was only the ingress. We hiked throughout those watersheds, exploring, soaking up my father’s love of bird life, with the medleys of migrants and nesters often mingling with tumbling water. The trout never stopped either, brooks and browns, but in time I understood they were incidental. It wasn’t the chase, it wasn’t the catch or kill that brought us there, but the gestalt, the woods and the water and the galaxy of mirabilia they support. All of it. The nymphs below, the warblers above. Thrushes, corvids, wrens. Inch worms and orioles. Accipiters and butterflies. Voles, owls, cottontails. Fox scat, otter scat, bear scat. Bobcat tracks. The ruins of buck-rubbed saplings. Slinking mink, casting dark omens to the dace, crayfish, frogs, and trout within and along every riffle and pool. It’s an old story. You learn what you learn through school, maybe church, but depth and dimension – how you love, how you worship, how you adore and fear the world and what might have made it – shape elsewhere, and for so many of us that means forests, fields, meadows, and mountains, running water too.
“Well, me and Grandpa used fishing rods, Flan,” I said as she splashed to her thighs then her waist.
“But they’re right here! Under these rocks!”
She plunged a hand, soaking chest and shoulders. Still obscured, Shan let out another squeal. Her exaltations are so pervasive on these excursions we scarcely pay attention, any more so than to the muffled catbird mews seeped from the laurel.
“Ok,” I said, heading deeper, “but next time Grandpa comes maybe he can bring his rod.”
No fish would be caught, I knew, but Flan diverts easily, and as I turned a rock over there it was, a hellgrammite, noodling helplessly in the jostled eddies of its torn-off roof. The first time I saw one a half-dozen spilt out of a brown trout’s stomach my dad had just slit. Most were alive, unraveling to writhe among sundry nymphs and a pale crayfish. My dad retired West, Colorado, and visits once a season, but he’s always here. Anything I learned in the woods I learned from him, knowledge that bulbs up for Flannery the way pitcher plants muscle through these soils. Cradling the hellgrammite, I eased it out, where it stuck to my palm.
Gusting in a breath, she reached, running a finger down plump, cream-coffee segments.
“It’s a centipede.”
“It sure looks like one, doesn’t it? Want to hear a weird word? ‘Hellgrammite.’ They’re like underwater centipedes except guess what?”
“They’re like caterpillars too because guess what?”
“They live underwater, then when they’re ready crawl to shore, shed their skin, and Boom!, out pops a crazy flying critter like a tiny pterodactyl.”
With her finger running back and forth along the creature’s body, she simply looked.
“It’s getting tired,” I said, bending to the water. “Let’s let it go.”
Flan watched the insect slide from my hand then drift down and away, legs feathering for bottom.
“Can I see one? A tiny pterodactyl?”
“Well, we’ll look, but like always we may not see one today. Here comes your crazy pterodactyl sister though.”
Shannon parted the jewel weed. A chronic toe-walker, she stilted toward us, laughing, barefoot, shrieking, arms spiraling for balance.
Like most people, I don’t have any idea how to parent. Kids come as they come and we all do our best. I haven’t fished since Shan was born. If Flannery shows interest, maybe someday. Without kids, though, I doubt I would have really understood what pulled me to these creeks. It’s the imprint, nothing more.
Children are indivisible from spirituality, with Creation paw-printing its feints and false dawns across tender, unscuffed banks, signposts to plot our later paradigms. As we age, though, none of us harden so much as we think. Though it took parenthood to realize it, I certainly never did, and each encounter – whether with a flushed woodcock, a prowling luna moth, the other worlds of a mossed-over mid-stream boulder, or an indigo bunting, scolding, popcorning around a paper birch – still leaves as deep an impression on me as it does my children.
Shannon may have been particularly revelatory. Unblighted by speech or analysis, her reception seems accompanied with every breath by a ‘Let there be light’ thunderclap, the intuitive sense of communion and filial deference to whatever orchestrates it that’s been with us from the beginning. For me, the woods and the waters and everything inhabiting them elicit such astonishing welfare like nothing else, something I share with my father and now, as far as I know, my daughters. Every joint experience binds us tighter, a multiplying double-helix of memory braided round our collective brain stem. Whether it will endure their pending adolescences, as a like plait did for my father and me, I can only hope.
As Shan stumbled atop cobble, a hummingbird, a ruby-throat, dropped beside the jewel-weed, buzzing up and down from auburn blossom to auburn blossom, siphoning the nectar that would soon launch its migration. The sudden commotion stirred Shannon, provoking wild laughter, while Flan shot out an arm.
“It’s one of those birdies! The one’s just as big as my thumb!”
“It is, Flan. A hummingbird. Hear it hum?”
“Oh yea. A hummingbird. A hummingbird. It’s a hummingbird.”
Needling a few more flowers, the emerald creature lifted, paralleled Shannon’s gaze, then zipped downstream. Our eyes all followed, even Shan’s, while the creek water murmured on through.