Updated October 10, 2012
Water has a way of captivating people.
Of course water is essential to our survival, but it inspires us in a way that oxygen doesn’t. Water is one of the primary forces shaping the surface of the earth, and it’s these watery places—lakes, rivers and streams—that stir reverence, love and sometimes a fierce instinct for protection.
Many of my colleagues in river conservation were drawn to this field through paddling or fishing. While my son — with a love of fishing that could only have been inherited from my ancestors — is tugging me toward angling, and although I certainly enjoy raft trips, I’m not particularly skilled at either. Something else seeped into me at an early age and drew me toward rivers.
I grew up with a creek in my backyard — Sulphur Springs, a tributary to the Chagrin River and one of Ohio’s few coldwater streams. Though I had no idea what a “coldwater stream” was or why it was so rare in my part of the world, the creek captivated my childhood imagination with hooks that, years later, emerged again to lodge deep within my adult brain.
As a child, I loved that my creek was always changing. It was really many different creeks during the course of the year: the one I forded with ease, its feeble flow wetting nothing but the bottom of my feet; the one that frothed and roared, its tame trickle now transformed into something that posed legitimate danger for an eight-year old. When the rain poured down I would eagerly run down the well-worn path to watch the creek’s brown water rising high against the banks.
I also loved that the creek connected places. It was a corridor of freedom that penetrated the hard boundaries of a childhood world. I wasn’t allowed to cross the “park road” bordering our backyard. But by following the creek, I could go under that road and emerge from a tunnel, blinking, to the mysterious and forbidden other side. Perched above a deep pool, I saw silver flashes of large fish fleeing my shadow.
I could also follow the creek upstream, creeping silently and unseen through neighbors’ backyards, to a miniature Paradise where a waterfall cascaded lyrically into the deepest pool I knew — even during dry summers it was deep enough to wade in and cool off.
Fifteen years later as I prepared to leave an internship in Washington, DC for grad school in California, I visited a library and flipped through ecology journals, seeking areas of research that might interest me. I found a special issue of BioScience dedicated to river floodplains. As I skimmed its pages — and this may sound hard to believe — a paper on the “Flood Pulse Concept” sent a thrill through me. Though a technical term and definition, it resonated and reawakened those memories: yes, rivers change and connect and breathe and live.
Those two hooks that had captured my imagination — the restless, ever-changing river that also connected different worlds — now captivated my brain. Rivers’ variability and connectivity underlay my dissertation research and my current work.
And, of course, they still hold my heart.
Aldo Leopold wrote that to have an ecological education is to live alone in a world of wounds. He meant that, when you know what to look for, you see what most others don’t: how tattered and depleted much of our world really is.
Take a flight over the Midwest, California’s Central Valley or the southeast Piedmont and you see a world that is mostly wounds. But when I am suspended over these landscapes, my eyes are drawn to the creeks and rivers, and they reassure me that wildness has not been fully banished from the world.
Though abused themselves, rivers and their fringing forests are bandages over the wounds. While most of the cloth may be rent, the riverine threads do their best to hold the quilt together. They are green corridors of wildness and mystery in otherwise tamed and homogenous landscapes.
A few years ago I moved back to Ohio, and now live overlooking some other, and as-yet unamed, tributary to the Chagrin River. (I’m sure my kids will give it a name, as they’ve already named some of its features, such as “Cosmo Zooey Island.”)
But I’m only a mile from Sulphur Springs. On Father’s Day, my family spent the afternoon at a wooded picnic area along its banks. I stood high up on its edge, watching my kids wade through its cool gentle current, and I beamed like some sentient ghost of a spawned-out daddy salmon come back to watch his progeny frolicking in his natal stream.
Share Your Thoughts: Please tell us about a river or lake that’s special to you or share a favorite memory in which water captivated, inspired, renewed or nourished you.
(Top image: Sulphur Springs, Ohio. Image credit: Jeff Opperman/TNC. Second image: Jeff Opperman as a kid. Image credit: Jeff Opperman/TNC.)