It was a hot late-summer day. A yellow school bus plodded away, leaving a cloud of dust in its wake. Songbirds sang while the leaves rustled, patiently holding on till autumn called them from their perch. The forest was still, as the crunch of leaves beneath hopscotching squirrels echoed on the hillside.
A flash of movement and thunderous sound broke into the doldrums of that hot day as a young boy, freed of his cumbersome backpack, careened down the slope with three canine companions. I was this boy. My feet were sure of every step and my head aware of every branch. I shot down the steep forest floor like lightning, with little thought to the potential outcomes that now plague my adult mind. I would glide to the bottom of the hill to my destination, Mill Creek.
Much of my childhood was spent roaming the woods and engineering stone bridges over the creek. The rock and logs that littered the beaches made for endless scavenging. My rock collection grew with stashes hidden behind trees on the bank, out of reach from the flash floods.
As humans do, I became acutely aware of the patterns found in my natural surroundings. Seasonal changes prompted a new landscape for exploration. Dutchman's breeches and Virginia bluebells in spring gave way to mayapples and trilliums. Running through a grove of scouring rush made it hiss like the sizzle of bacon dropped in a hot pan. Winter meant frozen water and easy hiking. Often a frozen creek led me farther upstream or downstream than time would ever allow me to dare during the summer.
It was the flood of 1993 where my perception of nature's rhythm was first jarred.
During the flood of 1993, my beloved creek transformed into a swollen monster. My parents forbade me to venture into the woods for fear of high flood waters and landslides on our steep bluff. After the waters had subsided, I ventured into a very different forest.
Most of the beaches were gone. The sand was swept up and deposited atop the creek banks in the floodplain. Most of my rock collections were also gone or buried. And my materials for bridge construction had to be resourced.
The composition of plant material had changed. Most of the herbaceous understory drowned or choked out by the water and sand. My recurring morel mushroom deposit never yielded after that summer. It took several years for the beaches to return, though they were different now. Some reappeared downstream, while others transformed almost entirely to rock.
Another disruption soon followed the flood. The adjacent landowner felled trees on the opposite bank and pushed the boundary of their cropland to the bank's edge. Black field tile now emptied from their stream banks. It didn't take long for the creek to respond by eroding and caving in its edges. Heavy equipment was brought out to rebuild and shore up the creek edges with rock and timber from cut trees.
Nearby parcels of land were sold and developed. Four-wheeler tracks appeared in the woods and creek bed. Trash accumulated in eddies and an almost constant oil slick snaked through the water's current.
The forest changed, too. Bush honeysuckle crept in, and the oaks began to die off. Erosion began to run rampant on our hillsides. In the span of a little over a decade the forest and creek had changed, and I was present to experience that change.
As we busy ourselves in the garden and landscape, we may be reminded of our time spent as a child exploring the outdoors. I didn't realize it then, but now know, spending time outdoors was the establishment of my roots in conservation and the basis for my career choices in life. It is a sharp reminder of how important it is we get our youth outside. Ask any professional who makes a living outdoors and most can recall a fondness toward a particular landscape, relative, or teacher that showed them something fascinating about our living world.After drafting this article, I will begin to prepare for McDonough County's Conservation Day. A time where local 5th graders get to explore the outdoors. It is truly my fortune to speak with our youth and share with them something fascinating, and see the spark in their eyes, while voices echo "Wow," "Cool," or "Eww!" And maybe, just maybe, some of those kids will find their profession in the great outdoors, building our knowledge in the realm of living things and stewarding us toward the future.