Water words and tiger tales

beetle larvaOver 100 years ago, there was no quarry here on these 50 acres. Cranberry Run was a meandering trickle. When the digs and blasts began, this place’s namesake was one of several in these parts. Over time, most closed or consolidated operation. Springs kept the abandoned holes filled. People and animals fished them. Picnics were eaten on the shores.

Before his body failed him, my dad spent a lot of sticky hot summer time rebuilding a stone wall between our quarry and Cranberry Run. This happened nearly 50 years after human hands and earth movers stretched, straightened, and deepened the natural engineering of the stream to push water through various townships to others downstream. The quarry was opened to heavy sediment loads forced through via the Run. Over the course of 50 years, the quarry depth went from 20 feet at its deepest point to no more than four of water and muck.The Quarry

As soil, grasses, and trees further rooted the wall, the quarry began to change again. Aquatic plants, their seeds held for generations in the floodplain, took root beneath the water’s surface. Some are rare, others not so much, but most are native and blooming to attract pollinators and migrating birds to shelter among the green.

unnamed.jpgTwo weeks ago, heavy rain flooded the quarry. Kayakers paddled through the preserve, weaving through trees well above the Run’s banks. The footbridge floated, held fast by heavy chains, thanks to Engineer Dave Seitz’ design. After the flood wave crested and rolled north toward the Blanchard, I kayaked under it and on to Riley Creek, past the 20170513_141555absent M-6 bridge, Putnam Aggregates and the Riley Creek United Methodist Church. The banks were surprisingly clear of debris, with one exception on the east bank in Riley Township. There, an old car follows a wave of cans and other discards toward a detonated washing machine on the bank below.

About a month ago, the water in the quarry was crystal-clear. You could lean out over the bank and watch spring life move in and out of the sprouting aquatic plants, except for those areas that were wriggling black with toadpoles. You could reach in and pick up handfuls of the fry if you wanted to. Steve used a dip net instead, keeping several in a five-gallon bucket to show to visitors at Lima’s Faurot Park Earth Day celebration.

20170502_201309_LLSThe week before that, Steve came back to the house with a bucket of fairy shrimp in quarry water. I love to watch these tool in healthy circles, especially since their presence tells me that the wetlands are doing such fine work sponging sediment and impurities in the floodplain. The pools did such a great job that the bucket also contained a salamander larva with waving spaniel-ear-gills, and a predaceous diving beetle nymph.

My dad would have been so excited to see the contents of this bucket. His artist’s eye would note the analogous brown and gold patterns of the amphibian skins and the scarlet jaws of the young beetle. The latter is nicknamed “water tiger.” You don’t have to spend much time to understand why. Steve said he started up the path between the quarry and home with 10 toadpoles. At the door, there were seven left.

After lots of people oo-ed and ah-ed over the catch, we released them. Though many were surely washed away, we know that quite a few are still there. Grown frogs and toads sing through the nights. Great blue herons, raccoons, and ducks feast in the shallows while perched raptors wait for their one false move.

 

Life lessons

One of the primary goals at The Quarry Farm is to increase understanding, to educate. Sure, we provide sanctuary to animals in need, have established a preserve for the area’s wildlife and offer folks the chance to just kick their shoes off and relax. But, during every interaction that takes place in the name of The Quarry Farm, the primary goal is to provide, and learn, new insights. Arguably, the topic that gets the most attention is water quality. We have a number of programs that we present on the subject, everything from simple, on-site discussions of the various aquatic habitats that help make up The Quarry Farm, to Small Streams, a project that allows us to set up aquatic microhabitats in schools and community centers. During any presentation on streams and rivers, the question that invariably gets asked of us, and that we in turn ask of visitors or classrooms, is this: What’s the biggest pollution problem facing the waterways in rural Ohio?

The responses to that question nearly always include garbage, oil (or some other petroleum product), manure, chemicals, litter and, inevitably, dirt. The correct answer is included in that list and it’s having a profound effect on everything, from the Great Lakes to the shortest of creeks, like roughly five-mile long Cranberry Run, a stretch of which runs through The Quarry Farm.

In the 1950s, and again in the ‘80s, Cranberry Run was channelized, engineered by officials in Putnam and Allen Counties so as to more quickly move water north and ease local flooding concerns. The stream bottom was dredged and the tops of the banks widened; a latitudinal cross-section of the resulting waterway would resemble a wide-mouthed “V”. Cranberry Run was also “straightened”: oxbows were bypassed, as were any extreme serpentine meanders. Anything that could possibly impede the free flow of water was eradicated, including trees and bushes that grew along the banks. What was once a historic waterway, a vibrant habitat for a host of aquatic animals and the myriad species of birds and mammals that depended on them, was reduced to what locals dismissively referred to as “Smith Ditch.”

stream4In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Gerald and Laura Coburn, after years of civil protest, negotiated an agreement with the counties that would allow Cranberry Run, or at least that portion of the stream that ran through their property, to reacquire a more natural presence. Within the first decade, the four natural stages of a waterway – riffle, run, pool, glide – reestablished themselves. Trees rooted on the bank, grew and began to provide shade, cooling the passing water and creating a more hospitable environment for all manner of aquatic insects and fish. Today, Cranberry Run snakes its way for approximately one-half of a mile through The Quarry Farm. The meanders in the stream bed slow the water flowing through here enough that sedimentation occurs and, on most days, the “Little Cranberry,” as it is affectionately known, runs so clear that visitors can’t help but comment on its clarity.

Cranberry Run as it approaches its terminus, Riley Creek.

Cranberry Run as it approaches its terminus, Riley Creek.

And that, returning to the question of “what’s the biggest contaminant,” should help provide the answer: dirt. Dirt is our greatest concern and the biggest problem facing all of the animals that live in the water, from insects to mollusks to fish. Not only does dirt, suspended in solution, absorb the sun’s rays and increase water temperatures to dangerous levels for the animals that live there, but it carries with it chemicals bonded at the molecular level and creates an environment in which aquatic organisms find it increasingly difficult to breathe. Imagine standing downwind in the smoke of a brush fire, not for a minute or for an hour or for a day, but perpetually, forever. For gilled animals living in highly turbid water, they may as well live in the smoke generated by an eternal tire fire.

Pictured above and below  is the point at which Cranberry Run enters Riley Creek. Efforts made within the boundaries of The Quarry Farm, and upstream by like-minded neighbors, have nearly erased the sediment load in the waters of Cranberry Run.

Pictured above and below is the point at which Cranberry Run enters Riley Creek. Efforts made within the boundaries of The Quarry Farm, and upstream by like-minded neighbors, have nearly erased the sediment load in the waters of Cranberry Run.

At left is Riley Creek as it flows northwest to the Blanchard River; the clear water to the right flows from Cranberry Run as it meets and enters Riley Creek.

Efforts on the part of private individuals and organizations, and through governmental programs sponsored by state and federal agriculture departments, are beginning to have an effect. Public awareness of the issues is critical in creating healthy environments in which all forms of life can prosper.

creek chubs

 

 

Belle’s Goodbye

Four weeks ago, Belle, a shih tzu who came to live with us on The Quarry Farm some five years ago, was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of cancer. The word “inoperable” was used more than once as her condition was explained to us, though whether or not that was a consequence of her assumed age and the belief that she wouldn’t survive the surgery is a question I never asked.

I was once told that cancer is the embodiment of chaos. I’m not sure who said it or if it was even remotely accurate, but it stuck with me. In this particular case, it was about as true a statement as was ever made. The cancer attacked her lymph nodes and grossly distorted the lower half of her face. As the disease rapidly progressed, tumors swelled the glands on either side of her jaw and ripened until they began to intrude into her mouth, pressing her tongue to the side and interfering with her ability to eat (mark that I said, “interfering”; her appetite was huge and she ate well and as often as she wished, though with a bit more difficulty than she had before her cancer). Her doctor assured us that she wasn’t in any particular discomfort and that she would enjoy life for a little while longer, possibly as long as a couple of months.

 When she stops eating, he told us, it’s time.

 Last Thursday, she stopped eating.

 On Friday, we took her in.

 We brought what was left of her, her biomass, home and buried it at the base of a Kentucky coffee tree that graces the area just outside our front door. Heat and drought had turned the ground into something much harder than simple earth and it took an old railroad pickaxe to loosen the dirt enough to shovel it aside. Eventually we placed her in a hole that seemed much too small for her. Tiny as she was physically, she was possessed of a huge personality and could, when she chose, fill a room. We further marked the spot with a slab of dolomite and placed pieces of granite and quartz and red shale on and about the stone in celebration of a life that was our great good fortune to share. We then went inside and wondered at how much smaller our house seemed to be.

 Less than an hour later, as a headline in our local newspaper so colorfully put it, the area was “blown to pieces.”

 The storm that swept through was deemed a derecho (http://www.weather.com/news/weather-severe/derecho-explainer-20120612). Straight-line winds in excess of ninety miles per hour tore through the region, uprooting and snapping trees, tearing roofs from buildings and, in some cases, leveling the buildings themselves. Power and telephone lines were cut by flying debris and the poles to which they were attached were battered to the ground. While there were reports of multiple tornadoes in neighboring counties to the west, none touched down here. Even so, the area suffered some of the most significant widespread damage in its history. Nearly every homestead was affected, including ours.

The Quarry Farm fared better than some, worse than others. In the domestic areas of the farm we lost about a dozen trees, mostly evergreens, and several shrubs. Shingles were blown from the roof of one outbuilding and the door to the chicken coop was ripped from its hinges and beaten to splinters. A big, wooden outdoor storage cupboard was teased out from under the eaves of our house and torn apart. A window was blown loose in the big shed and smashed. The bee hive was reduced to its component parts and scattered across the yard and even though the hive was already failing, it was a hard sight to witness. In the woods and along Cranberry Run, dozens of trees were left bent and broken. The largest and oldest of the trees, the ones that reached above the common canopy, bore the greatest insult. Limbs as large as some of the less mature trees on the property were rent free and fell, dragging smaller limbs and even some smaller trees with them. Honey locust, sycamore and black walnut trees were affected the most and their limbs and trunks fell and blocked many of the paths that we have so arduously cut through the woods.

 Even so, we were lucky. Our homes came through the storm unscathed and, more importantly, no one was hurt. Buddy and the boys, S’more and Marsh, seemed nonplussed. The chickens made a last second mad dash to the coop and, despite the flying debris, beat the odds. Even the duck and geese came through it without a scratch, all of whom weathered the storm out in the open despite immediate access to shelter. They simply faced into the storm and made themselves as small as possible, holding their wings tightly to their sides and pressing themselves into the earth, riding the storm out as best they could. As did we all.

 The biggest part of me recognizes that this was strictly an atmospheric event, an accumulation of physical conditions that culminated in a significant release of energy. I know that, should I choose to, I can go online and research this until I know each and every factor – heat, humidity, air pressure, ocean currents, whatever – that played a role in the creation of this storm. I know that this was a cause and effect scenario.

I know this.

 Even so, there’s a part of me that thinks that maybe there was something more to it than just pressure systems and cold fronts. That maybe this was a release of energy of a completely different Nature. That maybe, just maybe, this was more personal than that. Maybe this was Belle’s exuberant release, her nod to us as she went wherever it was that she wanted to go.

 That’s how I’ll remember it, anyway, despite logic and Carl Sagan. After the shingles are replaced and the chicken coop door is repaired. After the debris is raked up and put aside and the paths are cleared. After all of the electrical and telephone lines are restrung and the grid is whole and fully functional once again. After the fallen trees are reduced to neatly trimmed and stacked piles of drying wood and even after that wood has eventually dried and is burned in some future fire, that is how I’ll remember last Friday.

 It was the day that Belle said, “Goodbye.”

 

 

 

POSTSCRIPT

I was going to leave this for another day, but I find that I can’t. I have a couple of final thoughts I’d like to express. First, my soapbox. When Belle came to us, she was broken. Literally broken. Both eyes were severly scarred, particularly the right, which was all but entirely closed with scar tissue. At some point, she had broken her jaw and it had never healed properly. I never understood the mechanics of it, but her veterinarian explained that there was a gap in her lower jaw that had never closed. She was constantly on edge. Vague movements sent her scrambling, and with her eyesight, all movements were vague. She lived in constant fear, her bladder emptying in uncontrollable spasms of fright. Worst of all, I think, was the tattoo in her left ear: the number 25 writ in large block numerals. Again, her veterinarian explained that the number was a means of identification. Not to assure her safe return should she come up missing, but as a simple means of differentiating her from any other shih tzus that the person (and I use that term conditionally) who had her before us may have, must have, kept.

She was Bitch Number 25 and that may well have been the only name she had before coming here. She had been bred and bred and bred and bred until there was almost nothing left. Just that tattoo in her ear.

And now my plea. Should you have to live with a specific breed of dog, if a pure breed is what you must have, please check first with the rescues. There is one for every breed. If that’s not enough, not something you want to pursue, please go to great lengths to assure that the breeder with whom you are working is responsible. And please do go to a breeder. Don’t buy from a store. You just never know. http://www.humanesociety.org/issues/puppy_mills/

And now, as we so very often hear on Monty Python’s Flying Circus, for something completely different. As a consequence of the storm, power was out for most of the region for varying amounts of time (and there may still be those whose power has yet to be restored). We lost ours for four days. Four days without power meant four days without water. Thankfully, we have good neighbors. Casey and Dan Walker, realizing our predicament, offered us the use of an old well on their property that has a manual pump. Without that, tending to the hydration needs of the ducks, geese, goats and donkey that live here would have been extremely difficult, at the very best. So to the Walkers, our most heart -felt thanks. You exemplify the best in good neighbors.