The solace of flowing water

Author: John Gifford

In a world where so much of what we know and how we live is fleeting and ephemeral, it’s comforting to know that our natural waterways are secure in who and what they are. A corporate brand may change to suit the times or the strategy of the month or new leadership, but a creek or stream or river just does what it does, and it doesn’t care what you or I think about it. Given today’s social climate, in which we’re increasingly afraid to stand for anything for fear of offending someone who might have opposing views, this confidence, this indifference, is refreshing. Maybe this is why we’re so attracted to rivers and streams.

illustration by Jon Han

When I lived in Dallas in the early 1990s, it was a suit and tie every weekday morning. It was grabbing my Franklin day planner on the way out the door, then climbing into the car and racing to the office, where I’d spend so much time the days would sometimes meld together and blur, disorienting me. Often the only real variety to the day, the week, came in my choice about where to eat lunch. Weekends were different, however. Like many of my friends, I enjoyed floating on the San Marcos River, where the cool spring waters and leisurely current helped rid my body of the toxic, city-induced stress, reminding me that the proper pace of life is the one set by Mother Nature’s clock.

Many summers ago I attended a series of writing seminars at a small, rural college in Vermont. Whenever I needed to get away from the workshop environment, I would leave the campus and walk a couple of miles to a secluded creek, where I’d sit and listen to the current spilling over small waterfalls and boulders. It wasn’t quiet there. But the sounds were those of nature’s cogs and gears cycling through time as the isolated creek flowed through the Green Mountains, insulated from the frenetic outside world. This was not only revitalizing, but also inspiring. When I returned from the seminars, I wrote a story about a man who liked to fly fish in a small stream that looked remarkably similar to the New England creek I’d enjoyed.

I know a gentleman, a famous physician, who designs and develops medical devices for diabetics and cardiac patients, and who may be the most intelligent, energetic and inquisitive person I’ve ever met. He once showed me the pre-Columbian arrowheads he’d found over the years. He had hundreds of these arrowheads, of all shapes and sizes, labeled and displayed in large, glass cases, and categorized according to their age. He was proud of these relics, all of which he’d found by walking the banks of some of the creeks and streams near his home. This was how this man, whose heart pumps and other medical devices had earned him patents and millions of dollars, and probably saved countless lives, preferred to relax.

I have spent the last 10 years living in a house whose backyard borders a small creek that is brimming with wildlife. We’ve left the yard unfenced because my family values the unobstructed view of the water and adjacent woodlands. As a result, the animals that make their home on the stream are free to come and go from our property. And they do. In my own backyard I’ve had everything from beavers, possums and raccoons to squirrels, skunks, bobcats, foxes and coyotes. Just across the creek, we often see white-tailed deer moving from one woodlot to another, despite the constant din of nearby roadways, home building and other human activity. I often watch these critters from my office, which looks out onto the backyard, and in all cases the creek seems central to their existence — for water, food, cover, even orienteering. When the deer move between woodlots, for example, they run the creek banks; other animals enter and exit my backyard through the stream and the protective cover of its trees.

I’ve noticed that when traffic out on the street gets too heavy, the sawing and hammering from yet another new housing development too loud, and the droning of lawnmowers and weed-eaters and leaf-blowers too raucous, the raccoons and foxes, and even many of the birds, slip away into the creek, the predictable, steadfast creek.

John Gifford is a writer from Oklahoma. His most recent book is Wish You Were Here, a collection of short fiction.