Watching the columns of vapor rise, standing at the crest of our hilltop pasture at sunrise, the world is magical and I want to believe in this magic. I want to be part of it, to blend with, not understand or unravel, the fascinating mysteries of life and this beguiling land on which we live.
Science and magic
Wisps of smoke rise in the first hours of daylight from cracks and crevices in the limestone bluffs that form the steep-sloped borders of our farm. Those cloud-like columns of vapor, constantly changing shape and dissolving as they float on languid currents of warm air that rise from the lowest depths of the coulees, mark the springs and seeps where underground pools of water leak to the surface when the aquifer that underlies this land can hold no more.
Our part of the North Country has been saturated by three months of record rainfalls, capped last week by a seven-inch torrent of rain over a twenty-four hour period that caused a “once in a hundred years” flood. This is our third “hundred-year” flood in the past twenty-three years, just a coincidental and insignificant blip in the weather patterns for the climate change deniers, but for those who live in the nearby town of Decorah a serious warning of the altered atmospheric conditions brought on by global warming. The town lies in an elongated bowl of the Upper Iowa River valley, and each of those three major floods has caused millions of dollars in property damage.
Here, atop the fourth or fifth highest hill in the county, our farm is safe from flooding, unless someday a celestial voice orders me “Build an ark!” But water runoff during these record-precipitation years has washed out our driveways, culverts, fences, and wildlife habitat plantings, and super-saturation of soils has resulted in some minor mudslides, sinkholes, and of course a water-soaked cellar.
Along with severe snowfalls, violent wind storms, ninety-ninety summer days (ninety degree heat and ninety percent humidity), and late spring ice storms and hard frosts, the hundred-year floods have come to be regarded as one of the regular, recurring perils we must face for the privilege of living in a rural paradise. I will never learn to enjoy the blizzards and the ice-packed roadways of the evermore brutal winters, but the damage caused by the torrential rainstorms has been somewhat offset by the wondrous changes they have wrought upon the landscape of our place. Floods reshape the face of the earth in extraordinary ways.
Of the various aesthetic compensations granted by the aquatic gods of the natural world, the scouring and sculpting of waterways down to their rocky foundations is the most awe-inspiring and amazing. It seems beyond belief that a surge of water could move these huge slabs of stone, this jumble of rocks and twisted trees. And yet, here is the terrifying and marvelous proof.
Less magnificent but equally mystifying are those early morning columns of smoky vapor rising from the coolies, inviting you to find them, capture them, but disappearing as you approach, vanishing as quickly as dew from sun-warmed leaves, fading as silently as a fox’s shadow in the gloom.
If the broken, tossed and tumbled boulders in the streams are a dark necromancy worked by Trolls in a drunken rage, the mist fountains must be another form of magic: gentle enchantments, benevolent spells cast in contrition by woodland Sprites seeking absolution for the thunderstorm’s vandalism and the weather’s mischief. Watching the thin clouds arise from below, standing at the crest of our hilltop pasture at sunrise, the world is indeed magical and I want to believe in this magic. I want to be part of it, to blend with, not understand or unravel, the fascinating mysteries of life and this beguiling land on which we live.
Most summers there are six or seven mist fountains that catch my attention as I take the dogs on our daily walk. One morning this week I counted eighteen: groundwater gushing out in places it has never appeared before. The subterranean flood is probably ominous. It is also beautiful.
No doubt there is a scientific explanation. A geologist might tell me that deep in the caverns and fissures of the fractured limestone karst topography of the North Country the hidden rivers and lakes of groundwater are filled to overflowing by the deluge percolating down from above, day after rainy day for long months. The year-round ice and frozen rock of those deep caverns chill the aquifer to sixty degrees, perhaps as cold as fifty. Like the streams on the surface of the land, the underground water courses overflow and spill out in floods, spouting from springs unknown in dry years and emerging from seeps all along the face of rocky bluffs.
The frigid flow from these coldwater springs – which share their descriptive name with the eighty-plus coldwater streams that crosshatch this broken bluff-and-river countryside – meets with the hot and humid air that fills the coulees on late summer days, and the air’s moisture turns to vapor, just like the small white cloud that puffs from your freezer when you open it to take out an ice tray on these days of tropical heat. The mist fountain is created, and the column of vapor rises fifty or a hundred feet upward before is dissipates and trails away.
All very logical and in keeping with the mechanics of a structured universe. But I don’t want structured scientific explanations; I want Trolls and Sprites.
Tomorrow morning I’m changing my route, walking as best I can along the boulder-strewn creek bed on the east side of the farm. Two of the biggest mist fountains are down in that watercourse somewhere, and I’m going to find them and try to capture a woodland Sprite or two. Maybe, if the Irish legends about catching a Leprechaun are true, the Sprites will grant me three wishes.
I know what I’m going to wish for: many more magical days.
More stories about wildlife, outdoor adventures, hunting, fishing, and life in the North Country are published in my three collections of essays, Crazy Old Coot, Old Coots Never Forget, and Coot Stews , and my novel, Hunting Birds. All are available in Kindle and paperback editions at Amazon.com, and in paperback edition throughIndieBoundindependent bookstores.
Beautifully written, one of your very best. Almost wish I wasn’t allergic to cold weather and Iowa politics.
Thanks, Mike. The voices in my head are telling me to move farther north. But even Duluth has had tornado warnings this summer.