Child of Small Waters Redux

SALLY HARPER HAS DECIDED SHE WANTS A BIGGER ROLE in Eye of the Storm. She was going to be a bit player, the grandmother of Jess Harper (Grace Ann Ringer’s main squeeze — that sounds tacky but I don’t know what to call him). Anyway, Sally and her husband, Tom, live out in the north end of the county in a pine forest not unlike Longleaf. Just about every morning at dawn, Sally takes a thermos of coffee down to a little spring-fed stream where she has created her own private shrine to her deceased daughter, Kathryn Powell Harper. It’s a small round concrete table and bench, hidden from view. Here, and on her daily walks in the woods, is where Sally reflects on life, the family, passage of time, and many other things. She is a woman with something to say. I am listening.

Last night, from my nine years of printed blog archives, I made copies of the narratives of my own walks in our woods, as reminder and resource for Sally’s ruminations. I discovered a piece called “Child of Small Waters” posted back in March of 2004. Dave Bonta may remember it — it was originally posted on the Ecotone wiki when they were still up and running. (I note UNC at Willmington publishes what looks to be a fine print journal called Ecotone: Reimagining Place, but there doesn’t appear to be a connection with the original wiki.) Seems like an appropriate homily for this crystal clear Sunday morning in the pine woods. Hope you enjoy the flashback.

Great Long Pond, Acadia National Park, Maine
Great Long Pond, Acadia National Park, Maine

I am a child of small waters.

The magnificence of oceans and seas unnerves me. I love to walk the sugar white sands of Pensacola Beach. Small, translucent crabs tickle my feet as they scuttle into their holes when I bend to examine tiny pastel coquina shells. But if the goal is swimming, give me a cement pond, please, where I can see through the chlorinated water all the way to the bottom, where the edges are no farther than I can gracelessly dog-paddle in any direction

Sunset over the "cement pond" at Longleaf Preserve.
Sunset over the “cement pond” at Longleaf Preserve.

The last time I swam in the warm Gulf of Mexico was a few months before Buck and I married, more than twenty years ago. It was a Sunday afternoon. We frolicked like porpoises. Buck swam away from me in a fast line underwater, playing, showing off like a boy. Unfortunately, his trajectory took him straight into the middle of a small group of women treading water, where he surfaced, a sinner in a school of nuns! The good sisters were having a day retreat on the beach. Some were in the water and others were rowed up in a line of folding chairs on the shore, wimples on their heads, their noses an impenetrable blob of thick white sunblock. They looked like big, placid sea gulls.

I am a true child of ponds, small lakes, streams and natural springs. As a young girl,  I spent many early mornings and late afternoons dreaming into the dusk while I sat on a dock on Lake Valrico. That pretty little lake was in a rural area of central Florida, near Tampa, where I spent most of my childhood and adolescence. Barefoot, a skinny kid in shorts, I loved sitting on that old dock, conversing silently with my mirrored reflection, dark fish shapes darting just under the waters’ murky surface. The tree-lined shore on the far side seemed a world away. In fact, it wasn’t very far at all. My first piano teacher, Mrs. Medard, lived there in a big white house nestled among those trees.

Mrs. Medard scared me a little. She was formal, stern, and seemed quite old to my nine year old self. She had a method designed to teach me how to hold my hands in proper alignment with the keyboard. It involved putting a quarter in the middle of the flat surface of the backs of both of my hands, and then instructing me to play an exercise. Inevitably, I would get rattled and jerk my hands to the side, and the coins would roll off, lost inside my teacher’s grand piano. Thinking about it now, the logistics don’t seem to work. I can’t figure out how quarters could roll off my little child hands and somehow fall into the bowels of Mrs. Medard’s piano. . . but it’s my memory, and I’m sticking with it. I fear I must have bothered Mrs. Medard, too. She died of a heart attack shortly after my lesson one Saturday afternoon.

Lake Valrico received my tears, both flash floods and the slow, constant drip from my eyes into the eyes of my reflection, in those dreadful weeks and months after my father died. I was twelve. Small waters have always been there to comfort me.

Beth with Amanda Blackvelvet's pups at pond on William's Ditch Road (where we lived from 1986-1996)
Beth with Amanda Blackvelvet’s pups at pond on William’s Ditch Road (where we lived from 1986-1996)

My thoughts are not grand, not oceanic. They meander like a brook, crossing fields, woods and swampy areas. Sometimes they submerge beneath the earth’s surface, and become subterranean, cold.

Longleaf has a series of natural springs. They bubble up into a sandy stream bed. The water flows with the tilt of the land, through a mixed pine and hardwood forest, trickling deep into a swamp where it is almost dark even in the middle of the day. Treetops form a high canopy, and only a little light filters through in spots. It is one of my favorite places to wander. The stream is close to two feet wide in most places, with musical rills created where logs have fallen and formed makeshift miniature waterfalls. Gorgeous ferns drape along the banks, together with unusual plants like Neverwet (also known as Golden Club or Orantium). The occasional wild lily shows bright yellow, even in the gloom. The damp earth is heavy, black and fragrant. Animal tracks abound. Wrenching “dry cork in a bottle” woodpecker sounds split the silence, and the beating of a large owl’s wings may be heard.

Streambed at Longleaf.
Streambed at Longleaf.

It is a place of mysteries; of answers and questions.

I don’t think I could ever get my mind around oceans and seas. But ponds, small lakes, streams and natural springs have a human scale that suits me. I can poke along our stream bed, exploring, and watch minnows as they dart from sunlight to shadow at my approach.

Give me a pocket full of pecan halves, a tangerine and a native plant reference guide. I’ll be home in time for supper.

A limpid pool, Zion National Park, Utah
A limpid pool, Zion National Park, Utah

13 thoughts on “Child of Small Waters Redux

  1. Sally Harper sounds like a wonderful character. And this is a gorgeous, beautiful post. I am a person of large waters, the Pacific ocean being my true love, but you made me appreciate the wonders of small waters.


    1. Thanks for the kind words, Charlotte. Your post about characters morphing was terrific — your columns are a wonderful resource for me and lots of other folks.


  2. Wonderful, thank you for finding this beautiful piece and bringing it back to life.

    I am an Aquarian and a lover of water, but the sea is my lure, out past the breakwater, floating in the swell, or straight off the rocks into the deep, where bodyweight is suspended and we become again like the graceful sea-creatures we perhaps once were, until gravity, that cruel destroyer of illusion, reminds us of our adaptation to land-life, and with heavy limbs and heart I gracelessly clamber up the rocks to safety.


    1. Thanks so much, Claire — your evocative words feel like an antiphonal response. (I’m a Cancerian — at June 25 very close to Gemini.) So glad you stopped by.


  3. Lovely essay and images, Beth. I love the title Child of Small Waters, too. Though your novel is surely much different, I am reminded by the locale at least of Pete Dexter’s work, especially The Paperboy, the luridly fun movie adaptation of which I saw last night. It made me so homesick for Florida and even the late ’60s, probably for my youth. Rock on with your story.


    1. Thank you, Richard. Gosh, I just read a quickie Wikipedia summary about Pete Dexter and the incident at Grays Ferry in Philadelphia in 1981 that nearly killed him. Got to check out his books, now. Buck and I are thinking about a meandering road trip all around the old dim roads between here and Naples, concentrating on a wide arc in the non-Disney parts of central Florida. If you’re homesick now, the photos and talk from that one are gonna hurt you, boy.


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