After a slithering descent from Bon Air, after creeping through backyards, through small urban greenspaces, and beneath streets and roads, the Rattlesnake Creek finally pays its meager tribute to the mighty James River about a tenth of a mile east of the Huguenot Bridge. If you were to start from this unsung confluence of great and small and follow the lesser tributary back towards its source, gently cascading water would lead you uphill, around a sharp dogleg right, and through a narrow 200 yard-long ravine that opens into a large, arrowhead-shaped basin where the Rattlesnake is flattened, dispersed, and in places seems to be evading the call of gravity all together. You would have entered the unspoiled natural wonder behind my house – a place I have always called “The Lowland.”
The Lowland is really just a supersized pothole in the granite-rich, steeply sloped southern bank of the river where it passes through Oxford and Stratford Hills. And in Richmond, where we teeter on the fall line of the James, this roughly six-acre basin can also be seen as a pothole in the easternmost edge of the Appalachian mountains. Dense with grass, underbrush, and trees, the earth has brought forth here with such vine-draped abundance that the Lowland is almost unfit for human travel. Unfit for the travel of humans, that is, other than my two daughters and me. Ever since the first one joined me in this life experience 13 years ago, and long before they could stumble forward on their own, my girls and I have used much of our free time burrowing into the thick, green hair of the Lowland and gaining an intimate, lice-like perspective of this small depression in the earth’s scalp.
The water passing through the Lowland is either clear and gently flowing or slow and sullied, depending on which branch of the wandering creek you encounter. The earth is so flat in the center of the basin that the Rattlesnake disperses aimlessly into various small branches and forks, some of which barely or never make it back to the main flow. The earth is mushy and wet in most places at the heart of the basin, especially after rain, and in places where the solvent is moving slowly or not at all, the solute of surrounding peat is mixed into solution to create a dark, brown-black soup exuding the over-ripe, distinctive smell of stagnant, soaking earth.
Few trees grow straight and wide out of this muck, but many do grow. One loblolly pine has somehow reached majestic proportions, three and a half feet across at its base and 100+ feet tall. A nearby tulip poplar has developed a wide impressive canopy to adorn its own 100-foot+ main stem. Both of these are probably 75-100 years old, growing straight and strong out of one small area of mostly dry earth near the center of the basin. Most of the trees surrounding these exceptions are lank and leaning, having no apparent strategy for survival other than living for today. As long as today is calm and pleasant without too much rain or wind, they will be allowed to keep their roots in the muck. And even if the weather continues to support their growth, if they simply succeed at living and growing for too long, they will still come to pre-mature ends, leaning as they are at such unhealthy angles. The soft, shifting earth beneath their trunks will not support such cockeyed growth indefinitely.
This earth behind my house is low, and wet — really just a crotch, or a bowel of nature. There are no clear walkways, and when traveling through the Lowland a human being is grabbed and scratched by dense underbrush, and poisoned by toxic ivy. A modern human must insist that he belongs here, and must forget what things are like in the other refined places he inhabits. The modern human must un-spoil, or un-culture himself to travel comfortably through the Lowland.
The written law has a special name for places like the Lowland. According to the law these are “unimproved” parcels of land. Hmmm.
I do sometimes experience an urge to clean the place up. Perhaps I could make it more welcoming, and more convenient for human travel. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, I sometimes imagine, if there were clean, broad footpaths with smooth surfaces such that humans of any stripe could stroll through effortlessly. The fallen and partially fallen trees and dense underbrush don’t really look inviting. The Lowland is ugly and chaotic, really, if I use socially- or intellectually-derived criteria to judge its appearance. Sloppy. Unkempt. Conspicuously absent are the pretty, crystallized patterns or placement of parts with which we attempt to surround ourselves in our homes and our cities. Maybe I could clean the ugly parts of the Lowland up, thinks me, and all the chunks of wood and debris that have floated into this basin from high water events. I could sterilize the place a little, so to speak — kill back some of the poison ivy, cut back some of the prickly brush, make bridges over wet, squishy low spots. Part of me desires to mold this un-vitiated earth such that one can walk in and walk out in his Sunday suit with no fear of sullying. Yes, I must admit it. Part of me, the modern man in me, looks at this modern slice of the ancient, original garden and wants to “improve” it. But then . . .
The girls had already been wading and splashing around in the creek for a while when one of them lost footing and was unceremoniously baptized in a deep pool at a place we call “Pumphouse” beach. The shivering initiate emerged from the brown, pollen-thickened water giggling and goose-bumped. My daughter, Brooke, and two other girls she invited over to help her celebrate her 11th earth year, gloried in this secular immersion of their friend as fervently as ever did the witnesses of the more religious ritual. They gloried in it and were so affected that in a matter of moments each of the squealing, giddy girls had deliberately re-enacted the accidental dunking of the first girl. The brown pool of water became a laughing swarm of wet heads, arms and legs.
I relaxed, and pulled out the phone to start recording digital images. I had been nervous for Brooke as we descended into the Lowland on the narrow trail behind our house. Could a simple walk into a wild, overgrown creek compete with trampolines, air-filled rubber structures, shopping malls, or movies in the bid for the attention and enjoyment of 11 year old girls? Would these friends of Brookes find any value in this place? Would they think that Brooke and her father were weird for bringing them here?
This birthday agenda was Brooke’s idea, and I should have trusted my younger daughter. While I may sometimes think the Lowland needs improving, my perception is affected by my years. I am too “improved” myself, too industrialized, too knowledgeable and modern for a proper assessment of the value of unspoiled earth. I am not as wise as I was when I was 11. When it comes to the value of the creation, I am not as wise as my young daughter.
At Pumphouse Beach a long, thick loblolly pine tree holds its ground against a perennial watery onslaught. An electrical water pump, mounted and housed beneath a small roof against the trunk of this tree, now defunct and chewed on by squirrels, is holding onto this pine tree as a living testimony to the ingenuity of a previous generation. It looks like something my grandfather Turner would have had on his tree had he lived near a creek. This old pine tree with its attached human relic looked on as the girls began jumping from a 3 ft bank to splash down into the murky pool. The water didn’t look at all inviting to an old man like me on this day — muddy from heavy rain and thick with pollen and other spring droppings. Cold. Yet what was uninviting to the old man was the welcoming embrace of the original mother to these young, lilting ladies.
I sat on the beach and watched in reverential awe the interaction of un-improved nature with un-improved human nature – and I fell in love with both all over again.