Spring Rain

By Sara Firman-Pitt | April 2, 2005
From Missouri Conservationist: Apr 2005

Though landlocked, Missouri is very wet. Even the name "Missouri," in the language of an indigenous tribe, means "Town of the Large Canoes." Nowadays, our state is known as "Where the Rivers Run."

With one of the largest concentration of springs in the world and hundreds of miles of floatable streams, you're never far from water in Missouri. Spring Creek, a tributary of the North Fork of the White River, curves through our property. Each morning I wake to the sight of the light touching the broad strip of creek that runs past our deck. Little Big Spring, just downstream, sends plumes of mist along the valley.

This creek originates from many springs upstream. It is usually crystal-clear since it has passed only through ranch and woodland.

One way to appreciate the valley is to wade up the middle of the stream that runs through it. In summer, it is a marvel to share the cool water with little nibbling fishes, sedate old turtles and territorial birds as you pass various plant communities. In places, the water is deep enough to immerse yourself fully or float as you look up into impossibly green Missouri trees.

We're on the edge of the Ozark Plateau, which took shape when much of the country was covered by water. Some geologists believe this area was the first part of the continent to emerge from the sea. People from the Rockies and Appalachians like to belittle our flat Ozark ridges. We reply that our mountains aren't high, but our hollows sure are deep!

My adopted valley seems to have both depth and wisdom. Extensive national forest land keeps neighbors just far enough apart here. Part of it adjoins our property. Below the surface of this region, hidden streams have carved thousands of caves out of porous limestone. When it rains, water pours out of the hillsides.

Our log house is perched on the rocky bank of Spring Creek. Only about a 15-foot strip of land separates us and the water. The creek is full of contrasts--one minute wild, the next sedate.

One day in spring, a neighbor phoned to tell us a tornado warning was in effect. He knew we do not own a television or listen to the radio. The thunder-and-lightning show was spectacular. We worried about our newly planted garden when big chunks of ice began to fall. The garden survived, but the rain carried on and on.

In the space of a few seconds, we watched the creek burst through the canebrake where the otters live and spread over the floodplain on the opposite bank. Soon the wild brown water carried huge trees and odd items of farm equipment.

Inspired by the Missouri Department of Conservation Stream Team program, we've been working to protect and improve the stream corridor on our land. I've planted more than 100 saplings of native witch hazel, false indigo, spicebush, buttonbush, chokecherry and water tupelo along the creek bank. I wondered if they'd be able to hang on through the flood.

The water rose quickly that morning but stopped within feet of our door. By 7 p.m., the sun broke through and offered what seemed a magical light, though an ominous black cloud lingered in the sky.

We rescued a bluebird that had flown into the woodstove flue for protection. The water introduces us to all kinds of wildlife. We've spotted snapping turtles basking on old logs or rummaging along the bottom, nearly transparent minnows flocking in the shallows, flamboyant kingfishers, lumbering muskrats and shy river otters.

That glistening evening a grandiose lime-green luna moth decorated our door, along with a gray tree frog that was probably awaiting insects drawn to the outside light. The frog's camouflage did not work well against the cedar logs. We spotted a Baltimore oriole with its flaming-orange chest and a rose-breasted grosbeak at the feeders. They had just arrived to scout the land for the females that would be following.

During a lull in the rain, we walked our woodland trails and enjoyed the brilliance of newly washed wild plants. The pokeweed looked so fresh that we picked some for supper. You have to boil the leaves in three changes of water, but they make a delicious "spinach" on pasta with a little cheese.

Spring is best time for fresh wild greens. I'm learning to identify the edibles and am experimenting with including them in meals. A wild leaf salad of chickweed, young dandelion, plantain and violet leaves decorated with white, yellow and blue violet flowers and dark-pink redbud flowers looks and tastes astonishing.

When the warm rains come, everyone's attention turns to edible morel mushrooms. My husband is fascinated by all the fungi that grows here. Some mushrooms are toxic, so I advise him not to eat anything unless a local expert approves it.

When we first came to Missouri, the book "Searching for Booger County," by local historian Sandy Chapin, made us toss and turn some stormy nights as we learned of deluges that swept away small holdings and grist mills along the valley bottoms.

"For generation after generation," Chapin wrote, "the people of Booger County have suffered nightmarish hardships. Floods, epidemics ... are some of the tribulations people here have endured."

Our friend Daniel Woodrell wrote a novel that was made into the film "Ride With the Devil" about the Civil War here. Desperate folk may have hidden in the caves in the rocky bluffs overhanging Spring Creek to escape soldiers from both sides that marauded these remote communities.

There used to be a village called Roosevelt in the part of the valley where only our house is now. The remains of a grist mill--a single cog--pokes out of the creek bank, not far from a ladder of old timbers where wagons and vehicles crossed the creek before the road bridge was built.

After the flood we found an unusual amount of horseshoes, as well as iron files and old machine parts, in the roadside ditches. Maybe there was a blacksmith's shop here, too. Just a few minutes walk away at Big Spring was a courthouse and an old school that some of our neighbors attended. Hardly a trace is left of any of these buildings. We put the horseshoes we found over our house and shed doors for better luck.

The grass grew inches after the rain, and the dandelions went to seed. The soil is rich stream sediment with hardly a rock in it. We often find the sharp-edged rocks that native peoples carved for arrowheads. There is plenty of scope for growing things in such soil. We don't want to use herbicides, especially since we are close to the water, so the wild plants are thriving. Maybe we'll keep one patch of lawn cultivated and gradually turn the rest into garden and prairie meadow.

We have such a wonderful variety of native trees, shrubs and wild flowers here that there really is no need to introduce a lot of cultivated garden species. We've started making trails throughout the woodland so we can enjoy all that comes up from season to season.

Although we do have some "formal" garden around the house, my favorite garden is the woodland. We try to enhance what is already there. For example, we prune the wild hydrangea so it forms attractive round bushes, and we clear around a maidenhair fern on the path's edge so that it can flourish in full view. As spring moves into summer, we can hardly keep up with the Missouri jungle.

After the rains, the spring-fed pond in our woodland is a hive of amphibian activity. It's home to salamanders and newts and frogs aplenty, and we don't want to disturb their habitat. In midsummer we'll clean out the old leaves when the creatures are neither breeding nor hibernating. Meanwhile, it's a delight to walk around there and hear the frogs or see a something slink away under the foliage.

The creek and the many seeps running down the hillside after the rains bring sound to this watery picture. What a delightful picture it is! It's a reminder of how precious and life-giving water is.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - TomCwynar
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair
Art Editor - Ara Clark
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Laura Scheuler