Creek Story

The Shades
by: Terry Tempest Williams
Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Reprinted with Permission

“An inverted mountain,” Mike tells me.

“Shades of Death,” explains his wife, Patricia, as we make our descent to Sugar Creek.

The architecture of trees is stunning, amidst the understory of shimmering beech with the shells of leaves still dangling. Tulip trees, poplars, ash, hemlock green — old growth. It is as though we are walking through the vaulted ceiling of a cathedral.

We stop to examine a flurry of feathers on the trail. Whose? We don’t know.

Bunches, no, tufts of grasses are pushing up through the brown, damp leaf litter. On the verge, is a phrase that comes to mind. In another month, this will be a spring woods, the monochromatic tones of winter replaced with color.

We hear a pileated woodpecker hammering. Patricia hears owls. We stop — the stillness overtakes us. We say nothing.

I no longer feel guilty being here with Mike and Pat as my guides. Mike, a lover of this place for close to 40 years, just a few hours ago was under general anesthesia for a tooth problem. He laughs, saying his consciousness is good.

This is an awakening for all of us, two natives and a newcomer. Patricia’s family farmed this country. Their home is only a mile or so away from the creek. She knees down and shows me the leaves of bluebells.

Suddenly, I see the water, a striated brown-yellow-and-green. Sugar Creek running clear with the white bark of sycamores towering heroically, majestically like angels over the river — or ghosts depending on your mood.

You hear about places like these — pocket wildernesses — sacred to those who know them like Mike and Patricia. Mike slips in and out of these Indiana waters in his kayak like an otter.

But until you see them, feel them, place your hands humbly in its silky waters, it is only hearsay.

Shades —
Shades of Death —
Geese honking — Shades of Life.

Thank heavens for this gem of a state park protected like a secret.

We walk along the pebbled shore. I am handed a sliver of orange on a tray of crinoids, in truth, a perfect skipping stone that holds the geologic history of this place.

In place.

Mother of pearl gleams from the creek; I reach in to retrieve a mussel, a fragment of mussel. Pat tells me this is what Indiana buttons were made from, mother of pearl, this shimmering shell of Sugar Creek.

She hands me more crinoids; hollowed out they become “Indian beads” in the minds of children.

Clouds lift. Birdsong abounds. A flash of red across the water. I think cardinal. A hawk flies by. Both Pat and Mike think red-tail.

Stones. Sand. Shells. We sit in silence and listen to the creek music.

Peace. Shades of Peace. Sugar Creek. Sugar Creek carries us along. Upriver there is a large stand of white, shimmering sycamores. Pat calls them “The Dancing Girls.” It’s true; they are part of this animated corridor, huge boulders are scattered beneath them. Glacial debris. Evidence of the ancient carving of rock and ice.

I will never think of Indiana as only a domesticated landscape of cornfields. Wildness resides in the heart of America, here, now. An inverted sense of wonder.

On our way back up, climbing moss-stained stairs, we suddenly come upon hillsides of trillium, a trio of white petals with gold-dusted stamens. The word “glory” comes to mind.

A few minutes later, we stop to catch our breath. Squirrels are chattering. We are not alone.

“I had no idea,” I said.

Mike smiles and looks at Pat. “It beguiles you.”

Acclaimed writer Terry Tempest Williams spent some time on Sugar Creek in the spring of 2006 during a visit to Wabash College. Her experience, with Mike and Pat Bachner as guides, led to these reflections.