My cousins' children, who once slept as newborn babes on my chest, are wearing make-up and are taller than I am. My cousins, now parents of those teenagers and nine other children, are kept constantly busy making bottles and changing diapers and giving snuggles and getting food and providing yet another clean outfit. My aunts and uncles (and parents) clean and cook and rock crying babies and nod a quick approval when a grandchild says "can I drive the Kubota?" And yet a creek can equalize them, finding within them a constant age as surely as it finds the path of least resistance through the landscape.
The burbling water and "glump" of a well-thrown rock into the deep pool provide an accompaniment for the laughter and squeals of delight as the first crayfish is spotted. Then another and another and another. The voices of the parents mingle with the children as all are wrapped up in the symphony that is the outdoors. I hear the Tufted Titmouse calling, see the flash of the male cardinal as he swoops across the water. The Ebony Jewelwings cavort in their awkward, aimless way.
The jar in my hand is soon taken, intended for the capture of water striders. I do not tell them how to do it, I let them try and fail and try and fail. This moment will teach, they will learn from a jar, water and a very small animal. Attention soon turns to the jewelwings, perhaps they will be easier to catch. At 13 and 8, there is no age difference between these two children right now. They are both learners, they are both teachers. Within minutes the jar is discarded as inadequate, hands are a better tool. This, too, fails. The dragonflies, looking so easy to capture with their lumbering flight pattern and Sunday-driver pace, elude them.
A group of Day Campers are pictured on their creek hike.
But the stream lures them back. The next corner, the swimming hole, what's after that? These children have been here, in this place, for at least one weekend every summer of their lives, sometimes more. "I've never been this far down," are the words repeated again and again, as if they are surprised at their lack of exploration. The children, ages 7 to 36, start down the middle of the stream. One is trendy in short shorts and make-up and fashionable flip flops. One is oblivious to fashion in a long-sleeved swim shirt and beat-up slip-on shoes. My iPhone is in a Ziploc bag, my cousin's camera, capable of underwater photography, is in her hand. The jar is left with those too young yet for such adventures.
I let them lead. I let them fall. I let them learn to read the water, where the rocks are, where the deep parts are. I watch them start as individuals and end as a team. The youngest takes the hand of the teen in flip flops, providing support and friendship. The lone boy scouts ahead, alone at first, but then assuming the role of protector, warning of deep spots and slippery rocks and fast currents. I watch as they lose shoes, holler "my shoe!" and someone downstream grabs it and forges upstream to return it.
They never tire. They would travel until dark if allowed. Their attention also attunes to their surroundings more as the trek continues. They notice that the Ebony Jewelwings are two different colors and point it out. When two are connected, flying in tandem, they wait for me to catch up so they can point that out. A mass of caterpillars on a walnut tree warrants a photo. The Bee Balm is pointed out on the banks of the creek.
At the bridge, our stopping place, but they don't know that yet, they fall into the swimming hole created by the culvert's rushing water. One notices a minnow trap with a lone fish in it. It has been there for a while. They ask if they can let it go. I point out that it is not our minnow trap, but since the fish has obviously been in it for a long time, we can. They ask what kind of fish it is. They say goodbye to it as we set it free.
Crawling up the bank for the hike back, one of the group manages to hit a stinging nettle. By the time I get up on the road, she is rubbing her legs and saying that she got stung, a lot, by something. I grimace and say "yes, you did. By a plant." We have another nature lesson, one on stinging nettle and one on jewelweed. She is a trooper, never complains, never raises her voice, never gets upset. Halfway up the road, the nettle has done its work and she has huge welts. It will stop hurting in an hour and will completely disappear in a few more. She is okay with that, as she rubs balled up jewelweed all over her. The parents hover as we return. "What happened? What's the green stuff all over your legs? Oh, my god." They get medicine, they ask for Benadryl, they ask if she wants something for the pain. She informs them that "ice is enough, I'm fine, it will go away in an hour. I'm fine." I smile a huge, enormous, proud smile on the inside. Good kid.
I see them all once a year. It isn't enough. I want more. I'm glad, so very grateful, for these children, these cousins, this family of mine. I am grateful that a woods and a creek and cornfield with fireflies and a thunderstorm and a rainbow are all we need. I see what this envelope of nature does for these children of the cities and suburbs and treasure every moment, every second, I can spend with them there. The power of a creek to create a bond is incredible. They will have that adventure for the rest of their lives. I will have it. Tucked away in my heart, the memories that fuel me for the year while I wait for the next reunion, they are as precious as the air I breathe.
Audubon connects kids to nature every single day. I am so fortunate to have a job that I love. There are few spaces in our camps for kids going into grades 5 through 7. We are always offering other classes and programs and the trails are open daily from dawn to dusk. Stop in. Get connected. The Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sundays when we open at 1 p.m. Call 569-2345 for more information, visit our website, jamestownaudubon.org or stop in. We are located at 1600 Riverside Road, just off Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown.
Sarah Hatfield is a naturalist at Audubon.