17 July 2010
Quakers in the Country: The Swimming Hole
The afternoon is hot and muggy, a sunny day floating halfway between spring and summer. I’m back at home for a few days out of the truck. Shawna pokes her head in the door, looking at me where I sit peacefully vegetating.
“We’re all going down to the swimming hole.”
“You’re going, too.”
“Yes, you are. You have five children you haven’t seen in two weeks, and they want you to go swimming with them.”
Such are negotiations in my household. Sometimes they take longer, but they often follow this general pattern. And really, I don’t have anything against being cooperative, but I learned long ago that when I receive a marital ultimatum, it is very important that the initial response be “No.” This is mostly because it’s always easier for me to reverse myself and say “Yes,” than it is to change a “Yes” to “No.” But also, I am married to a strong-willed, left-handed, yellow-headed bark-eater who is both wonderful and accustomed to being in charge, and starting out with “No” reminds her that in the end, I don’t have to do what she says just because she says so. Not at first, anyway.
But the swimming hole is a wonderful asset to raising children out where we live, and she is right to stand there with her hands on her hips and stare crossly at me from the doorway. Here in Appalachia, there is water everywhere: springs, rivulets, brooks, creeks, rivers, lakes, and swamps, and it’s a sin not to take advantage of it. Our own property is bounded to the east by a deep ravine that funnels all the spring water for several miles into one channel that runs out by Jim and Jan’s place to the south. It crosses over the road at a submarine bridge, and then dips under it under a real bridge half a mile farther on. When it emerges from under the second bridge, it pours over a little waterfall into a large, round, and deep pool: the swimming hole.
Our swimming hole is pretty different from the typical city swimming pool. First off, of course, the hole is natural, with all the advantages and disadvantages that come with that. In town, swimming pools have clean tiled edges and concrete walkways. Our swimming hole has smooth gravel on the bottom and sandy banks between the water and the surrounding woods. In town, the municipal employees keep the grass mowed and the weeds pulled. In the country, the thistles scratch bright red runes on your bare legs like bored Vikings as you pick your way through them to get to the water. In town, there are fences to keep intrusive animals away. In the country, we walk around the swimming hole to look for the muddy footprints of the deer, raccoon, possum, and woodchuck that visited the night before. And in town, the water is cleaned and chlorinated by mechanical filters and chemical injectors. In the country, our swimming hole is full of algae, and sediment, and sticks, and green leaves. Fresh spring water is aerated by cascading over the stones and ledges of miles of open flow. And stuff lives in it, around it, and visits it whenever we’re not there. And sometimes when we are.
Today, we drive down to the swimming hole accompanied by only one dog, loping alongside the beat-up van as we clatter down the gravel road to the creek. Normally there are three dogs, but the two older ones apparently have other tasks this day. The swimming hole is only a mile down from the house, and we walk to it in the evenings all the time. The exercise this afternoon would do all of us some good, especially me. But somehow piling into the car makes it more of an event for the children, so that’s what we do. When we stop the car, the kids jump out immediately and climb down the bank to the water. Golden carries the little inflatable life ring he has brought down with him. Starbuck grabs his new fish net and makes a beeline for a position from which he can ambush the local wildlife. The dog snuffles through the ferns and lilies looking for mysteries to solve. I take off my shirt, pry off my sandals with my toes, and walk down the bank to the water and step in. Then I wade slowly through the gentle current out into the middle, where the water is up to my chest.
It’s cool, but not at all cold, and the flowing water is very comfortable in the hot and humid afternoon. The current keeps the water stirred up, so the temperature around my feet is as comfortable as the temperature around my middle— very unlike a lake, where the stratified water means your toes are always chilly. I sink down over my head, then surface and shake the water off my face. Ankle-deep in the shallows with her skirts hiked up, Shawna leans out to catch the dog by the collar, and then industriously begins to work over his neck, looking for the ticks he can’t scratch off himself. Always the practical woman, I observe, scratching myself absent-mindedly.
“Dad! Throw me!” shouts Paoli. I look up to see her waving both arms at me. I slip through the water, then pick her up bodily and throw her as high and as far into the middle as I can. She goes under, then surfaces, grinning and bouncing on her toes to keep her face above water too deep for her to stand in. It won’t be but a year and she won’t have to bounce to keep her head above the surface, I think to myself. All the kids are growing pretty quick. It’s made more obvious to me now that I only see them for a few days each month while I drive a truck, fighting a losing battle to try to keep them in shoes. Every time I see them they all seem to be taller, thinner, more aware, and more sarcastic than the last time.
“Throw me too, Kevin,” says my oldest son Griffin, eyeing me speculatively.
“Not on your life. You’d break me,” I reply. “You’re taller than Shawna now.”
“I know,” he says. He turns away and paddles over to the girls so he can pick a water fight with them.
He has become significantly taller than Shawna, I notice, as he stands and initiates sibling combat. It seems like just yesterday he was learning to talk. Maybe someday soon he’ll learn how not to.
I sink back up to my neck again, and then turn and tip-toe slowly through the deeper water over to the bridge. The bridge shelters a wide but shallow concrete spillway, a low-roofed shaded cave with the gentle stream overrunning the floor. Under a few inches of water, the smooth slab is blanketed in dark green filamentous algae, all stretched out straight in the current, wiggling their tail-ends in the little waterfall, there at the boundary between the dim and the brighter light. I climb up onto the slab and stretch out in the flowing water, wiggling my tail-ends in the little waterfall as well. I could stay right there all afternoon, but my biology-minded Number One Daughter has other plans.
“Dad! Did you see the snake?” Devra hollers.
“What snake is that?”
“The one that lives in the crack over there between the rocks.”
The kids return to their splashing and wading, while I reluctantly rise out of the current and wade over to the corner of the bridge. Down here closer to the creek, it’s always appropriate to check out snake discoveries. We don’t have copperheads up on the ridge top, but in the shady hardwoods the beautiful gray and brown pit vipers are a reasonably common discovery under the decomposing logs and between the stones that crop out in the ravines. I sink way down into the water, and peer into the narrow crevice between two of the old concrete highway slabs our township stacks up to make bridge abutments. There in the half-light, a small Thamnophis stares back at me impassively out of one eye, the little waves reflected from my own body sending small sheets of water across the few inches that separate us, rocking it very gently.
I stand back up. “Garter snake!” I announce to the kids, who have forgotten all about the snake and are busy splashing water into each other’s faces. The little garter and ribbon snakes are much commoner than the vipers, and generally hang out close to the water to pick off the frogs and tadpoles. They’re good-natured creatures, although they generally defecate on you when you first pick them up to remind you that they’d really prefer to be left alone. I sink down into the water again and look back into the darkness. The little snake has disappeared, having apparently decided that being left alone today might be more difficult without some pre-emptive action on its own part.
A kingfisher suddenly rattles overhead across the stream, halfway between the water and the treetops. There’s lots of different kinds of birds here by the swimming hole, most of which are off in the branches or underbrush right now waiting for us to vacate the premises. There’s a great blue heron, or maybe two, that come back every year to live through the spring and summer in the brushy, more private parts of the creek farther upstream. In the undergrowth you can sometimes spy a woodcock with her babies, little feathered miniatures of their mother. If you surprise them, the hen will fly into the shrubbery but the babies will squat down and peep, waiting for their mother to come back and gather them up. At the moment all I can identify is a robin, calling in that slow-paced maniacal lilt that they favor, away up the slope towards the ridge top. Were I to come back and sit here very quietly, I would undoubtedly be treated to a psychedelic show of eastern passerines: tanagers, orioles, warblers, buntings, finches, and who knows what else, drinking or bathing at the edge of the water. Maybe even Paoli’s yellow parakeet, the one that unaccountably opened its cage door one day and flew through the front door into uncertain freedom.
None of those are around right now, though, so I step up out of the water to see what else is visiting the swimming hole today. Down by the tail end of the pool, the banks narrow in and the current speeds up as the water forces its way down the rocky channel. There in the taller weeds and thistles, a dozen dark and iridescent damselflies are hunting moths and mosquitoes. They’re all the same species, fairly large with glossy black wings and bodies, and blue highlights wherever the light is reflecting. I look closely at one perched on top of a bent blade of grass, and see it carefully munching the remains of a midge of some sort. The damselflies are very different from the dragonflies—the darners and such that also reproduce and hunt in these pools. You can tell a damselfly when it alights for a rest because it will fold its wings together above them like an old Navy fighter plane, while a dragonfly will rest with its wings held out horizontally. This particular species is also apparently a weak flier, always choosing to hunt in the quieter air within the woods, while the dragonflies can be found more or less anywhere their powerful flight systems might take them. They’ll hang out here for the rest of the season, flying, eating, mating, and dying, an annual cycle that’s been underway for millennia.
As I watch the damselflies flutter back and forth across the creek, I feel a gentle, inquisitive nibbling at my ankle, down in the water. Minnows, usually. There are various species of shiners and suckers in the shallow water, and this late in the year the little darters in the riffles will also be a few inches long. I look down, but the water is too natural for me to see more than a foot or two below the surface, so the identity of my visitor remains a mystery. It could be a crayfish. We have lots of those in here as well, and once we even tried to keep a pair of them in our fish tank for a while. They’re not really compatible with the fish, though, as the crayfish proved to be expert minnow-catchers, and quickly reduced the fish population in the tank to near zero. The crayfish are too fast to catch with Starbuck’s dip net, and we usually only get them by accident. Now, if I had a seine, then we could really work the creek over to see who and what made its home in there. But that will have to wait. Starbuck has decided to wait, too. He’s taken a Styrofoam boogie board and stuffed it into the back of his T-shirt, and is now lurching across the surface like some sort of aquatic Quasimodo. Golden is faring much better in his inflatable ring, navigating the entire pool with the happy competence of a six-year old tool-using primate. I remember doing the same thing myself, long, long ago in a swimming pool out on the Kansas prairie.
I step over to the bank and up onto the cobbles than line its edge, and that poke sharp little dents into my feet. Most of the stones are homogeneous gray limes and yellow sandstones, which of course is only to be expected, because that’s the rock that the stream is cutting through all the way up its ravine to Dave’s place on the hill above us. The pebbles and cobbles here are an endless source of road metal for the township, which is good. The township has 86 miles of road to take care of, and virtually no money to do it with, so free gravel is always a benefit. Old Melvin Kemp will come down to the creek with the township’s front-end-loader, with his brother Kenny driving the dump. Melvin then steers into the water and loads up enough gravel for the day, and then he and Kenny go deposit it uphill on our road. Of course, when it rains or when the snow melts the same gravel and pebbles tend to roll and slide right back down into the creek, so perhaps one of Melvin’s grandkids will scoop it up again from the same spot in another fifty years for some future road project yet to come. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen either of them for some time. I wonder if the township has run out of money completely.
Above me the slender but towering black locusts shade the swimming hole from the sun except for the brief hour or two when it is directly overhead. The locusts are wonderful trees, tall, straight, and quick-growing. The wood doesn’t rot in the ground, either, so they make tough and long-lasting fence posts. And as an added bonus, in the spring they produce thousands of beautiful pendulous flowers, which you can smell a mile away on the warm, humid nights. I have a tin can full of locust pods that I picked off a tree at an Amish sawmill I loaded at last summer. I meant to plant them in the spring, but missed my window, and now I’ll have to wait until next year. Planting trees is a hobby of mine around here. I scatter hundreds of tulip poplar and maple seeds along the roads and the edges of the woods every fall, and also toss all the peach and plum pits out into likely spots whenever I have them. I’ll be long dead by the time any trees reach full size, but then, that’s no excuse for not doing necessary work right now. People take being dead far too seriously, in my opinion. If anticipating being dead meant you shouldn’t be doing worthwhile work, then nothing would ever get done.
I’m brought back into present time by the kids shouting happily at each other in the water. Shawna is standing over on the bank with her skirts still hiked up, surveying the scene like Pharaoh’s daughter inspecting the Nile for crocodiles. The dog, released finally, wanders back and forth along the edge, searching for raccoon sign in the shallows, and the waterfall continues to murmur quietly to itself under the bridge. A peaceful, complete, and fleeting afternoon in the springtime.
The afternoon won’t last, and neither will this little swimming hole. It never does, because transience is the nature of things. Towards the middle of the summer, the rains begin to fail, the springs give out, and the flowing creek flickers finally into isolated pools and gentle trickles. The cool water warms up and loses its oxygen, becomes shallower and murkier, and swimming here becomes a less popular event. But that’s far into the future now, months away, and today the swimming hole sparkles at its peak of late spring glory.
Shawna was right to pressure me to come down here today, because this brief intersection of all our lives is now stored forever in my mind. Many years from now, when the kids have children of their own and the world has turned a few thousand times more, I’ll still remember this day: the children, the water, the stones, plants, and animals. And living out here so far from anyplace anybody else wants to be, the swimming hole itself will likely be more or less the same, but with grandchildren and great-grandchildren hollering and splashing under the bridge.
And maybe another snake in the crevice will look out at them, and decide to wait until the evening to come out to hunt frogs.