Our Village President called and asked about endangered species. We knew each other because our sons were soccer teammates. The Village wanted to build a pathway along Six-Mile Creek and neighbors whose backyards backed up on the Village-owned floodplain alleged an intolerable ecological impact if the pathway were built.
I knew Six-Mile a bit. More generally, I know sleepy little Midwestern creeks from my own history. Six-Mile meanders along the backwater margin of the main street downtown, storefronts standing with their backs to it. In later-built neighborhoods on the other side, houses face the other direction. It’s a posture of indifference, houses standing in the reclaimed marsh now covered in blue grass and pavement – draining their basements into the streets into the creek.
The floodplain nurtures common species, survivors who punch above their weight to make a living in the margins. Box elder and cockleburs. Goldenrod and nondescript willows. A few of the big prairie cottonwoods still stand, providing some dog-eared dignity of prairie place and shade for patches of muddy understory. I told him that I doubted there would be endangered species there and that in any case, a project in the floodplain would invite scrutiny from the Wisconsin DNR regulators (as I’m sure he knew). The pathway was completed shortly before the pandemic. I think about it every time.
In my cluttered files, I have essay snippets celebrating September, celebrating that temperate zone moment when glorious summer wanes while lovely ephemeral fall is waxing and unique graces of each embrace in their complementary moment. I am there for it in the amber afternoon sun when dry prairies sparkle with coneflowers, asters, chicory, and dock and winds smell nutty and rich. I am there for it when green leaves begin looking labored, margins weatherly and thin. I can let my latent melancholia advance to match the ever-cooler evenings meeting the ever-earlier darkness.
But it’s been raining for three days, and I am walking the Six-Mile path on the way home from church.
Pastor Karen’s sermon began with the loss of precious things.
My shoes are wet, pants too. Rain is dripping from the frayed bill of my cap sticking out of the raincoat hood. I am a cold weather phenotype. By late summer, I welcome the first cold rain. I tell myself this. Being cold is becoming a luxury.
The path has become essential internal geography. I find ruby crowned kinglets during spring by the bridge at one end and I stopped there one summer dusk to drink in the mystery of an owl silhouette draining away in a darkening sky.
I found black and white warblers in a brushy area by the ephemeral little puddle pond and beyond that, the bend where the creek tunnels through, and the wood duck pair hides. I found the fox den under the cottonwoods and watched the pups play on the far bank one covid spring. I identified a lesser yellowlegs there in the mud with a red-headed woodpecker overhead and deer ghosting away in the peripheral understory, occluded in the shadow-dapples and leaves. Jewelweed spangles the creek bank.
And now. Even now in the cold rain, there are prairie flowers among the cockleburs and the little silver maple in the hummocky marsh-hay opening is finding its fiery red – the opening act for the conflagration to come. And as I walk, flocks of goldfinches roil and boil out of the rank vegetation ahead of me – a behavior hinting that they too, feel the falling.
When he called, I was conflicted. I own my baseline suspicious of development because I worry about cumulative impacts that seem always a lesser priority for regulators. Here, the trade-off was access for my neighbors to this little patch of pedestrian wildness. Since the path went in, I see joggers and stroller-pushers and dog-walkers – and best of all, kids building forts from the fallen limbs. Now you can walk from downtown to the library away from the traffic and the taverns. Green space and access to it is important – especially in our older poorer neighborhoods.
I’ve known remote wildernesses where exotic beauty bludgeons you dumb with drama and grandeur. I’ve been to places that motivate iconic photoshoots in National Geographic. I’ve worked and recreated there, but my faith is sustained by graces of common places, the degraded Midwestern creeks, the rag-tag forest patches, the modest resiliencies. I contend that we are wired this way.
I am not a theologian on this blog, or a pastor. I have no authority to say this, but I think there’s a spiritual virtue in poking around in the precious margins, a virtue in presence among the leavings and in laying one’s imagination open to connection. Creator rhythms are ancient and nourishing, and it helps to go look.