Time flows down Powhatan Creek

Powhatan Creek Bald Cypress
Venerable Bald Cypress growing in Powhatan Creek

Time flows down Powhatan Creek

As I lowered my kayak into the creek, I knew the water wasn’t the same as before, nor am I the same man. Hardly an original thought. People have pondered the river as a metaphor of time for umpteen centuries, probably even before Heraclitus.

I paddled as far upstream on Powhatan Creek as a rising tide allowed my draught to avoid obstructions in water the color of brown tea from the swamp’s infusion of tannin.

Letting imagination drift in headwaters cast me back to before the infant colony of Virginia when Native Americans chose waterways to navigate the coastal plain. As the creek narrowed, I passed under overarching branches, swamp rose and blooming cardinal flowers beloved of hummingbirds. Water rose ankle deep over the feet of Tupelo and Chestnut Oak trees. Bald Cypresses, the iconic trees of southern swamps, still bared their ‘knees’ as ramparts against hurricanes.

After resting my paddle to enjoy stillness, an Orchard Oriole sang and a Pileated Woodpecker laughed. A Green Heron stalked the margins and a Prothonotary Warbler flitted across the stream, perhaps the last golden flash of the season. Turtles hauled onto logs to sun themselves in dappled sunlight and beavers left evidence of their presence on gnawed tree stumps.

I found a place to turn for taking the current as the tide changed, conveying youthful water downstream where it empties into Sandy Bay and washes around Jamestown Island before dying in the mighty James River. When the creek widens to meander between mudflats I know I have reached early middle age. Beds of pickerel weed and arrow weed dangle seed pods and wild rice reach above the green blanket for birds to glean, no longer plucked by the Powhatan tribe.

After paddling for a mile, I greet an old friend where kayakers from the James River Association stopped to stare. No one knows the age of the gigantic Bald Cypress standing on its own little island. Resurrection Fern clothes some boughs, an epiphyte that can revive from countless cycles of dehydration. I feel a fragile, mortal creature beside this mother tree and her foster fern.

The cypress was already elderly when Pocahontas and Captain John Smith paddled here over 400 years ago. Famously strong and slow growing, the rot resistance of this species makes it prime lumber. Outstanding in every way, male or female and the only one of its kind to shed fall leaves, its green mantle turns russet before winter when it stands among other bald trees whose lives retreat inside the wood like beavers hibernating in their lodge until spring calls.

We shall never know how many seasons and what history the tree has witnessed. A storm long ago tore off a side from its massive bole, losing the rings that recorded its antiquity. Perhaps it is the oldest in the eastern USA, though the official record is held by a Bald Cypress in the Black River of North Carolina, a spritely youth when Daniel prophesied, and still waits for the Apocalyse.

When I join midstream the retreating tide carries me through a changing landscape. Vegetation that thrived at the start of my journey cannot tolerate saltier mudflats. But far from barren, cord grass and fiddler crabs abound, frogs croak and an osprey plunge for a bass. I love drifting in these middle reaches, wishing they had no end.

Next Post: Songbirds Taste Sweet

By Roger Gosden

A British and American scientist specializing in reproduction & embryology whose career spanned from Cambridge to Cornell's Weill Medical College in NYC. He married Lucinda Veeck, the embryologist for the first successful IVF team in America. They retired to Virginia, where he became a master naturalist and writer affiliated with William & Mary. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_Gosden

1 comment

  1. I paddled by that very cypress just a couple of days ago. Thank you for your thoughtful musing. I will look at the stupendous tree differently now.

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