Patapsco: rocks

Evelyn was fascinated by the creek that flowed alongside the Cascade Falls trail. She's liked water ever since she was a baby. She liked to put her hands in it and watch it drip off her fingers. She liked to watch it pour and splash. She liked the way it filled an empty space. A few cups in the bathtub could occupy her for hours, until her tiny fingers were completely shriveled.

At a spot where the trail and the creek met along a shallow, sandy bank, we stopped and knelt by the water's edge. I scooped a rock out of the water and showed it to her. It was polished by the current, teardrop-shaped, with beautiful light-and-dark striation that made it seem as though the stone itself was flowing liquid. Evelyn held it in the light, looked at it closely, and asked me to get her another one.

“Why don't you try?” I prompted, pointing to the creekbed at my feet, the stones scattered and warped in the rivulets.

She took a step toward the water and hesitated, nervous, caught in perhaps the most primal, human fear of them all: who knows what lurks below the surface? We're land creatures: scrawny, hairless bipeds designed for savannah. We're out of our element but we're drawn to water anyway.

After some encouragement Evelyn took a step forward and reached into the current. She let her hand linger there a moment, enjoying the way the cool water flowed through her fingers. She picked up rocks, one after another, inspecting, commenting, trying to collect them all, but I made her put each back where she found it. Seizing on a Teachable Moment, I began to lecture: these are creatures' homes, leave no trace, erosion, geology, watershed, blah blah blah. But she'd long since tuned me out and interrupted with a counter offer: she showed me a heaping handful and pleaded to just keep these. We haggled, just as we haggle over brushing her teeth and putting away her toys, and eventually we reached a deal: she could pick out one favorite and take it with her.

Then I started wondering what was living in this creek. I lifted a bigger rock and peeked under it. Nothing there. I lifted a few more, waited for the dust to clear, and — there! A newt! Floating just above the muddy streambed, statuesque, doing its absolute best to look like a stick or a leaf or a shadow or something that a looming predator like me would find unappetizing.

In whispers and slow movements, I pointed out the newt to Evelyn. This was, I think, the first time she'd seen one. The first time she'd seen anything alive in a creek.

An ink wash drawing of a newt in water, from the Patapsco illustrations series

It took a moment for her to fix her gaze on the spot where I was pointing. I forgot how difficult it can be to spot a creature who is talented at hiding, even when they're right in front of you. In the nature documentaries we watch on Disney(Note: Her favorites are the ones with cheetahs.), the elusive and the camouflaged are betrayed for us in unmistakeable, high-definition clarity. We're given a reasonable approximation of the skilled eyes of veteran wildlife photographers. But here at this creek we had no such assistance; our own eyes would have to do. When Evelyn finally saw the newt, she was transfixed. Questions — whispered under duress — poured out of her by the dozen.

We turned over more stones, more and more, further and further into the deeper parts of the creek. Before she knew it, Evelyn found herself standing knee-deep in the water, her pink neoprene water shoes reduced to blurs under the foamy currents, her fears of the water and the mud and the dark crevices forgotten. Converted, in fact, into the kind of splashy, muddy, reckless eagerness that I dare say makes childhood worth remembering. We found minnows, crawdads, water-strider “Jesus” bugs, catfish (I think? It was too fast), and — best of all — tadpoles!

Ink wash drawing of tadpoles

Evelyn loves frogs. She desperately wanted to catch a tadpole and take it home. She yearned and pleaded, her eyes on the water, and suddenly I was 12 years old again, watching myself from above. I was in the creek in the pastures near my home in the Shenandoah Valley, net in hand, overturning rocks and dying to catch a frog. I was slow and clumsy and hesitant and therefore rarely successful, but even this was enough to populate half a dozen small terrariums in my bedroom with crawdads, salamanders, turtles, and fish. I did finally catch a frog — with the help of my friend Kyle, who had better reflexes — and proudly set him up in a small terrarium on my bookshelf.

It was a 5-gallon-or-so plexiglass tank with a blue, vented lid; I filled it about one-third full of water and placed a few rocks in the bottom to give my frog something to sit on. I placed him in the tank and sat back to admire my latest specimen. It eventually occurred to me that my frog might want to eat, and so I spent my evenings catching crickets near the basement door. I have no idea, to this day, if frogs actually like crickets, but mine would jump and catch them anyway, most of the time. Perhaps because he was confined to a tiny space with nowhere to hide and nothing that felt natural, or perhaps just because he was really hungry. I don't know, and I hate the fact that, back then, I'm not sure I particularly cared. The frog was, to me, a curiosity to study and enjoy; a decoration in my room. Having some sense for how the frog felt about it all was beyond me.

Eventually I got tired of catching food and cleaning the tank. I carried it back down to the creek and gently tipped my frog into the water near the bridge. I remember the way that he swam out to the middle of a deep pool and floated there on the surface, idly, like a human sprawled on a floatie. My frog had become too accustomed to the aquarium, I realized, where there was an absence of cover, but also an absence of hawks and snakes.

Before, this frog had been fast and alert; catching him had been hard. Now I watched his pale, splayed-leg form, utterly exposed in the deep water, and I could finally feel the weight of consequence of my acquisitive love for wildlife.

As I've grown older, I've come around to the perspective that animals should be appreciated right where they are. Humans should carry cameras, not cages. There is no need to recreate nature; it's already there, right in front of us. This was, at least, what I found myself trying to explain to Evelyn and, in turn, to my 12-year-old self. Just being here, experiencing this creek, is enough. Your wet feet and the rippling water and the cool air and the dappled shade and the joy of discovering a newt in a crevice under a rock. These are the things worth keeping.

I handed Evie my phone so she could take pictures, and we looked for more tadpoles.