This world holds many wonders, all of which lead me to ponder God, consider both mortality and eternity, and marvel at the natural beauty of this planet. I have traveled through the Rockies, visited the great falls of the Columbia Gorge, hiked the Grand Canyon and gone scuba diving in Hawaii. I have stood near the brink of Niagara and crawled beneath the lip of Cumberland Falls. The scale of these things never fails to move me toward reverence and awe for the works of God’s own hand.
And yet, even when framed by such spectacle, one of this world’s perennial delights is of much smaller perspective.
Toward the southern edge of the farm I grew up on, a small creek cut through the clearing behind the dark-fired tobacco barn. Except during the season of heavy rains, you could easily drive a tractor through the stream to reach the hill field over in front of Buster Simmons’ place. During the driest times, the small branch turned into a series of pools separated by a bed of dry stones. Other than those extremes, though, a steady stream flowed along, fed by other springs like the one under the hickory tree.
If you followed the creek downstream, across Simmons’s property and on further east, it would eventually join a larger stream. For some reason, I never followed it beyond our property to the west. I don’t think it ran much further in that direction but for the reason just stated, I don’t know for sure.
What I do know for sure is that a creek is a place of mystery and wonder, a constantly changing track of gravity and chance, a reservoir of discovery and adventure. You could hunt for cool rocks or crawdads, fish for bluegill or suckers. Throw rocks at other rocks, trees or just some particular spot in the bank that happened to catch your eye as a beckoning target. You could find black tadpoles and green frogs or pretend to be soldiers in the Civil War, weary from battle and searching for a cool spring to get a welcome drink of water and wash your face, sit for a while in the shade.
In the opposite season, once the water had frozen solid enough to hold a kid’s weight, the creek flexed true magic. To walk above the rocks, stepping over and studying the forms beneath the clear ice, or to run and slide between the banks was a true wonder. It seemed as though it was me who had been transformed and I became, for that brief while, barely less than an angel. Wrapped adequately from the cold, I could play for hours. Somehow it seemed that surely, if I could only follow the creek far enough, my soul would find some sort of release. In a way, I suppose it did.
Hidden by the trees and bends of the creek, away from the rest of the world and surrounded by nothing but snowy woods, I could make of the world whatever I chose. I could believe myself pauper or prince, transcend both time and distance. I could make a heavy rock or chunk of wood slide forever. I could go as far as I chose, as long as I could stand the cold. And be back home in time to get the cows up for milking.
I don’t suppose a kid actually needs a creek in order to grow up into a productive, well-balanced adult who is mentally and physically fit. Having a well-developed imagination doesn’t require that one have thrown rocks at a hickory tree or been pinched at least once by a miniature fresh-water lobster. One doesn’t have to wade the waters of a stone-bed stream in order to learn to dream.
But it seems to me that it would be a shame for a kid to grow up without a creek. Or for a grown man to spend too many years away from one.