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Of Water, and Willows,
and the Winds of Change

Bill Meredith

It was some 3,000 years ago that a man who identified. himself as "The Preacher" wrote, "All of the rivers run into the sea; and yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again. " He was expressing mysteries and eternal verities to show how insignificant mankind is in comparison to the universe around him. After three millennia the verity is still there, but enough of the mystery has been removed to allow me to teach the principal facts about the water cycle to successive ecology classes over the past 41 years. But while the broad picture is known. there is still some of the mystery left when you get down to local details.

When we moved into town in 1968, one of the first things we did was to plow up a rather large section of our lot on Lincoln Avenue and start a garden. To our considerable annoyance, we found one end of the plowed area was unsuitable for gardening because water came out of the ground whenever it rained. I was surprised at this; the garden was close to the highest point at the west end of Emmitsburg, and it seemed to me that water should be going into the ground instead of coming out there. It threw into question the dictum of Mr. Rudy, my high school physics teacher, who had drilled into my memory that water always seeks its own level. 

Some research into the science of hydrology eventually informed me that quirks of the underlying rock strata produce fissures that could bring water from higher places, perhaps miles away, to feed the wet-weather springs in my lot, and I was reassured that Mr. Rudy had been right after all. However, knowing whence the water came didn't solve the garden problem. When it rained, the plowed soil took on a consistency that rivaled the Great Grimpen Mire; and when it dried out, it got hard as brick. Trying to grow vegetables in such a place was a futile exercise, so after that first year we stopped plowing there and extended the garden in the other direction.

The process of Ecological Succession began immediately. A predictable variety of seeds blew in on the wind and were carried in by birds, and the abandoned end of the garden soon was covered by a tangle of weeds, briars and would-be trees. Among them was a willow sapling. Because of childhood memories, I let it grow; but it turned out to be a black willow instead of the graceful weeping willow that had shaded my grandmother's yard. Years passed, the kids grew up and moved out, and eventually we built a new house in the middle of the old garden, most of which became our lawn. The willow tree is still there; it dominates the west end of the yard, standing some 40 feet high and blithely showering leaves, dead twigs and strips of bark on the struggling grass below. And every year when the April showers come, water flows out of the ground to remind us how the willow came to be there.

The water from my yard flows off toward the south, picking up reinforcement from numerous other springs as it goes down through my lot and into the cornfield beyond. There it turns eastward, emerging as a stream between the new school building and the old one. Decades ago, when only the old school building was there, the children who played in the stream at recess called it "the sewage ditch," a literal and not too subtle title in those days of laissez-faire plumbing. 

Beyond the school it resumed anonymity, passing through a culvert under Route 15, proceeding through a field toward Creamery Road and eventually joining Flat Run. Thence it flows to Toms Creek, the Monocacy, the Potomac, the Chesapeake Bay, and finally, as the Preacher foretold, to the sea. Thus does Emmitsburg make its contribution to the cosmic cycle.

As the water cycle has rolled on through the years, our little stream has flowed steadily through the town each spring, reducing gradually as summer approaches; it may dry up completely in some years, and conversely it may fill its banks and flood the road when rain is excessive. It would have been content to go about its business undisturbed; but when Progress, as we questionably define it, came to Emmitsburg some years ago, it was deemed unseemly to have an unnamed stream passing the Post Office and skirting the town's park and ball fields. So the stream was christened Willow Rill and provided with an official signpost in the style approved by the state.

"Willow Rill" may have been a suitable name at the time, for there was a big black willow tree a few yards downstream from the Post Office. Unfortunately, that species grows fast and dies young; as trees go it was past its prime When the stream was named, and before long the town fathers, or the town groundskeepers, or whoever rules on such things, decided that the old tree was a hazard and might fall on someone; so it was cut down. There are now a half-dozen bedraggled sprouts growing from the old stump, competing for the remnants of the old root system. But as the stump continues to decay, they too will have to be cut, leaving the town in the awkward position of having a Willow Rill without a willow in sight.

I was pondering this dilemma last spring when one of my bird watching walks took me into the little island of trees that line the stream. What ecologists do when faced with such a problem is to start counting things, and old habits die hard. So I found myself counting the trees along the stream. In the space between Route 15 and Creamery Road I found a textbook example of biodiversity. There were 65 ash trees, 19 hackberries, 16 honey locusts, 14 box elders, 12 Tree of Heaven, 9 silver maples, 8 black locusts, 5 walnuts, 4 pin oaks, 4 elms, 3 black oaks, 2 wild cherries, 2 sycamores, one hickory, one mulberry .... and one willow, tucked in behind all the others and not visible from the town's side of the stream.

The democratic solution to this crisis would be to rename the stream, but I'm not sure that would be a good idea. "Ash Run" doesn't compare to the euphonious ring of Willow Rill; "Hackberry Creek" sounds unsophisticated. All of the other abundant species have similar drawbacks. And besides, I recently heard that the name, "Willow Rill," has been included officially on the maps of the U. S. Geological Service, so changing the name would probably cost millions of dollars. The only other thing I can think of is for the town to put funds in its budget for a new willow tree, to be planted in a conspicuous place with appropriate ceremonies. Maybe Iíll mention that to the Town Council when I get around to it. But for now there are other things to do.

April is here again, and once again water is flowing from the ground around the willow tree in my yard. My tree is over 30 years old now, and after last summer's drought I found three of its five main branches were dead. The other two will go before long. The yellow warblers that have nested in it for the past 20 years will need a new home; so this spring, for them and my grandmother's memory, I hope to plant a new weeping willow nearby. In the mean while, this is Bill Meredith, writing from the headwaters of Willow Rill.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith