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Come High Water


From: A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold written in 1949. "April - Come High Water"


The same logic that causes big rivers always to flow past big cities causes cheap farms sometimes to be marooned by spring floods.  Ours is a cheap farm, and sometimes when we visit in April we get marooned.


Not intentionally, of course, but one can, to a degree, guess from weather reports when the snows up north will melt, and one can estimate how many days it takes for the flood to run the gauntlet of upriver cities.  Thus, come Sunday evening, one must go back to town and work, but one can't.  How sweetly the spreading waters murmur condolence for the wreckage they have inflicted on Monday morning dates!  How deep and chesty the honkings of the geese as they cruise over cornfield after cornfield, each in process of becoming a lake. Every hundred yards some new goose flails the air as he struggles to lead the echelon in its morning survey of this new and watery world.


The enthusiasm of geese for high water is a subtle thing, and might be overlooked by those unfamiliar with goose-gossip, but the enthusiasm of carp is obvious and unmistakable.  No sooner has the rising flood wetted the grass roots than here they come, rooting and wallowing with the prodigious zest of pigs turned out to pasture, flashing red tails and yellow bellies, cruising the wagon tracks and cow-paths, and shaking the reeds and bushes in their haste to explore what to them is an expanding universe.


Unlike the geese and the carp, the terrestrial birds and mammals accept high water with philosophical detachment.  A cardinal atop a river birch whistles loudly his claim to a territory that, but for the trees, cannot be seen to exist.  A ruffed grouse drums from the flooded woods; he must be perched on the high end of his highest drumming log.  Meadow-mice paddle ridgeward with the calm assurance of miniature muskrats.  From the orchard bounds a deer, evicted from his usual daytime bed in the willow thickets.  Everywhere are rabbits, calmly accepting quarters on our hill, which serves, in Noah's absence, for an ark.


The spring flood brings us more than high adventure; it brings likewise an unpredictable miscellany of floatable objects pilfered from upriver farms.  An old board stranded on our meadow has, to us, twice the value of the same piece new from the lumberyard.  Each old board has its own individual history, always unknown, but always to some degree guessable from the kind of wood, its dimensions, its nails, screws, or paint, its finish or the lack of it, its wear or decay.  One can even guess, from the abrasion of its edges and ends on sandbars, how many floods have carried it in years past.


Our lumber pile, recruited entirely from the river, is thus not only a collection of personalities, but an anthology of human strivings in upriver farms and forests.  The autobiography of an old board is a kind of literature not yet taught on campuses, but any riverbank farm is a library where he who hammers or saws may read at will.  Come high water, there is always an accession of new books.

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