Over time, as with all streams and rivers, Lookout Creek will measure and reveal both our culpability and response-ability as a species.
In the morning I walked over to the gravel bar on Lookout Creek to take notes.
Rain drip-ticked on the yellow maple leaves above me. Drop-tocked in the puddles collecting on the ground. Ping-ticked on a shiny black cedar log. Plop-tocked on an overturned plastic bucket some researcher left. Though the wet drum of rain was nuanced and lovely, when I got within 100 yards of the creek, the rush of whitewater overwhelmed everything.
In a travel memoir that ventures from his smalltown upbringing to vastly different cultures around the globe, Tom Montgomery Fate comes to define “home” not as a physical location, but as a way of belonging.
I sat on a flat rock in the hard rain listening to Lookout Creek. Given three days of rain, and all those boulders and deadfalls, it had a lot to say. Over time, the gurgling water dissolves rock, rots logs and leaves, and carries them downstream, along with trout and pine pollen and needles and cones, and bits of moss and lichen. Over time it will reshape its bed and banks and habitat, physically expressing its character and history in the forest. Over time, its diversity and biological health will be denigrated due to climate change and other human activities. Over time, as with all streams and rivers, Lookout Creek will measure and reveal both our culpability and response-ability as a species. Over time it will measure who we are.
Over time. Not in or on time. Not hours or numbers, but a river of light and darkness, of heat and cold. Over time, things change. Some change is dramatic—what ecologists call “a disturbance”—like the rotting 400-year-old Douglas-fir that fell across the creek 40 years ago. The crashing tree ripped a wide gash in the canopy, prompting slower, less dramatic change below: a thick stand of alder trees sprung up from the gravel bar amid the flood of new light. When the Doug-fir fell, its bole and branches obstructed and partly dammed the creek, forming a deep pool—where, over time, native trout came to live, and to wait and watch for midges to light on the water.
Waiting and watching. Over time. That rainy day I lingered by the water all afternoon, scrambling around on the slippery rocks like the child I once was—completely lost in the moment—and hoping to see someone: a bird, a snake, a beetle, a frog, or anyone who lived there.
Just before leaving, when I looked down into the deep blue pool behind the fallen Doug-fir, a cutthroat trout appeared—maybe eight inches long, his spotted back a foot below the surface—slowly drifting, scanning for bugs. Could he see me? As I watched him, I couldn’t help but think of my Midwestern home, and the red-tailed hawks I love. And how they too hang and drift, but in a softer, deeper blue—over an Iowa hayfield, waiting and watching for a mouse to wander out of the grass, into the open sunlight, where death awaits. And life.
Death and life. Walking along the gushing creek back to my room, I pondered their continuity—life into death, death into life—and their convergence. I wondered about that bottomless moment when the rushing water finally reached the ocean, and suddenly, yet completely, became a part of the whole. The movement slowing to a deepening stillness. The travel that takes you home, over time.
Tom Montgomery Fate was a writer-in-residence at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest near Blue River, Oregon, as part of the Spring Creek Long Term Ecological Reflection project at Oregon State University. This excerpt stems from that experience, and is included in his most recent book: The Long Way Home: Detours and Discoveries (Ice Cube Press, 2022).