On Sunday afternoon, as I stood in the middle of a stream, water running over my feet and then between tall, moss-covered cliffs on its determined way to somewhere else, I remembered – again – that my husband and I do the same thing for play now that we did when we were twelve: ply the creek beds. We’ve added some adult accompaniments to this pastime; I carry my camera, we notice more detail, we pay attention to dragonflies. But the basic activity is the same. Although as adults, we breathe more deeply and more consciously, because we are more aware of what we are trying to shed out here – the stifling noise of an urban setting, the pressures of a life trying to hold it all together.
I love the natural world, and being in the places where it holds the most sway. When I’m in one of these landscapes, fully engaged in it, I always get a feeling of transcendence. This feeling isn’t exactly the same in all the places I go, though. Just as the foods I love all have different flavors, so do my favorite natural areas. Some places, like the North Fork Wilderness in Glacier National Park, stun me into silence one moment, and the next have me joyfully sticking my parched head into a frigid meltwater creek. The Silver River in Florida is changeable: in the morning it’s blue, misty and serene as a cathedral. But when the sun comes out for the day, so do the monkeys, and as they shove each other into the water or fling themselves in from the trees, they instantly change the character of the river from reverent to mirthful.
This place – Fall Creek, in western Indiana, near the Nature Conservancy site Fall Creek Gorge, is soothing. It’s a clear, walkable creek, dotted with circular indentations in the bed that force you to slow down and watch every step, so you don’t snap an ankle. At this time of year, the green of the tree canopy shelters the creek, filtering the sunlight into long, luminous beams. The cliffs are covered in cool green moss, and groundwater drips through the rocks here and there. About a month ago, columbines growing from cracks in the rocks were in full bloom, but by last weekend they were gone. The sight of the columbines was replaced by the enthusiastic chirping of cliff swallow chicks, tucked safely into nests their parents had carefully built inside gaps in the rocks.
There are always – always – surprises on the banks of the creek – an electric blue dragonfly, a tiny frog, a small water snake. There’s a particular rock beach that always seems to harbor puddling butterflies as they take in their minerals. Once, it was a large group of yellow Eastern Swallowtails. This time it was a handful of Question Marks. On the way back, we noticed a small, prehistoric looking creature, almost like a tiny horseshoe crab, lounging in the sand, half-in and half-out of the water. On closer inspection, we realized it was a snapping turtle hatchling, probably only a week or so old.
There are always surprises.
After a day of this, my calves were on fire and my joints were angry — another adult accompaniment to the endeavor — but my mind had quieted. Nature does this, at least for some of us, the scientists say, but I still wonder what precise things different places do to our minds. I wish I could wire myself up during visits to various places and find out: What part of my brain lights up like neon in a cool, green place like this? What about the vast and lunar Badlands? The New Mexico desert in September? What about the prairie patches that run along the busy city street near my home, where I’ve come away with so many images of micro-wilderness?
Most of my brain doesn’t really care, in the end. These are feelings of well-being, and addictive, so I keep seeking them out.