A creek ran past it

A creek formed the northern boundary of the property where I spent my childhood. Years before I was born, the creek had been fed by springs, but the growth of the village led to increased use of well-water, so the water had dropped and the springs disappeared.

Of course when I was little I was not supposed to play in or near the creek, and of course I did. When water was flowing down the creek, my friends and I would launch large leaves or slabs of bark in the creek, then pelt them with small stones from the shore, trying to sink or destroy our toy ships. Many summers the creek bed became dry, forming an irresistible playground. I gathered aluminum cans other people had tossed into the creek and built cities from them, then attacked the cities with rocks. Those rocks had originally been placed on the banks of the creek to prevent erosion, but many of them had tumbled or been pushed into the creek bed. One year I thought that I would pull the rocks out of the creek and build a fort, but the walls of the fort never grew more than two layers high. When I was older, I spent several afternoons of one summer rebuilding the stone reinforcement of the banks.

In the winter the creek usually froze. Generally the water level dropped during the gradual freezing process. Schoolchildren found endless satisfaction breaking the shelves of ice on the banks of the creek on their way home from school. They used their feet to break the ice or threw rocks at shelves on the other side. During the spring thaws, children again attacked the ice in the creek. When conditions were right, the creek would freeze into a smooth surface suitable for ice skating. I owned a pair of skates and would go out on the creek on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon for an hour or two of exercise. I never had the ability or the room to learn any skills other than skating forward, but I enjoyed the time spent outdoors all the same.

Sometimes in the springtime fish would swim upstream in the creek. Some of the neighborhood children attempted spear fishing, but they had no success. The creek also attracted mallard ducks, and–two years–a large snapping turtle. When the water was low, crayfish could be found under the rocks. My friends and I captured them and released them; it never occurred to us that people might cook and eat crayfish. Trees lined the bank of the river, mostly boxelder and mulberry trees. Phlox and other wildflowers bloomed in the spring. When I was in the fourth grade, I picked a handful of phlox to give to the new girl at school, because I thought she was nice.

Floods from the creek several times covered the property and entered the basement. My father believes that the flooding increased because of construction in the area that reduced natural drainage into the ground. A few years ago, he successfully led a battle of village residents to deny rezoning that would have allowed construction of a megastore (with a large parking lot, of course) next to the creek about a mile upstream. That one victory did not prevent the eventual razing of the house because of its location in the floodplain. J.

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Neighborhood games

Those who read my previous post about playing outside may have assumed that I always played alone. It is true that I often played alone–from solo baseball to solo croquet–but I was also part of a neighborhood cadre of eight children, from three families, who played together. Often our group expanded to include children from other families further down the street.

Our favorite game was “kick the can.” For the can we used a plastic ball filled with air. One player (who was It) guarded the can while the rest of us tried to kick the can. Those of us who were not It had to be hidden, though, because when we were spotted, It would touch the can and announce, “one-two-three on [name] who is hiding [location].” If the person who was It could spot the rest of us before any of us kicked the can, he or she remained It for another round. If one of us did manage to kick the can, he or she would then be It for the next round. No cumulative score was kept; each round counted as its own game. Success required darting from one hiding place to another, approaching the can; it often involved teamwork to approach from different sides, forcing It to choose which side to guard. It could wander anywhere to discover hidden players, but if It strayed too far from the can, one of the players was sure to kick the can and end the round.

We also played a game we called Army, which essentially involved splitting into two teams and reenacting unspecified military events from World War II. Half of us would be Germans and the other half Americans. Most of our loose scripting was based on what we had learned about the war from television shows and movies. Each of us carried a stick to represent a rifle. In this game also, the goal was to remain hidden from the opposite side while trying to sneak up upon them to shoot them. A clear sight of someone on the other team led to raising and aiming the stick and shouting “bang,” or, sometimes, “I got you.” A certain amount of honor was involved in agreeing to be shot and to die upon these announcements. If someone insisted, “you missed,” or, “you only got me in the leg,” the game was effectively over. Unlike kick the can, our desire in Army was to prolong the game and enjoy the maneuvers. I remember that the game fizzled, though, once one boy from down the street brought a new plastic replica of a gun that even produced sound effects when used.

I cannot remember ever playing Cowboys and Indians. Once we were all accomplished bicyclists one summer came to pass in which we designed a Cops and Robbers game, but I no longer remember the rules to that game. We did not try to split into teams for sports such as baseball or basketball. One boy in the group, who was in Little League, introduced us to a baseball-based game he had learned called Stealing Bases. There were two bases, fifty to sixty feet apart, and two fielders with mitts. They threw the ball back and forth. The rest of us (generally five or six, as I recall) would be on-base until someone thought that the throwing and catching might be challenged by a sprint. The hope was to inspire an off-target throw or a dropped ball, since a thrown ball is much faster than a human runner. I was more daring than the others, but I was also tagged out more often than the others.

Most of these games were played in the summer when school was out. Eventually we became too busy even to play in the summer, by which time we had friends at school who outranked our neighborhood friendships. I do not know the location of any of these childhood playmates. I doubt we would recognize each other any more if two of us happened to be in the same room (aside, of course, those who were siblings). As with the house in which I lived, all that remains of those times are memories. J.

Three summer bugs

Around this time of year, for the past several summers, I have had a growing sense of concern. This concern is not just anxiety in another form; it has a very real worry at its core. By the beginning of June, I expect to see the lightning bugs (fireflies) flashing around the yard and garden in the evening. I expect to hear the cicadas singing from the treetops. I expect the dragonflies to visit the yard and dance their summer dance.

When June has started and none of these insects has made an entrance, I begin to think ugly thoughts about my neighbors. I think, “You’ve finally done it with your sanitized lawns and pesticides. You’ve killed off the insects of summer for the sake of your green grass and your gaudy flowerbeds. I bet you’re not even sorry to have them gone.”

Every year, my ugly thoughts are premature. In just a few more nights, the lightning bugs will be flashing their lights on and off every evening for the next few weeks. In just a few more mornings, the song of the cicadas will be heard again. In just a few more days, the dragonflies will dance again.

I am not the most ardent tree-hugger that I know. I believe that chemicals have a place in agriculture and industry, and properly used they make my life better. I do not want to force the entire neighborhood to return to nature. On the other hand, I have read Silent Spring. I am aware of how much harm people can do when they overdo things. And my neighbors are not the kind of people to show restraint. They overmow and overtrim; they drench their lawns with their sprinklers every morning. The fear that they have finally killed off the lightning bugs, the cicadas, and the dragonflies is not entirely beyond reason.

If they have no tolerance for clover and for native daisies, I doubt they care about lightning bugs, cicadas, and dragonflies, or even about butterflies and honeybees. For this reason, I care all the more. What comfort it is to see the lightning bugs and dragonflies again each summer and to hear the cicadas. These sights and sounds assure me that nature has not yet been defeated and that there still is hope for the planet.

Have a great summer!

J.