Below my stone bluff there is a slough (pronounced: slew). This slough is a remnant of the old stream bed that was once part of Beaver Creek, which now runs several hundred feet away to the East. Water still collects there from rain runoff and from small springs that enter from sources beneath the ridge. The soil there is too porous to hold water for very long and, in the height of summer, the tiny springs cannot keep up with evaporation and the earth's leaching effect. The shallow lagoon dries up leaving its mud bottom swollen and cracked in the sun. Other times, water spills from its shallow basin and into the surrounding field creating, in essence, the perfect algae scum covered, mosquito infested swamp. Surely I could improve upon this unacceptable situation. I took it into my mind that if the water level of the lagoon were lowered about six inches, water would not run into the field thereby fixing the mosquito problem.
Convinced of my logic and armed with a trusty spade, I set about the task of creating a narrow trench through the earthen dam created by some unknown farmer decades before to contain the water for thirsty livestock. I was careful to make the trench just six inches lower than the existing water line before I dug away the last few inches of earth that separated the pool from my excavation. Suddenly, water came rushing into my small trench and the slough began to drain. I was reassured I had made the right decision as large sections of green algae began breaking loose in the current and were swept away leaving a clear water surface behind. Water and nutrients began running into the small drainage ditch, that led away from the slough, that eventually made its way down to Beaver Creek. I could envision this little tributary springing to new life, refreshed by this new source of water. My, I was certainly becoming an excellent steward of this land! I lay my head down that night and happily fell into a very self-satisfied sleep. The next day I rushed back down to the slough to view my handy work. As I approached, I could see the flow of water had ceased. Apparently some debris, freed by the current, had been sucked into my trench and had cut off the flow of water. This I cleared in a short time and again my project began to function beautifully. Within a couple of days, the small drainage ditch did spring to life as expected. Tadpoles were swimming furiously as minnows nipped at their tails. I even saw a small water snake chasing the minnows. Surely this was what nature had intended for this place before the dam had been created so long ago.
The next day, however, I again found that my little trench had become clogged with more branches and leaves. Water was no longer flowing into my little "creek". I cleared it but was now curious about how labor intensive this little project was going to be? It seemed that every time I cleared an obstruction, within 24 hours the trench was clogged again. Where was all this "trash" coming from? I began to have my suspicions which were confirmed the following day. Again, debris had created a dam which completely stopped the flow of water. But this time, the dam maker had left a signature. On top of the pile of trash lay a large dollop of mud that had been slapped flat by a large beaver tail. In a flash of insight, it suddenly occurred to me that the name "Beaver Creek" had been chosen for a reason. I got the message, alright, but was not to be outdone by a mere rodent with a fancy tail. I became a self-declared "Dam Destroyer". No matter how often I removed them, though, the dams would reappear by the next morning. Finally I had to admit defeat and the drainage ditch again dried up.
A few weeks later a friend of mine, a professional botanist, was visiting and I took her down to the slough to discuss the situation. I got the impression she was not impressed with my water project. After spending some time hiking the length of the slough and making several notations in her note book, she finally gave me that raised eyebrow look and announced that, "Even though the earthen dam had been created artificially by man years before, Nature had adapted to create what was now a perfectly balanced and fully functioning ecosystem complete with an extremely rich diversity of plant life unique to the present conditions." I got her message which was essentially, "It's perfect, leave it alone!" The most cerebral response I could muster was, "Oh . . . wow."
After that, I began to look at my slough a little differently. The "mosquito infested swamp" was actually the center piece of a diverse, complicated, and interdependent circle of life. From the rock outcrops above, I have since observed different species of water turtles, fish, muskrats, and even the pre-historic looking alligator snapping turtle. I have come to appreciate the many beautiful and strange looking plants that explode in multicolors every Spring and Summer and I've observed the flock of migrating swallows that nest each year in the cavities within the stone bluff. I admire how they roll and tumble through the air as they feed voraciously on the mosquitos the slough offers up for their sustenance. My observations from the bluff led me to discover the agave, one of only two cactus plants native to Missouri. I have also found which parts of the bluff are covered with the exotic looking plant with only three leaves, the purple trillium. I then discovered a grove of small trees growing tenuously within the tiny microclimate that exists between the bluff and the pond, and our State's only native tropical fruit, the paw paw.
The slough experience has slowed me down as I now consider carefully any change I might want make to what already exists on this land. I have taken pause and considered my own past when I've been so eager to rush in and "fix" things that weren't even broken. Now, my daily challenge is to figure out my own proper place within the surrounding landscape as I am just beginning to understand what the beavers knew all along. There is precious little we can do to improve upon what God and Nature have already created here in these Ozark hills.