This weekend there were massive storms across the Midwestern United States. The winds were fierce and persistent. Our run club on Saturday morning did an out and back course with the return trip flush into the stiff northern breeze. It was hard work getting back.
Then the rain started at noon and continued all the way through Sunday evening. At times the rain was horizontal. When the wind let up by Sunday noon, a steady drizzle kept coming. The birds at our backyard feeder pecked at wet seed but it was all they could do just to feed. The band of seven male ducks that uses our feeder stood out in the rain and wind looking nonplussed about the conditions.
But everyone on the human side of the equation altered their daily activities, it seems. At the grocery store, attendance was light compared to a typical Saturday or Sunday. The Garden Center at Home Depot was nearly deserted. I visited just to buy some extensions for the downspouts.
That got me thinking about my former house and how it used to flood in the basement when big rains came. Over the years I worked with the waterproofing company until they finally installed some high-powered sump pumps that could jet water out of the sump wells with frightening speed. “Yeah, this mother is going to do the trick,” the waterproofing dude assured me.
That gave me some peace of mind when the rains came. But more than once over the years, I’d scuttled around that basement like a crayfish in the Gulf shallows trying to usher water around my little domain.
Water is persistent. It goes the path of least resistance. Downhill in whatever direction it can find until it settles or pours through the low spots. But water is fickle: It can also rise up when confined by banks that cannot hold its volume. That’s when rivers overflow and wetlands become so important. The so-called “backwaters” of the Mississippi and other great rivers accepts floodwaters. Rivers that overflow their banks often enrich the soil. That’s how the Nile served Egypt, and how many great rivers still perform valuable fertilization rites to this day.
To some small extent, that’s the case right now in our backyard, where a wetland bumps up against civilization. The spring rains filled it past its typical boundaries. Now the bike and running path that rims the wetland is covered over by a giant puddle. The huge poplar trees and scrubby willows along the edges of the wetland are reflected in the pure, clear water that has overflowed the banks. I stood over those waters in a moment of zen. The calm I feel at such moments goes beyond thought.
Songs of the day
I walked down to the edge of the extravagantly overflowing pool this morning to listen to newly arrived migrant birds. There was a yellow warbler singing, and a yellowthroat as well. These two beautiful birds are small in size (5-6″) but have a big aural presence during the spring and summer months. They are both common birds across the Midwest, and their respective songs are part of the background music of life here. Both often sing throughout the day as well.
The yellow warbler has a bright yellow plumage with rich red stripes on its breast. It’s insistent but thin song goes sweet-sweet-sweet sweetchieuuuuu. The yellowthroat wears a black mask through its eye. It tosses back its head and sings a throaty witchity–witchity–whitchity whichhh!
These birds I know from years of summer association. While running and riding in the country, their songs are indicators of slightly wild and often wet places. And while 90% of the human populace likely ignores their songs, they keep singing it. Perhaps they know something that we don’t. That we’re not so important as we might like to think.
Knowing they’ll be my company so close to home is a joy indeed. They love the wet places and right now things are really wet within thirty yards of my house. Indeed, people who walk and jog or bike that path will have to choose whether they want to go straight through the extended wetlands or choose a soggy shortcut across the park district lawn to connect with the paved path further down.
Nature’s own course
Nature determines the course of things on its own terms, at times. I wish more people understood the importance of these seemingly simple dynamics. Wetlands are important. They play a critical role in holding water and filtering it down into the earth where some of it reaches the aquifers. Wetlands need space but people like to confine them and try to limit their reach. It’s hard for human beings who covet property over purpose to leave wetlands alone rather than dig them up or channelize them until they serve no purpose other than storing turgid water with no purpose other than reflecting the sky.
I admit to loving the chaos of water when it disobeys manmade structures. The rush of a flooding river is compelling to watch. But even that love of chaos has its limits. Because up in Decorah, Iowa where I attended college, the levees do their best to hold back the Upper Iowa river, but the topography defies such efforts, and over the last decade the river has caused havoc year after year. It floods the entire lower campus, including the cross country course that runs along the lowlands by the river. The floodwaters even threaten bridges at times. And be advised: There is no more frail feeling in this world than running or riding over a bridge where the raging waters course just feet below.
Occasionally people try to ignore the power of such water and try driving through floodwaters. Their cars inevitably get scooped up by the waters and thrashed against bridge abutments or destroyed some other way. Apparently, some people believe they have immunity against the forces of nature. But when it is unleashed, water is the most unforgiving substance on earth. It listens to no one. It is wet and wild.
The rains were surely fierce this weekend. They dashed against the side of our house making noise like a rushing train. But this morning the waters the rains left behind are calm and broad behind our home. There’s an allegory there. A lesson that our patience must be tested before such calm can be earned. Think about that before your next hard run or ride or swim.