To get to the creek at my parents’ farm, leave the house by the back door. Stop to admire my mother’s giant pots of herbs and other plants on the wooden deck before heading down the stairs and onto the brick walk. To your left, you’ll see a perennial bed of, if I remember correctly, white and purple flowers. And to your right, another smaller bed with shrubs and hosta and a gas lamp permanently lit to welcome visitors.
The gravel driveway will crunch beneath your shoes—and cut bare feet if you’re not careful. Walk past the garage towards the barn. To the right, another long and narrow perennial bed. To the left, the remains of the pasture fence: a small length of wooden sections of posts and rails representing years of farm labor and lessons. Tall pines on either side of the drive will escort you past the barn to your left. And to your right, you’ll see the syrup shed, where my father spends late winters turning gallons of sap into the maple syrup that I use to sweeten peaches and strawberries and be reminded of home. Know that into the concrete floor of that very shed, my children carved their initials with a thick nail.
But we must go on.
Walk past my father’s garden and the field of corn. Notice the way the shoots of those corn stalks grab at the soil and hold on tight, like two rows of fingers trying to maintain a grip on time fleeting.
Enter the woods, dark and cool and silent. Let your eyes adjust for a moment before continuing on the path up and over a small rise and then down.
You’ll sense it before you see it. The air will grow yet cooler. The trees denser. If it’s evening, the frogs will quiet at your approach. And then, spread out before you, the creek.
Of course the word creek is a misnomer, but old habits die hard. Thirty years ago, there was a creek here, a narrow stream of water over which a ten year old could easily jump. But shortly after we moved in, a family of beavers decided to make this place home as well. They turned our creek into a pond, damming up that thin stream of water flowing towards the Cuyahoga River and eventually sending water over a good two acre portion of woods.
Stand still a moment. Try not to breathe. You may get a glimpse of the creature responsible for all this beauty. And then, there’ll be a slap and a splash as, having seen you, the beaver will disappear beneath water.
There are occasional dead trees in the pond. Between lush grasses and thick cattails, there are channels of water that no human has ever explored. And if you venture across the creek, taking the road between the dam and the stubborn stream that insists upon continuing on to the Cuyahoga, you will, perhaps, stumble upon the dump where we have found old bottles and a copper ammunition box. You will see the turkey vultures and, if you’re lucky, you’ll discover that patch of wild berries. A buck may leap out in front of you, scaring you, yes, but filling you with exhilaration to have seen its majesty so close. You will know that the coyotes won’t appear in the middle of the day, but deep in the woods, you’ll look about cautiously anyway, just in case. You might even see the bear that’s been known to visit. If you venture to the property line, you’ll see that the family behind the pond is bringing in their hay. You’ll see the tops of the trees of their orchard: apples and peaches and pears and you’ll think of autumn cider and donuts. But don’t cross the creek, not yet, anyway. Linger here at the pond.
Of course you’ll want to fish.
Take a seat upon the bench or the swing but be careful it you stand upon the dock: The front tends to dip into the water if weighted down too heavily.
Thread a fat night crawler upon a hook and plop it in the water, watching the bobber intently. Bluegills are notorious for stealing your bait undetected. If you’re squeamish, use a lure instead, but understand that each lure has its own story and its own personality and its own purpose.
You may snag a bluegill too small to keep. You might get one of those twenty-inch trout that lurks in the center of the pond. But if there’s something on the end of your line that you cannot reel in, know that you’ve caught the old snapping turtle and just let go.
You could fish under the hot noon sun. You could fish in the morning, swatting away flies and mosquitoes. You could fish at night, watching the sky darken and feeling the temperature cool and wondering about those coyotes and dodging the bats that swoop for insects. You could spend your entire day fishing and return to the house of my parents with nothing to show for your time but dozens of bug bites and a sunburn. Yet, you’re satisfied. You know you’ll go back again tomorrow.
You know the way.
* * *
To get to the mall, hop into the car and back out of the driveway. It’s not far: you can be there in the amount of time it takes to get to the creek. Head through the neighborhood, past that birthday party with the traveling zoo. On the front lawn of that quarter acre lot there are a couple of animals in cages. Three goats grazing on chemical grass. Two miniature ponies that won’t fit on the lawn so are relegated to the sidewalk.
Try not to stare.
Leave the development and head east. Cross the railroad tracks. Watch out for the road construction. Join the four lanes of traffic. Oh, and those trucks getting off the highway and merging? They won’t stop. Be sure to let them in. Turn right into the mall: watch for that driver making an illegal left turn. Drive into the loop circling the mall. Find a parking spot. Lock the doors with the press of a button and a reassuring beep from the car horn. Pass the teenagers hanging out by the entrance. The smoking section. The employees lunching at a picnic bench. Pull open the heavy double door and step into the air conditioning.
Pass the security man, wheeling down the center of the mall on his Segway. Ignore the man hawking cell phones; the woman spritzing perfume clouds into the sterile air; the music screaming across loudspeakers. One floor below, there’s an indoor playground where little ones laugh and shriek as they slide down one foot slides, pretty and red and clean.
Feel your heart empty as you fill your plastic bags with Things You Need.
Pass the employee in the lingerie section of the department store who wears an apron bearing the unfortunate words, bra fitting specialist. Know that she, like you, would probably rather be fishing.