If I had a blog, today I would write about my life on The Little Piney.
Of all the rivers in Missouri I have known, and there are many, my life has intersected with The Piney in the most personal of ways. Technically, the Little Piney is a creek, not a river, but since she’s large enough to have deep swimming holes and offers sanctuary to bank beavers, river otters, and beautiful rainbow trout, the Little Piney will always be a river to me.
I first met the Piney when I was seven. Dad had a farm on the river after he and Mom got married, we spent our summer Saturday afternoons on her shores, eating Kentucky Fried Chicken and and feeding Cheeto crumbs to the minnows. My brother and I learned to swim in the Piney where we perfected the frog-kick, backstroke, and sidestroke until we cruised the swimming hole as easily as did the minnows that nibbled at our toes. On those summer afternoons we learned to love the water; to respect the swift current and delight in the slow eddies. The Little Piney became part of us as we became part of her.
When I was nine, my brother, sister, and I were baptized in the Little Piney. We were members of the Episcopal church and invited the entire congregation to share in our big day. People brought every kind of picnic food imaginable and we feasted under the shade of the great sycamores and river birches that grew along the river banks. Our priest had just returned from the Holy Land and after he immersed us in our river, he sprinkled us with water from the river Jordan. I’m not sure which water I would consider the most mystical, water from the river where Jesus was baptized or that of the river that has run through my life, even when I was far from its banks.
Not long after our baptism, we moved from the farm to a little house in town, but we took some of The Piney with us. In our new kitchen was a large aquarium, stocked with wee friends from our river. In the weeks before the farm sold, Mom, Dad, David and I scoured the river for fish small enough to thrive in our self-designed “marine park.” We collected darters, crawley-bottoms (banded sculpins), hognose suckers, bleeding shiners, and even a few crawdads. One fine afternoon, we found a baby smallmouth bass and a slender madtom catfish. Both were rare finds and were the crowning glory of our collection.We spent many happy hours watching our little microcosm flourish and we spared no effort to keep our charges well fed. The little bass needed live food, so we raised Indiameal Moths in a dedicated bag of flour for “Bassy” to dine on and we cultivated native algae to keep the suckers and sculpins going strong. Memories of those aquatic friends stayed with me in the years that followed and telling stories about the crawdad who escaped and tried to “nest” behind the couch and of the night our house cat nearly got hold of our catfish always brought a laugh from my friends. It was an experience I will never forget.
After the time of the aquarium passed, I was away from the Piney for a long time. High school, college, and career took me far afield, but the Piney wasn’t done with me yet. In 1995, she called me home. I was living 100 miles from her shores by then, working in the business world, when Mom and Dad invited me to share their new home and work on their farm. They had purchased a piece of land just two miles downstream from the place of my baptism and they build their dream home a half-mile from the Piney. I said, “Yes,” to their offer and in 1996, I returned to the river of my childhood.
Since that time, I have spent countless hours at the river: I’ve gone alone, to revel in the music of the waters and bask in the warmth of the sun; I’ve been there as part of church gatherings where we built bonfires and had Eucharist at the water’s edge; and with family, sharing old memories and making new.
Today, my sister and her family are visiting and we spent the better part of the day at the Piney. We searched for fossils on the gravel bar, grilled hot dogs over an campfire, and my ten year-old niece, Anna, and I braved the icy water and plunged to the bottom, letting out a primal scream as we came back to the surface, our chests tight and teeth chattering with cold. Once we had acclimated to the temperature of the water, we swam a long time, another baptism of sorts for me, washing away my cares for the entire afternoon. When our fingers started to wrinkle, Anna and I went back to the shore and all of us basked in the late summer sun. It was the perfect day.
What does it mean that the Little Piney has been the river of my life? It is hard to say, but when I think of this little river and its ceaseless journey towards the sea, I take heart. If the waters of The Little Piney can find their way over rocks and roots, eddies and falls until they emerge in the vastness of the great oceans, then perhaps my one, little life makes a difference. Perhaps the hopes and dreams I have set free upon her shores will join with those of my fellow human beings, becoming a part of something greater than us all.