"Nearly everybody has a creek gurgling through memories." —Peter Steinhart in his essay "The Meaning of Creek", Audubon, May 1989
Few have the good fortune to be born and live, as I did for some fifteen years, with the sound of a gurgling brook coming through the open windows of their bedroom each spring and summer. Those who have heard the sound remember for life that exotic and peaceful piece of nature's night music.
As a first born, I had sole possession of my bedroom for two years. Then for the next six years a new brother appeared every two years until there were four of us. Elbert Eugene was the first to sleep with me. Then another bed was moved in for Lauren Ernest, who would, in the regular two years, be joined by John Dillistin Harris. In time we all became absorbed with our brook often playing around or in it until one by one we found out about girls. We still, however, cherished the brook's night music.
For a short distance the stream ran fairly straight as it passed grandfather Elbert Dillistin's old apple orchard on its north bank, and his white eight-room colonial farmhouse, which we lived in, on its south bank. Elbert's father, Israel, built the house after he returned from the Civil War in 1865. Here the brook had carved a course about two feet deep and two or three feet wide.
Each spring mother sent me down to the 'crick' to cut the long creamy yellow horseradish roots that winter freezes and thaws had exposed. The large leafed plants grew above and alongside the stream bed. Mother would scrape the roots I brought her, then give me the eye-watering job of cranking them through the meat grinder, which was clamped to a bench in the summer kitchen that in winter doubled as a woodshed.
As a six year old will, I was soon curious about the brook's origin. When I asked Dad he told me of a spring at the eastern edge of our twenty-acre wood lot, a place I had not yet seen. One day in May I started up the stream. After following it around a field of grain, and after what seemed a long time, I came to a spot where cold water bubbled from the ground in the pasture lot at the edge of the twenty-acre wood lot. Out of sight of our house I felt far from home, but excited about my find, even though it was just as Dad had described it.
Water from the spring ran through a pipe into two wooden tubs made from a barrel sawed through its center. Horses and cattle in the pasture could drink there. The overflow trickling from the tubs was the starting point of the Nameless Brook. I had found what I was looking for.
As I walked back to the house I thought about what I had seen, and how I would tell the Smalley kids from up the road about it. When I did and they just laughed, I felt foolish.
Just a few yards east of my bedroom the brook left the Town of Tyrone, Schuyler County, where it passed under the Pre-emption Road bridge into the Town of Starkey, Yates County, three and one-half miles southwest of the village of Dundee. From there the brook passed through what was the Will Simmons' pasture, then it flowed alongside Crawford Road through Charley Crawford's farm. In Crawford's woods the brook carved through the shale rock, forming a deep ravine and one fascinating water fall.
Soon after the brook crossed Route 14A the ravine plunged until, to me at age ten, it became a canyon darkened by spruce and pine trees lining the banks high above. About a mile farther downstream the brook went underground through a large concrete tunnel built years before by the New York Central Railroad (now Conrail). After some fifty feet of descending, the tunnel flattened out in the center section where it was pitch dark. It was a scary place for the ten year old the first time he splashed his way through running water, until the tunnel rose again into light. I remember how relieved I was to see light again, sort of like rebirth.
Here our brook ended, tumbling into Big Stream near the ruins of the old Stone Mill and the Stone Mill Road Bridge. Big Stream accepted Nameless Brook with grace along with countless earlier unnamed streams. Together they ran some three miles downward to empty into Seneca lake, one of the largest of New York's Finger Lakes.
I had listened to elders talk of the past when great water wheels harnessed many streams to create power that ran all kinds of mills. Lumber, grist (grain grinding), iron working, and other mills had used turning water wheels until they were replaced, first by steam, then oil, and finally electric power.
The stories set me to thinking how I could build a little water wheel to run in Nameless Brook. I found an old wagon wheel spoke about three feet long and made five flat areas to fasten five shingles for paddles. Next I cut a notch in the ends of two wooden stakes that I hammered into the ground, one on each side of the brook. I drove a nail into both ends of the spoke that would lie in the notches, held by staples.
Then I was ready to see if it would work. Standing in the brook I lowered the paddles into the water with the nails resting in the notches, and after a few adjustments, sure enough the paddles turned very nicely. All night my water wheel sent new water music some fifty feet up the bank, through our bedroom window. What could be a more pleasant way to fall asleep, and in the morning, wake, than to the rhythmic splash-splash-splash-splash-splosh (one paddle was off line), splash-splash-splash-splash-splosh.
I soon learned if I woke to no sound from the wheel, one of three things had gone wrong—either a floating piece of trash had jammed the wheel, or a flash flood brought on by a storm had toppled the wheel, or, in spring, the brook raised into a roiling, boisterous torrent had ripped out my flimsy water wheel, sometimes sweeping it away in pieces. When that happened I doggedly started building another with hope that it would be sturdier.
Lauren Battles the Brook
Lauren, my second brother, the enigmatic one with his strange, wild nature, was destined to live an excessive and abbreviated life. From his very early years he exhibited extraordinary capabilities in some things, but lacked in others: he was a gifted musician and baseball pitcher but a difficult student. Too often he was reckless.
Early on, his fascination with our Nameless Brook got him wet feet almost daily despite mother's protests. He spent hours along the creek, even in winter when ice covered the then near-still water.
Robert Frost wrote: "Nothing happens in these creeks of a revived memory... A belated revisit never lives up to memories."
I can attest to one exception to these lines, for never can I forget the day in March when our little brook, out of control, took Lauren on a wild ride downstream headed for a tragic end.
1932 brought us a harsh winter. Even Big Stream was iced over and blanketed with heavy snow until a two-week stretch of warm weather with rains filled roadside ditches and ponds, all sending water to Nameless Brook. One day I watched the snow-covered brook slowly swell until it began to go over its banks, flooding the adjoining fields below the Preemption Road. The next day at the bridge the cracking noises I had heard earlier were much louder, and the southwest wind had reached gale force. It was then that a frightening thought leaped into my mind.
I burst into the kitchen where mother was ironing. "Mom, where's Lauren?"
"Why he's been outside quite a while—you better go look for him."
"You better believe I better— that crick is about to bust loose all over the place and won't be a place to fool with!"
At the bridge I saw large ice cakes breaking away from the pack, helped by the wind, fighting their way downstream, rolling and piling, creating grinding noises. On the bridge I stood, belly pressed against the rail by the howling wind, eyes searching for any sign of Lauren. Suddenly there he was, about fifty yards downstream, bouncing in and out of the water, riding a cake of charging ice. At times the ice seemed lifted by the wind. For a moment I stood petrified, then terror got me moving.
I ran splashing down the north bank, in places under a foot of water, wondering what to do if I caught up with Lauren. Just before I got near, I picked up a floating branch and when I came even with him I tried to extend it to him. He waved and promptly went under. Running with the flow, I watched for him to surface until he popped up hanging to a chunk of ice. I kept yelling "grab the branch and hang on" until he finally did. I ran alongside until I could tug him ashore.
"What do you think you're doing out there—trying to kill yourself?" He grinned, then giggled.
"I didn't think the ice would break up so fast. When I first went in I thought I could ride the ice to the bank. At first it was fun but now its getting nasty. Where did all this water come from—thanks for hauling me out—I never saw this little crick act like that."
Icy water streamed from his heavy clothes as we sloshed our way against the wind on the way to the house. Lauren looked at me and grinned. "What's the matter Ed, what makes your teeth chatter so loud?"
"You try that again, I'll let you float all the way to —,"
My teeth chatttered all right, some from the cold, but mostly from just plain shock.
Reprinted by permission of the Dundee Observer
© 1993, Edwin N. Harris
Lauren Ernest Harris was named for his aunt and uncle, Laura and Ernest Florence of Dundee. He was killed with two other passengers in an auto accident on Route 14A in the Village of Dundee on October 22, 1945, when he was 23.