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WANDERING LEWIS CREEK

by Kevin Dann G'85

Lewis Creek is a middling river, anonymous and unseen to all but a few fishermen, canoeists, and the neighbors who live along or not far from its banks. It boasts no spectacular falls, no epics of adventure and discovery. Though a part of one of North America's largest watersheds — the St. Lawrence — it is itself one of Lake Champlain’s lesser tributaries, draining an area of only about 100 square miles. No warships have been built on it like on Otter Creek; no historic figures are associated with it like the Allen brothers and the Winooski. Its pleasures are small, intimate ones, the very sort that can be found along every river of any size in the New England region.

I began haunting the banks of Lewis Creek twenty years ago, after I first moved to Vermont. Though my family and I settled in the La Platte River watershed just to the north, I always found myself drawn to Lewis Creek as an avenue of exploration of Vermont’s Champlain Valley landscape. While a canoe trip down the La Platte frequently brought the sights and sounds of the present into view, when canoeing or walking along Lewis Creek, one was in the presence of what seemed largely a nineteenth-century landscape.

Like so many people who have moved to northern New England in the past few decades, settling in Vermont was for me an attempt to go back in time, to flee the placelessness of the modern world for a much mythologized past. I had grown up in northern New Jersey, at the edge of metropolitan New York’s expanding megalopolis, and during my childhood the last few farms that surrounded our home were transformed into commercial and industrial parks.

The brook that ran by our house was for the children of our neighborhood a route for exploration and discovery, and we used the brook as a way to escape time. We usually did this by going upstream, for the further one progressed downstream, the more denuded and despoiled were the banks, the more polluted was the water, and the more illusory was the sense that we were the brook’s original explorers. Upstream, we could indulge our fantasy, as roads and houses gave way to fields and woodlots, and cellar holes and other ruins that only added to our mission of discovery.

Like that little brook, Lewis Creek and all of New England’s streams offer us, as they did first the region’s aboriginal inhabitants and later the European colonists, avenues to explore both space and time. In this well-watered land, we all live within a short walk to some channel draining inexorably toward the sea, and whether we follow it upstream or down, there is no more inviting guide to get to know one’s place than stream, brook, and river.

Every river explorer needs guides, and in my wanderings of Lewis Creek, I came to have as my companions three individuals whose investigations of the natural world took them often into the Lewis Creek watershed — Rowland Evans Robinson (1833-1900), an author and illustrator whose artistry sprang from a deep love of story and place; Cyrus Guernsey Pringle (1838-1911), the “prince of plant collectors,” who knew better than anyone the plants of the Lewis Creek watershed from Gardiner’s Island to Hogback Mountain; and John Bulkley Perry (1825-1872), whose twin call to God and geology makes his writings a wonderful window into the late-nineteenth century imperative to reconcile religion and science. All three lived during a time when science was transforming American life, and all had vocations that were impacted by, as well as spoke to, the changes that science and technology were effecting. More than any other era, the roots of Lewis Creek’s present seem to lie in that historical moment between 1860 and 1900. Though a century away, it seems close and contemporary. The same sights and sounds elate us, and the same tragedies befall us.

One great difference for us as contemporary explorers is that while Robinson, Pringle, and Perry never questioned the “reality” of Nature, its “givenness” as a realm of transcendental truth, we live in an age in which it is increasingly common to think of Nature as constructed by us. These men knew the land firsthand: Pringle and Robinson were farmers, and they had to struggle when they attempted to replace that economy with plant-hunting or writing and sketching. Reverend Perry was but once-removed from toil upon the land, in that the majority of his congregation were still farmers.

Because our lives are largely removed from physical labor upon the land, we find ourselves more than ever in need of Nature as a bulwark against the “virtuality” of the modern world. Today, the discoveries that we make in our wanderings — of a new location of a rare plant, an otter’s den, or a Paleozoic fossil — are essential because they take the place of the old economies — farming, forestry, hunting — that once bound most of the watershed’s denizens to the land. Recreational sources of personal satisfaction rather than practical contributions to scientific knowledge, our finds can also now be deeply re-creational as well, for each act of physical discovery more than ever brings to us psychic and spiritual renewal.

It may be that the very act of reflecting on the idiosyncratic history of natural scientific discovery within the Lewis Creek watershed is also a defining moment. Along the banks of Lewis Creek and every other river in New England, and indeed, in North America and all across the world, innumerable incidents of discovery occur every day, both by professional naturalists and amateurs. The thrill of finding — whether the object of one’s search or some serendipitous surprise — unites us with Pringle, Robinson, and Perry, but we just as surely share with them the tragedies of losing. Sometimes finding, sometimes losing, onward we run like the river to the sea.

 

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