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Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Day 5 Outdoors: On High Ground, Creekside

Tuesday, January 31, 1:40-3:15 p.m.

Mild temperatures brought a serious thaw, reducing snow on the ground and increasing snowmelt. The small stream north of our farmhouse has no name but shows on county maps, its source not far east, over on the other side of Jelinek Road. From there it meanders through orchard, woods, open fields and more woods. Small and easily overlooked, it nevertheless offers a great deal of variety along a relatively short length.

Flowing briefly north at the base of wooded hills to the east, the stream crosses a low, waterlogged area (not a fully developed bog or marsh but soggy walking) before falling in a very minor cataract to a lower level, and there it enters another small bit of woods and turns west again. A few cedars and pines crowd the north bank, rising to a large stand of pines further uphill. 

Wild roses and red osiers tangle among fallen trees and branches on the south bank as the stream cuts deeper, heading for a wide, low area overhung with old willows. Beyond the willows it crosses open land, through an old homestead and cattle pasture, before flowing beneath the highway and through more woods to reach Lake Michigan.

The sheltered stretch between insignificant waterfall and giant willows attracts wildlife, and their tracks through the snow—deer and coyote, mostly—come at the creek almost at right angles, trails purposeful and straight from orchard and across meadow. The surface of the snow, both in the open and under the trees, is dimpled now with small craters, shrunken heavily down to earth, pulled by the weight of crystals becoming liquid again. As the crystals melt, they leave their impurities behind. Trees here are on the scrubby side—small, lichen-garbed maples, shallow-rooted quaking aspen (locally known as ‘popple’), young ash trees and now and again a black cherry, straight and tall, its high clusters of fruit black now in midwinter. Many trees have lost limbs. Some entire trees have been felled by wind since autumn. At the base of each standing tree today is a hollow in the snow.

In the current thaw, the little creek itself, ice-covered four weeks ago, is darkly visible between its steep, snowy, brush-tangled banks. Certain stretches look almost still, reflecting as perfectly as a mirror the branches above, silt and dead leaves settled to the bottom, a bed that shows dark brown, almost black beneath the clear, cold water. In other stretches, where the flow is obstructed by fallen branches or tumbles of rock, the creek talks quietly to itself. Those sounds today are too slight to be called gurgling. The word purling describes the sound better. A quiet, gentle murmur.

When the breeze catches them, dangling clusters of tiny rosehips (red, orange, yellow) bounce in the winter air, while high off the ground the top branches of pine trees sway in a stronger wind, sending their sharp, resiny odor abroad in soft, passing bursts. The wind has left the mark of its work on several trees—places where a neighboring branch has rubbed and rubbed, sanding away the bark to expose the underlying cambium layer.

Here on the south bank, outside the tangle of trees, there are dry grasses, Queen-Anne’s-lace and thistles bobbing and whispering in intermittent sunlight. Each thistle is a miracle of complexity.

From out on the highway comes the noise of traffic. From far to the southwest, southwest of Claudia’s woods, comes the yipping of coyotes.


Dawn said...

I like the description of the rose hips, a bit of color in what sounds like a black and white (thought I know it's not) landscape.

P. J. Grath said...

One of these weeks, Dawn, I should say more about the colors at this time of year. Thanks for giving me the idea.