Not since 1987 had I heard the bone shattering noise of boulders rolling down Taylor Brook. Our house is about a hundred yards from this stream and even at this distance we could hear the loud constant slamming and crunching of Volkswagen size boulders being rolled through the stream channel. This drew me to put my rain gear on and walk down through the down pouring rain to see the violent rush of water in a stream gone wild.
The end of our driveway is directly across from the merging of Kinsman Brook and Taylor Brook. There is normally a little triangle island at the intersection that holds a few hardwoods. But on this day the water rose four feet up on the trunk of the trees and they were swaying back and forth under the pressure of the streams like a masts on tall ships during a hurricane. The two streams were raging with angry water. I was witnessing maddening waters that were out of control and would not be tempered until the source of their recklessness was relieved. The noise of the furious water was deafening; the pounding, grinding, groaning, and slamming of boulders in the stream insane. Waves of water jumped into the air and with broken crests as boulders moved down slope and pushed through the brook bed. The spray caught in the wind was reminiscent of waves crashing on the rocks in Maine in a winter storm. Whole trees were being swept downstream in the turbulent water that looked as if it were carrying an entire gravel bank in its bed load.
I have lived through some pretty extreme events and am not frightened by too much but this furore ran a shiver down through the center of my spine. I stepped back even though I was no where near the edge of the raging rapids. One slip into this liquid frenzy would spell the end to any living land born animal. In spite of these rabid waters and their extreme danger I was mesmerized by what I was witnessing. The chaos of nature.
The next day, after about 11 inches of rain, I walked along the edge of the road trying to decipher the damage that had occurred in the previous 24 hours. The stream was still fierce but tempered by loss of energy. Its violence was nothing like it had been the previous day. To the west of me the dirt road on which we live was no longer there. It was completely gone; only a few gravel bars were left to verify there had ever been a travel way through this passage between rows of trees. The outside bend on many of the stream meanders were now vertical. Yards and yards of soil were washed away to only God knows where. The erect eroded banks along the road would likely be rip-rapped in the future with large blasted boulders that would hold the bank and prevent the road from being washed out in the next storm. But the inside cuts, those from which trees and other vegetation was washed away would be likely left to the elements. Some of these banks will continue to erode over the next several hundred years until they reach an angle of about forty five degrees where herbs, grasses, shrubs, saplings, and eventually trees can root and hold the soils in place.
On one stream bend there was a large tree caught in the center of the stream. It was an entire tree; roots, trunk, branches. The root ball became wedged between two large boulders. The tree was completely naked. Its leaves were gone, all of the bark stripped away on every surface, and the cambium beneath the bark stripped to the wood as if the tree were sand blasted. The power of the water during the storm, carrying loads of gravel and sand, had completely smoothed this tree so it looked like an artificial sculpture laying in the stream bed. The brightly colored light brown wood will, within a few months, turn to a steely gray. I was reminded that the power of water is nearly beyond my own personal comprehension.
Taylor Brook, which normally has an average stream channel span of about twelve to fifteen feet, has cut so much earth away that it is forty feet wide in places. Full grown trees hang precariously over the stream bed. The next ice or wind storm may be the final chapter for them. It will not take too much to persuade these trees to fall into or across the brook channel. Before the storm there were dozens of places where fallen trees crossed over the stream from bank to bank. All of these were washed away during the stream torrent, many were caught on downstream bridges and trash racks put in place upstream of the bridges after the storm of April in 1987.
As I walked along the road, awed by the damage of those crazy flows the previous day, I wondered how life in the stream channel fared. Taylor Brook has exceptionally clean water. It is the home to countless macroinvertebrates; hellgrammites, stonefly larvae, mayfly larvae, caddisfly larvae, dragonfly larvae, and numerous annelids. These critters are valuable parts of the stream ecosystem. They shred leaves, break down debris, are food for trout, and significantly contribute to clean the water found in this stream. The brook trout, a sensitive resident of these clean waters, is near the top of the food chain and lives in these streams migrating good distances up and down the free flowing waters seeking prey and refuge under cut banks, sunken logs, and boulders where gravel has been scoured away leaving cave-like features in the water beneath the lower surface of these huge rocks. Under normal circumstances these fast flowing streams on steep gradients are saturated with oxygen, have cold temperatures even in the summer months, and are not nutrient rich which makes them perfect habitat for members of the char family of which the brook trout is one. The turbid waters that are still flowing through this stream channel will settle out soon enough. It will be up to the nature to restore life to this brook. Time will be the most necessary ingredient. I am caught by this thought and reminded me of the common expression “time heals all”. My mind is boggled by the power and truth in this old adage.
I happened upon two large boulders side by side in the stream. These are new features at this location. The largest of the two was probably dislodged from the bank somewhere upstream. The smaller of the two was most likely rolled down the stream into its present location. Both stones are large chunks of quartzite. One is rose colored, nearly round, and about five feet in diameter. The other is an off-white color with splotches of gold and gray colors following the seams of cracks in the rock. It is oblong and about seven feet long and about four feet wide. It is striking that these two boulders are now adjacent in the center of the stream bed. Water rushes around both sides of each rock. An eddy forms in the space between the rocks. It may serve as future habitat for trout or Appalacian crayfish in this cold brook.
These large quartzite rocks were rounded by centuries of rolling against rough surfaces. Only during glacial times was there enough time, enough water, and enough raw force to spin these boulders into their rounded shapes. To the north of the stream there is a large kame terrace; a landform created by melting glaciers. This area of earth comprised of round boulders, cobbles, sand, and gravel overlays a thick band of glacial till; unsorted and compacted silt soil and rocks. The rushing waters have cut the stream bank vertically and you can see the contact area between the kame terrace soils and the till soils. Water from the heavy rains is perched on top of the dense silts and runs out of this vertical cut in a steady sheet flow that adds to the water in the brook.
Cool, damp air drafted down the stream channel. It brushed my face and carried a silty scent. The noise of the rushing brook, still raging a day later but nothing in the scale of the day before, made me feel small and powerless. The human species sometimes overstates its position in the natural world. We think we are in control of this planet but ultimately we are not. This storm that we experienced is but a small expression of the power of nature.
And we would be well advised to take notice.
Written for the Heath Herald in September of 2011.