Saturday, March 18, 2006

The root of all waters (Kings Creek 2)

It came about beforehand that I fell to earth from a very high distance. Below me the world spun on its off-tilt axis, a blue-green jewel pendant in the wasteland of space, and for a moment I studied it from an astronauts’ perspective, saw the western hemisphere from polar cap to polar cap, the graceful curves of shorelines, the dark jungles and forests of the Americas, the bleached deserts, the great shining lakes, the spine of the continent like some bent bow, arced and drawn, and then the strings holding me were sundered and I dropped.

I was a particle of space dust, an asteroid, a comet burning bright. The world rushed up, opened up, spread out like a gigantic burgeoning flower. The seas fell away and the land intervened and swelled and grew until form eclipsed color. An ocean of grass crystallized into broad rivers and undulant ridges, and watersheds appeared like two-dimension roots superimposed on the contours of the land, Nazca lines fashioned not from primitive races but from erosion and gravity, or perhaps by the hand of God himself. In milliseconds woods mushroomed to become a host of individuals and I crashed through to a netherworld of variegated greenish forms.

It looked different on the ground.

Chod disappeared around a long curve. I shifted my pack and followed, stepping lightly around an icy pool gathered in the lee of an oxbow. The dry channel indicated that this somnolent Kings Creek belied its sometimes ravenous character, when walls of water not only plundered trees and shrubs from its banks but occasionally ripped new paths, scribing on the face of the Flint Hills its own meandering history.

I’d seen a fraction of its chronicle before, many times, several hundred feet at the most, sandwiched between two gentle bends with a long cascading riffle rushing beneath the wooden slats of a narrow suspension bridge, and each time I’d paused to listen to its primordial song and to watch jewelwings flutter below like armored butterflies. But to understand its complete record one must escape the bonds of earth.

My view from space and subsequent freefall was courtesy of Google Earth, a Web site combining satellite imagery, maps, and a powerful search engine. On my descent, rapid though it was, I was able to glimpse a macrocosm of Kings Creek, and I understood for the first time how a stream is no more than a tiny rootlet spreading from the larger lateral roots of rivers, which, when combined into bigger waterways, form taproots reaching deep into the world’s oceans.

And now we were below the bridge, perambulating upward, hushed and silent as if cognizant of the special nature of our trespass—granted, to be sure, but only once, only this time, and never more. And in this microcosm we saw another image, not the whole but a tiny part, its limpid pools, its flood-gouged undercuts, its toppled trees and emerald springs matted with fallen leaves of every hue and shape.

A winter wren flew before us. For a moment it balanced on a gnarled wooden tendril, pumping itself in indignation, and then it slipped into the shadows beneath a leaning tree whose roots were grounded in two elements. Deer watched us before flicking their tails and springing away.

The hand of man is light on this prairie creek. Chod pointed out thin rods sunk into the dirt of a bend, placed to measure stream flow; spring and summer projects yet to come. An ancient iron wheel jutted from the bank, rusted and dented. A blend of the old and the new. We passed the research area and walked a stone path leading inexorably upward. Trees blocked our view except for that of the blue blue sky. It seemed the only color in a leached land.

Slowly, slowly, the trees thinned. Our boots beat the stony soil. Bluebird calls supplanted those of woodland species. The creek bed narrowed, flared, and narrowed again. Deep ruts and a raw gravelly scar indicated a collision of torrents at the confluence of the north and south forks. We turned up the north channel where on the far bank a ragged line of cottonwoods stood sentinel, lessened by one of its number which had collapsed into the gully. Beyond was only grassland.

Crawling through a lattice of branches, we passed beyond the realm of trees and became exposed to the watchful sky. I looked up into that blue void and thought of satellites looking down, of the technology involved in placing the mechanisms in orbit and then allowing us to jump off and fall without harm to earth. But ours now was a low-tech exercise, the simple placing of one boot in front of the other.

Our steps were sure. We marched on, unhesitant, toward the birthplace of all the waters in the world.

To be continued…

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