Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Creek: Johnson City 1969

Where we lived, just outside of town along old Antioch Road, there was a scattering of new houses among woods and farms and pastures and empty spaces for yet-to-be-built houses. Our house was on one side of Antioch, along a street that was a hill that rose steeply and then curved and then came to an end. Along the street were the houses--all pretty new--but where the developer or contractor had left a lot of the trees: walnuts and hickories and maples. Our house--a new split-level--was on the hill, maybe the third house up on the left. Further up, where the hill flattened out and if you did not take the curve, there was another dead-end that ran into some trees and then a wide pasture and in the pasture was junked cars and washing machines and such. There was also a cave there, small and down in a natural sink in the land--the cave was narrow and low, dark, its small entrance framed by rock--and it always had cold air flowing out of it (we explored the cave a little, but it was too small, unlit, spooky). A family lived in a trailer on that land, of which we knew one girl, but never knew her that well. Directly behind our house was a farmer's field, often planted with tobacco and in the field was a classic falling-down gray-wooded tobacco shed where you could see the shadowed bunches of the plant hanging upside down to dry . . . On the other side of Antioch, there was more land, more hills and only a distant scattering of houses. The lots on that side didn't have many trees, but there were also great swaths of untouched woods that we kids--my brothers and sister, the neighborhood gang--often explored and goofed around in.
But this isn't about all of that. This is about The Creek.
The Creek was on the other side of Antioch, along a flat stretch of un-housed land before the big hills and woods started. The creek came down from some fenced pasture land to the right (I'll call it from the east, though I don't recall the true directions), ran small and rilly over some rocks, then flattened and widened out along grassy and willowy banks, went under a small flat bridge (which was the street that ran on both sides of Antioch) then continued on westward, narrowing again and disappearing into a thicket of trees. We explored the east and west distances of the creek. Upstream--the east--the waters came down a hill and through the said pastureland; you had to cross over a barbwire fence and into a grassy expanse tufted with weeds where dairy cows roamed. The cows drank from the creek there and--much to our dismay, since we played in it downstream--pissed and shat in it there. We never explored past the cows and their pasture. Downstream--the west--The Creek became mysterious and dark; the trees grew thick and bushy and came right up to the banks, here the water deepened a little, narrowed and curved, but it came out into a field without domesticated animals and then--if I remember correctly--became a bit marshy, its waters still and lost in tall grasses and weeds, dissipating and disappearing into parts unknown. But the heart of The Creek--and to us, it simply was The Creek, we had no other name for it--the heart of it was the flat land along the street with the bridge dividing it.
The Creek was very important to us.
It was a place to meet up at, a place to play, to get wet, to hunt down crayfish and tadpoles and minnows and all sorts of strange insects. There were many water striders there (and when's the last time you saw a water strider?), but also beetles and mud-dauber wasps and other bees, dragon flies and butterflies and praying mantis', worms and spiders and pill bugs galore. There were birds in the field and in the air--don't recall them all, but there were a lot of bullbats (nighthawks) doing their daredevil work above us as we played, sparrows, blackbirds, jays, buzzards and flocks of what were probably just starlings, there were some water birds as well. Often, there were bats at night. The Creek was a place for us to explore physically but also imaginatively--how many scenarios and games and fantasies we invented while goofing around its banks or in its waters can not be counted or recalled. We had a game where we'd score points for the creatures we could catch--more points were alloted for things such as a minnow or water strider, due to the difficulty in actually catching one, more points for dangerous things like wasps or dragonflies, whereas crayfish (of which there were plenty) and tadpoles were low scorers. Unfortunately, the things we caught were more often than not also killed. Such is the nature of humans--kill the very things you loved about a place.
I also spent a lot of time alone at The Creek.
It was in Tennessee--in that open and wooded land that served as our neighborhood--that I discovered the great joy of solitude. Solitude and nature. I didn't understand it as such at the time, but I found that I liked going out alone and wandering and thinking and looking at the different areas where animals and plants were, for the most part, unbothered. I recall that, alongside The Creek, on its north side, there was a false creek, or where the creek used to run. This was a sunken ditch of now-dry land, but it was hard to see it because it was overgrown with willow and bramble and small trees which grew over the false/former creek, turning it into a tunnel. In the summer it was pretty much impenetrable, but in the winter--when the surrounding thicket had lost its leaves--you could hop down in there and hunch and walk along the old creek bed, hidden from the outside world. I did this many times, fascinated. And when it snowed, the thick cache of tree branches and vine, the weave of dormant willow and dead stringy bramble, would catch the snow on top of it and you would find yourself walking a hidden snow tunnel.
It didn't snow that much in Tennessee--winters are very mild by, say, South Dakota standards--but I remember a lot of my alone time along The Creek as being during winter with snow on the ground. The fact that we had moved to Johnson City from the even milder climate of the coastal Pacific Northwest probably added to my remembrance and enjoyment of the snow. But be it any time on the year, I--we--enjoyed what The Creek had to offer. And--in the realm of childhood--it offered much. Much.
We moved away from Tennessee in the late fall of 1970. Went to Des Moines--where that first winter was a shock to the system. I never returned to our Tennessee 'neighborhood' until the late spring or early summer of 1988. Fru and I took a drive down from Champaign. I was able to find Antioch Road, find our old house and the place I had lived. Yes, yes, it was all quite different. I think I've written briefly about this before, but the land across the road was all built up. It was full of houses and green green lawns--I saw a man mowing, kids on swing sets, dogs and cats and cars and trucks and all the accoutrements of suburban living. And The Creek? . . . It wasn't even there.
The Creek had been "disappeared" (like some perceived enemy-of-the-state from a South American nation). Perhaps it ran underground through metal drainage pipes or concrete culvert-tunnels, or perhaps it was simply filled in with dirt and allowed to seep elsewhere. I did not see it. But I knew where it was supposed to be: it was right where I saw that man, a young family man in polo shirt and shorts and tennis shoes, mowing his bright green flawless yard of common grass.

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