Monday, August 18, 2008

Spirit Creek

I live next to a little spring fed creek that I christened Spirit Creek. On modern maps, it has no name. In an antique book store in Topeka, I found an old township map that shows it was once named Spring Creek.

It is normally a beautiful clear water stream. It loops around my house and there are several places where the water flows over rocky shallows with a musical murmur. When it rains, it rises in a muddy hurry. When it downpours, it boils into an angry, dangerous current that pulls down trees, erodes the banks, and scours the streambed clean. Before I moved here, it carried an eight passenger stationwagon about a mile downstream.

In the time I have lived here, Spirit Creek only stopped flowing once. It dried up into large pools, and exposed the bedrock and gritty sand of its channel. I hiked upstream in the empty bed and was surprised at the number of small springs and seeps that were trickling water.

It was during this hike that I discovered at every tiny seep or trickle of water, hundreds of Monarch butterflies congregated. The sheer numbers amazed me. Some were perched on the moss-covered rocks next to a trickle of water. They roosted closely together on the limbs directly above the fresh water, where it was cool and damp. I could feel the coolness myself as I slowly passed, careful to not disturb them.

Two years of low rainfall coupled with searing heat from early spring until late in the year were the culprits in drying up the creek. It was not replenished with rainfall, and what water there was evaporated in the heat. Somehow the butterflies knew where to find fresh water. It was more than mere chance that so many would have accidentally found the empty stream bed - the entire creek is scarcely four miles long.

I sometimes take Kansas for granted and I take my few acres for granted. I should know better. If I lived here for one hundred years, I would never discover all the secrets.

The creek is also a treasure of fossils. In early spring or on particularly warm winter days, before the insects are out, before the snakes, spiders and other creatures that make sitting next to the water an uncomfortable experience, I love to actually sit in the sand of the creek. With a few minutes of searching, I can find a handful of fossils. I have collected quite an array of fossils, saving the best specimens of each type.

As far as my amateur research has gone, the fossils are quite common and came from the end of the Permian period, in the Paleozoic era. There are neochonetes, which look like delicate clam shells. Crinoids are tiny sections of an ancient plant-like animal with a hole in their center. Some of these are actually five sided. There are tiny ancient clams that are perfectly shaped, often both sides petrified together. There are also millions of tiny stone pieces that look like kernels of wheat called fusulinids. My favorite fossil to find are the bits of bryozoan fossils. They are minute pieces of some creature that looks like modern coral or tiny pieces of tree branches, and delicate bits of lattice that apparently were once fanlike creatures. They are so delicate that I am amazed they survived millions of years for me to find them in the sand now.

The Permian period was between 299 million and 248 million years ago. I have tried to imagine time on that scale and simply can not. At the end of the Permian period, there was a mass extinction of most marine invertebrates. It is the largest extinction of life known to science. Eventually the Permian sea disappeared, the age of dinosaurs came and eventually gave way to the Monarchs and human beings.

As I sit in the ancient sand of the creek, hearing the calming music of water over the limestone rocks, I consider the evolution of the earth. I wonder if in her great dreaming, she ever imagined the sycamore tree sinking its mighty roots deeply into the soil and sand and ancient fossils right at this bend of creek. I wonder if she herself dreamt me into being so I could lay back on the warming banks to watch the silent drift of clouds above this fair place. I wonder if the death of these tiny marine creatures was in the grand plan on the way to dinosaurs, to mammals, to grasses, to bison, to Monarch butterflies, to human beings all along. Or was it a cosmic accident she had not anticipated? And always, I wonder what is to come....

Photos of fossils here.

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