The stream at Jemicy has no official name. Sometimes after a dry summer, it is barely a stream at all – just a rocky, damp ditch winding from a sporadic seep at the northern edge of the school’s property and under a broken-down corrugated fence at the southern end. At some point in the land’s history, well before the original farmland was developed here, the stream must have been a far more powerful force to carve out the deep, narrow valley that now forms the recess play area. You can still get a sense of this force after a heavy rain, when the banks are scoured clean, the grasses in the narrow floodplain are flattened, and debris gets deposited in unexpected spots.
But most of the time these days, the stream is a benign and beguiling place, its waters an attraction unlike any other. Right now, the stream is strewn with fallen leaves, the water glimmering in the small spaces between them. Many animals are still active in the extended warm spell we’re having. Every day during recess, I find two new middle school students hanging over a log across the stream, searching for crayfish. Downstream, another group of boys dares each other to vault across the water with a long bamboo pole; at least one always manages to land squarely in the mud to the cheers of his friends. When I introduce children to the woods, we go first to the stream, where I show them that they can orient themselves from its course to all other places.
Disputes over water rights happen here too. Children with forts downstream frequently accuse those upstream of blocking the flow of water, or of contaminating it with mud. There is no official policy as to what can or can’t happen in the stream, but when activities seem to be having a detrimental impact on the ecosystem, they are curtailed. The discovery of clay deposits after a spring flood scoured a bank launched a frenzy of digging and the creation of a pottery business. This had to be closed when the fragile bank collapsed. Just this week, I informed a group of middle school boys that the fort they had held for several years in the middle of the stream would be designated a recovery zone in a few weeks. This came as little surprise to most of them, as they had been asked numerous times over the past year to scale back their dam-building and other activities. “But why? We’ve been working here since we were 6 years old! Can’t you please let us stay?” they begged. I pointed out that when they were six, their activities had little impact, and that with each passing year, they had managed to alter the landscape and stream ecosystem more significantly. It was time for them to acknowledge this and move to a location that was less sensitive to disruption – away from the stream. One tried to argue that they needed water “to do anything fun,” but one of his friends nodded. “No, there’s a lot more things that need that water more than we do.”
The next day at recess, the boys were gone from the fort. I thought perhaps they had abandoned the woods altogether, but at the lunch bell, as I was leaving the woods, I found them in a new location near the top of the hill. It was an old fort that had been worked on and left last year, a jumble of old concrete foundation pieces, gravel, and a few perimeter trees. I complimented the boys on their new location, and pointed out a deep gully worn through the middle of their territory. “Looks like you may have water after all,” I said, and explained that this ditch was an erosion problem caused by storm water runoff from the middle school wing and had never been adequately managed.
“So, it would be a good thing if we tried to fill it in! Or caught the water to make a pool in our fort! Or piped it into an irrigation system!” They headed off to lunch talking excitedly about their plans.
New life for the lifeline?