Sunday, June 29, 2008

Surfacing for Breath

After a mind-boggling ten days without Intarwebz access, I am safely ensconced in my uncle's house in far west suburban Chicago. The last week was spent in the haven of McCormick's Creek State Park in southwestern Indiana, a place my family has been retreating to in one form or another for the better part of eighty years.

I have pictures out the ass, but my laptop isn't cooperating at the moment, so I'm borrowing my aunt's computer.


Following the road from the park gatehouse as it curves past the tennis courts and runs through the woods, you don't notice at first that the cabins are perched somewhat precariously on a thin thumb of level ground surrounded on three sides by massive sinkholes. The sinkholes are a quirky byproduct of the limestone foundation underlying much of Owen, Monroe, and Lawrence counties south of Indianapolis. As water courses between the underground layers of stone, caves are hollowed out. When the ceilings collapse, voila. Sinkholes the size of Assembly Hall.

The trail to the creek starts at the rear circle of cabins and follows a narrow ridge as it slopes steeply down, a merely large sinkhole on the right, a huge one on the left. They don't photograph well. Beech, tulip, and maple trees march resolutely down the sides of the holes, the giants growing up from the bottoms matching the crowns of their higher cousins despite being rooted some fifty feet lower. One hundred, one hundred and fifty feet they tower, the canopy blocking all but a few thin beams of sun. Maple branches break the middle layer into horizontal planes; young hickories and muscle elms elbow each other for the dregs of the sunlight nearest the forest floor.

On the floor itself, a profusion of plants covers the humus formed by fallen leaves. A grove of mayapples here, a riot of wild ginger there, nightshade and dotting everywhere. Occasionally a low moss- and fern-covered hummock of earth stands sentinel over a bleak oval depression, an open grave the sole monument to the giant tree whose falling and uprooting dug it. Eager saplings crowd the sun-soaked forest gap; only the fastest growing will eventually supplant the giant trees to either side.

Closer to the creek, the forest changes, a profusion of ferns and a parade of sycamores signalling greater proximity to the water table. Where the creekbend has washed away the soil beneath the sycamores, limestone cobbles are suspended in air by interwoven roots. Where the trees are long gone, the roots remain, a cephalopod of wood squirming in the mud, clinging to the rocks in futility. Dragonflies flit from weed to weed, water striders skim the surface of still pools, crawdads skulk beneath the rocks, and tiny bass and sunfish flee from your shadow.

The massive floods of early June have scoured the creekbed clean, leaving clear water mostly free of sediment, running cold and gurgling over the newly-dumped cobble bars. In the lower reaches of the creek you can stand on the bank eight feet above the water and look up to see muddy leaves and tree trunks above your eye level, a stark testimony to the volume of water that moved through here. The two-foot-diameter tree trunks piled like Lincoln logs speak to its violence.

On this day, though, the current burbles cheerfully along to the soundtrack provided by wood thrushes and the wood peewee. Notoriously difficult to spot, they are rendered even more invisible by a canopy that is twenty feet higher than the last time you were here. No matter. Simply hearing them is enough.

That's McCormick's Creek. For six blessed days, my heart was home.

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