Down By the Riverside

If I had a blog, today I would write about my life on The Little Piney.

The Little Piney

The Little Piney

Our Gravel Bar

Our Gravel Bar

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.

Baptism Day

Baptism Day

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.

Natural Sand Painting

Natural Sand Painting

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.

Down By the Riverside

Down By the Riverside

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.

Home

Fledgling Barn Swallows

Fledgling Barn Swallows

If I had a blog, today I would write about home. As I went about my chores yesterday I noticed the purple martins and barn swallows getting ready to start their migration to their winter homes in Central and South America. I will miss their cheerful voices in the barn and along the lane and I wonder if they miss our farm, The Greenwood, during their long journey to the south. What it is like for migratory birds, those who spit their time between two vastly different geographies. Do they consider one place home and the other a sublet? Do they long for one place over the other or does it matter as long as they fulfill their biological destiny? I think about these things not because I am a traveler, but because I am a homebody. I don’t like to uproot my life and flit from one place to another, like a hummingbird sampling the flowers in a garden. I am more like the chickadees and titmice, who stay in one place the whole year-round. I want a permanent place, somewhere I can let my roots grow deep, so deep that I am part of the land and it is part of me.

Mockingbird Hill

Mockingbird Hill

To those who revel in the new and unexplored, we homebodies are something of a mystery. They often assume we are dull, uninspired, and timid members of society. After all, we aren’t circumnavigating the globe or filling our Facebook page with photo albums of France, the Swiss Alps, and Antarctica. So what are we doing with our lives? I can’t speak for anyone else, but I can tell you I have discovered a world of adventure waiting just outside my own back door.

Blackberries

Blackberries

I don’t need to climb Everest or plumb the depth of the Marianas Trench to be fulfilled; my days are full trekking through the uncharted landscape of my own little world. I know my 200 acres like the face of a lover: I know the steep hills where dogwood blooms in the springtime, the deep valleys, hidden within the oak-dappled forest, where salamanders live among the rain-damp rocks. I know where to look for morel mushrooms in the spring, where to find blackberries in the summer, and where to collect bittersweet on brisk autumn afternoons. Each hill and valley have a name: Hawk Ridge, Turkey-Trot Pasture, Mockingbird Hill. They are the friends with whom I share my life, my solid ground in a world of ceaseless change.

Ancient Stones

Ancient Stones

Every so often, I’ll find something new: An outcropping of ancient stone, standing in the woods like an idol from a bygone age, or a the remains of an old spring-house, the rusted pipe still flowing with icy water on a summer’s day and I feel an explorer of old, charting unmapped territory, uncovering the stories buried by time. There is always something waiting to surprise me, even on the most common sort of days and I seldom return from my excursions without a new story to tell.

Blue Lobelia

Blue Lobelia

Every so often I question my need for the familiar. I wonder if I’m missing out by staying home. It’s true, I would like to see Paris in the rain and stand in the arc of rocks at Stonehenge, but somehow that isn’t in the cards for me. I wasn’t put here to embrace the world at large, but rather to be the caretaker of one small piece of land. In those moments of doubt, all I have to do is step out on my porch. I hear the wood-thrush’s tremolo from the forest and see the last of summer’s flowers blooming in the glade. The season is turning and there is much to be seen before the coming of frost. The Greenwood is calling and I must go.