Wednesday, April 17, 2013

October 19, Part 2: Mazes

When I was young and the grass was tall, my dad used to mow mazes in it for us kids to run around in. The grass was never so tall that I couldn't see ahead of me; in fact, the hardest was when it was short already, and the height difference was too subtle to see much further than my feet.

The marshes of this early Mississippi are like a giant grass maze -- except here the consequences for making the wrong decision are greater than in my old back yard.  The river is black and the walls are silver-gold, to high to see far at any fork.

As long as I follow the current I should eventually find my way down the face of America.  But even a weak wind obscures this, and I must rely on other clues.  If I can see plants beneath me, these usually point in the direction of the seepage, being unaffected by the air above me.  Since the water is low, some plants that normally would be submerged stick up just above the surface and testify to their history.

Such strong clues are rare.  Often I try to watch tiny seeds and bubbles on the edge of the channel to see which way they float.  They are stuck to the water and even in an opposing wind stubbornly drift against the waves.  I have to be careful, though, because if these marks lay in some subtle eddy they lend the wrong impression -- and if I get too close, I affect the flow.

The windborn waves have subtle differences depending on whether they flow with or against the water.  When these forces are in sync, the surface flows smooth, but pit them against each other and it grows rougher.  This can best be seen at the corner of a sharp meander where you can look out and see both effects at once.

I even try to observe the tiny V-shaped ripples that form around a blade of grass; the wind stretches these into lazy U's or obscures them altogether.

Despite all the clues in my detective kit, the channels in the marsh are not well-defined and offer many decisions.  I do not always make the right one.  At one point I was sure of having made the wrong one: the same log, the same dead trees -- and yet a little later I found myself bursting out into another marsh where the mallards had hidden, flushing one and two and ten at a time until over a hundred raced away, flying to (and yelling about) places I could not follow.

Day 120 continues.

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