Wading in wonder

When we hear about streams and rivers these days, it’s often in the context of conservation and preservation. But there’s a deeper magic to these waterways that children of all ages still respond to.

When I was a small child growing up in Dillingham, N.C., where Big Creek flows from the Coleman Boundary up above, I was fascinated by water — its sound, its mystery, its promise of secrets about to be yielded up.

A small stream ran just below our house, and in summer, my sisters and I would stand on the little bridge and pop touch-me-nots or suck nectar from a blossom off one of the fragrant honeysuckle bushes that buffered the stream. Or else we reached over it to get the ripest raspberry or biggest blackberry that grew in the tangle of vines, just out of reach.

The insects we called snake feeders were always hovering over the little stream. We wondered where the snakes we’d been warned about were — and got a chill when we saw one slither up the bank to soak up sun or slip seamlessly into the water. We held our breaths as we bent over, fascinated by our own shadowed faces in the still, shallow water.

The coolness of the air just over the water was an exotic draw for me. Time stopped as I watched the glinting sand, the myriad microscopic insects rippling the surface.

Everybody warned us about the water’s dangers, but for us it was magical. We sailed leaf boats decorated with flowers from the field: black-eyed Susan, joe-pye weed, Queen Anne’s lace. We caught crawfish and salamanders in a jar, waiting patiently on our haunches for the critters to swim in so we could pop the lid on.

In early spring, we’d go down in the marshy bottom where the seeping waters teemed with masses of jellied, translucent eggs, each with a single black dot in the center. Day by day, we watched them turn into tadpoles, lose their tails and hop away — perhaps becoming part of the frog chorus that grew so very loud as the summer progressed. (Frog hollering is something people either love or hate — it either makes them low-down lonesome or becomes a beloved accompaniment to their chores, their sleep and even their dreams.)

The water also had its spiritual side. In the muggy days of August, we attended revivals, singing songs like “Shall We Gather at the River.” And when Daddy took us for rides after Sunday dinner, we’d often see the crowds of people gathered on the riverbanks just above Barnardsville for baptisms or foot washings.

The bigger bridge by the main road went over Big Creek as it flowed from the Coleman Boundary. Our parents warned us not to climb down the embankment ourselves, but we took vicarious pleasure in watching an older cousin jump barefoot from rock to rock, till one summer day he cut his big toe very badly on a broken bottle somebody had thrown in the water. (The water’s pristine quality and clarity had already begun to suffer as the creek became increasingly cluttered with discarded tires, shards of glass, tin cans and such.)

In late April and early May, when the ramps were at their tenderest, we would go to the Coleman Boundary to gather them. After cleaning the ramps in a waterfall or sparkling stream, we chilled the just-cleaned harvest in the cold, cold water before cooking our meal and feasting, the gentle spray caressing our faces. Ingesting a bait of ramps is the perfect prelude to a nap, sprawled on a comfy quilt and lulled by the water’s soft sounds.

One summer we went up to the pasture above our house with our Aunt Macie and some visiting cousins. She brought her famous crispy-brown-on-the-outside/soft-on-the-inside corn bread, some streaked meat, fresh onions from her garden, a bit of old newspaper and some matches; we trailed behind with a bundle of kindling in a brown bag, a jug of iced Kool-Aid, some cut-up potatoes in a jar of water, a can of pork and beans, an old frying pan and a banged-up pot.

We made our “camp” by the side of a stream, eating fried meat, potatoes and corn bread and grinding the little heads of the onions in the salt emptied out of a piece of folded wax paper onto a flat rock. Then we stretched out on the grass in the shade of a big tree by the stream and listened to Aunt Macie tell tales.

After I started school, I read about rivers and thrilled in the adventure of them. I loved the story of Huck Finn and Jim drifting down the Mississippi. I liked Hemingway’s story “Big Two-Hearted River” and The Old Man and the Sea. (And years later, I loved Norman Maclean’s paean A River Runs Through It — the mystical, lyrical tale of a preacher teaching his two sons the art of fly-fishing.)

That all seems long ago. But I recently viewed an exhibit of children’s art and writing about rivers in Mars Hill College’s Renfro Library. Sisters Ivy and Fern Coomer of Madison Middle School wrote and illustrated “A River Story.” Other kids made steppingstones and collages.

I was particularly struck by the caption on a piece of art by Selene Esmeralda Hernandez-Martinez, an 11-year-old Mexican student (Mars Hill College conducts classes in Chiapas, Mexico). The caption read: “I call my picture ‘La Naturaleza es Vida': ‘Nature is Life.'”

[Asheville poet Nancy Dillingham is a sixth-generation Dillingham from Buncombe County’s Big Ivy community.]

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