Yesterday was Fish Tank Day. Now, as fish tanks go, ours is perhaps humbler than most. No brightly colored South American tropicals, or African cichlids, or snake fish, or most of those other expensive and strangely-bred creatures from the pet store. Ours is much more interesting, though, because on Fish Tank Day we make it up from the Real World. Our world. Right down the road a bit, out of the creek.
Every spring we catch the fish out of our fish tank, put them in a plastic bucket, and ceremoniously redeposit them in the stream from where we got them the year before. And then we catch new ones, right away. Usually we start out with about 30 tiny fish, crawdads, snails, and such, and a year later we have about half a dozen Much Bigger fish to return.
Down by the ruins of the old schoolhouse, the creek runs along the road for a bit and then dives underneath what is called a submarine bridge. Now, the reason for this term is debatable. Either it means that the concrete bridge acts like a submarine when the water is high and covers it up, which is true, or it means that in wet weather you better not try to drive across it unless you're driving a submarine, which is also true. Either way, this giant slab of concrete with a set of galvanized tinhorns permanently embedded in it is an ideal habitat for fresh water animals, both with and without backbones. So that's where we go on Fish Tank Day.
The kids look forward to this safari for weeks. "Are we going to catch the fish today, Dad?" Starbuck asks every day after I mention that it's about time. "No, not until the sun is out so you don't freeze to death." "Suns out right now, Dad!" And so on. When I finally get around to it, we pack the necessary equipment and head on down: one net, one bucket, six Quakers, one much less agile than the other five. Plus two large and friendly but ominous-looking dogs.
The water on the upstream side of the bridge is slower, and has little whirls and boils along it where the current separates into the tinhorns and runs underneath. On the downstream side, there are pools, and churning channels, little splashing creeks coming in from the sides, shaded caves under the sycamores that the frogs hide in, and places along the sand banks to look for raccoon and possum tracks. I hand the net to one of the kids and turn them loose.
There's lots of animal variety by the bridge, in species, anyway, if not in size. Looking down between your knees into the cool water where it's slow, you can see dozens of little Darters all perched along the stony bottom, facing the same way like little two-inch cows on a hillside. The Darters --Etheostoma-- sit propped up on their pectoral fins like little Sphinxes, waiting for something to drift into reach. When it does, ZOT, they dart up and grab it, and then drift back down to the bottom to wait for something else. We have at least three species--striped ones, spotted ones, and big three-inchers that don't seem like the others. When we leave the house for a day or two in the winter and let the furnace burn out, the Darters all turn bright reds and blues in the cold water. Of course, having the house at 32 degrees is uncomfortable if you're not a fish, so when we come back we light up the furnace, and their colors fade.
There's also two species of Shiners, Notropis, little minnows that look a lot like the ones you buy by the buckets in the bait shops. One rare type has an iridescent green line along its sides and a rounded head. The other has a brown line along its sides and a rounded belly. The Shiners prefer the agitated water right in front of the tinhorns, where it rolls and tumbles. They swim, rather than perch on the bottom like the Darters, so a rapid current doesn't disturb their equanimity. You can catch them by swirling the net through the water, whereas with the Darters, you have to drag it along the bottom.
All the fish are small this early in the spring, and there's hundreds there between the kid's water-filled boots as they stomp around on the sandstone creek bottom. Later in the year, the fish are bigger, and there's not nearly so many. We also start out with lots of little fish an inch or two long, and a year later some of them are big enough to eat, right out of the tank. But we let them go.
There's lots more going on in the creek than just fish. We also find masses of frog eggs in the slow places, and sometimes chase the parents around trying to identify them. One good-sized Pickerel Frog hopped away from the net and escaped under a tiny waterfall, but not before we got close enough to identify it. Pickerels look a lot like Leopard Frogs, but have square spots on their backs instead of round ones, and yellow stains on the inside of their legs that remind me of my three-year-old. We also caught a Brook Salamander (Eurycea) from under one of the stones under the sycamore. Salamanders come in various types, some of which breathe and some of which use gills (and some do both at different stages.) This one wiggles away like a tiny sea monster until it dove under a mat of algae and thought itself hidden. It wasn't, and we managed to drop it in a bucket to look it over. Too old for gills, though, so we let it go rather than try to make it coexist in a tank full of omnivorous minnows.
After an hour or two, we look into the bucket and decide that we've got enough biomass for the day and head home, all of two minutes up the gravel road. The dogs lope alongside the car until we get to the hayfield, and then take off cross-country to beat us home. Back in the house, we dump the new fish into the old tank and take a look at what we have.
Out where we live, the Creation is just outside the door, and we can join into the natural world by just stepping outside. Living out here is a conscious choice we made years ago, and days like yesterday are the ones we'll remember for years. It's easier for us to keep track of who we are, and what sort of equalities we share with the rest of the plants and animals God made, when we can walk outside and see, touch, and feel them. And smell them, too, because there's also two species of skunks. It's not quite skunk season yet, but that's due any day.