Saturday, December 8, 2012

Crabby Creek Revisited

The big, gracious beech with its carved initials—the one that created its own clearing midway down the steep hill, the one that offered us strong horizontal branches for easy climbing—is gone. No trace remains. Some of the hearts and letters, not all, had been our doing; other climbers had defaced the smooth bark long before we discovered it. A short distance from the void where (we believe) the beech had once stood—much closer, in truth, than in my memory—the challenging cliffs that once served as our wild wild west overlook the creek. Fifty years later, they are still impressive.

The whole of our childhood playground—the cliffs, the creek, the salamanders, the pollywogs—is now a township park, with a sign and all. The fact is, it was always public property, being too rugged for fast-buck developers to easily plop houses upon. But now it is official. With a sign and all. 

The bridges that had made the stream banks accessible to vehicles in the years before we claimed them as our own have crumbled and crashed. That remarkable “road” was probably built between 1935 and 1943, when the United States government provided jobs for eight million men. Back then it’s very possible that humble structures built of oak stood along the banks of the Crabby. Structures that housed families with children. Children who climbed trees and carved hearts in their smooth bark. If so, no surface signs remain. Any trash heaps that may have existed are buried under many layers of forest debris. 

One thing is certain: the dirt road that gave us access to crayfish and adventure predated Green Road, the winding street where our post World War II childhood home still stands overlooking the wooded ridge. 

“You take the low road and I’ll take the high road…,” we used to sing, sometimes walking the low trail by the creek and other times the upper (WPA?) lane as we made our way to the small man-made pond by the railroad tracks. The pond too is gone, a victim of the cul-de-sac built for the convenience of two extravagant houses that replaced our road. The dirt had to go somewhere. 

Why the pond and its associated dam were there in the first place is another question. They were positioned just south of a freight line that was built sometime after the mid 19th century. Was there a practical connection between the two? Maybe not. The pond may have been constructed for the convenience of a wealthy pre-Depression Philadelphian who desired a fishing hole. We do like to control our environment. 

At any rate, the pond is absent and the dam is a useless slab of concrete. Harmless remnants of the past, layered with leaves. I want to walk up the hill to see if blueberries still grow near the house we lived in, or if the deer have changed the plant community that left an indelible impression in my consciousness, but grownup restraint holds me back.

The curved banks of the Crabby have been undercut, in some spots, by waters rushing down hills foolishly cleared of their oaks and beeches. But the surrounding forest is wonderfully alive. Papery beech leaves cling to juvenile trees, and every shade of dirty blonde is represented in the rustle beneath our feet. We see brilliant orange orb weavers, multiple signs of woodpeckers, prints from the cloven hooves of deer. 

Tires lay on the ground near the defunct dam, posed in a distinct pattern, arranged, we guess—we hope—by kids who spend their summer days looking under rocks for salamanders. On hot summer days, we imagine, they “help” the waters of Crabby Creek flow in channels built of stones and sticks, and prod crayfish out of their crevices.

 Maybe they find slim trees that some stunt of nature has caused to bend down, and up, and then down again, and ride them like camels. And maybe, hopefully, they will grow up to know the difference between a white oak and a chestnut oak, and recognize that beeches flaunt their papery leaves far into the winter months, and that dead trees are hotbeds of life. 

They will see white waxy Indian pipes rising from the dark earth, and weave the ghostly images into stories that will play and replay in their minds throughout their lives, triggered by the sweet smell of decaying oak leaves, the rippling waters of a small creek, or the always thrilling sight of the nodding translucent flowers of the elusive saprophyte.

Crabby Creek will live on in their minds as they travel their lives, its steady flow defying attempts to dam or reroute it with sticks and stones. Their future dealings with the natural world—we hope—will be measured by its clarity and its promise. 

This is our best hope.

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