Riverdave’s journal
This essay appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun on June 19,1994

An old mill pond can be a great place to renew your covenant with nature.

It’s not a completely natural ecosystem.  People have played a hand in creating it - the still, mill pond backwaters found behind the dam on the Haw River just upstream from the town of Bynum, North Carolina.  The days of pristine wilderness are forever gone from this area.  A web of civilization has transformed this Piedmont region.  But the Haw River Basin is still a good place to recover, even for a moment, some of the freshness to be found in a corner somewhat isolated from the most intense human activity.

The mill dam evokes feelings of bygone days, when the area was farmed more than it is today.  The shift of farming to the Midwest in the last century has meant that some farmland in this area has returned to forest.  Today, towering sycamores, ashes, birches, maples and elms line the islands that form a maze of aquatic passageways across the pond.  The natural succession of these one hundred foot giants is proudly reclaiming the banks, growing towards the lost era of a great riverine forest.

This June morning on the Haw brought strong connections between me and the river.  As I floated along in my inflatable kayak, I exchanged long gazes with river turtles resting on dead tree trunks in the water.  As I approached, a row of yellow belly sliders released their grips on a log, delicately balancing with legs stretched out like a parachutist in free fall.  When I came within ten yards, the foot-long reptiles suddenly flopped into the water.

The spring crop of little turtles was curious and remained above water longer.  A few were mesmerized as I approached and allowed me to pick them up for a closer view.  The patterns on the shells of the young are so intricate and colorful, unlike the dark, worn shells of their elders. 

In June the paramount song on the river is that of the prothonotary warbler.  The call of this bird in late spring sways the mood of the Haw, “Twee, twee, twee, twee, tweeah!”  Its notes usually comes from high up in the canopy.  I strained my neck to find it.  Its voice came from every direction like a ventriloquist’s, mystifying me from just inside the forest edge.

When I’m lucky, one will appear suddenly up close on a twig, proudly flashing its tropical yellow attire while pursuing its insectivorous diet.  I have even seen an occasional individual  throw all precautions to the wind and pause just ten feet from my boat and confidently give its penetrating song in a brief distraction from hunting.  Caught spellbound by this visitor from Central America, I am reminded of Henry Thoreau’s musing at Walden Pond: “There were wafted to me evidences of unexplored and uncultivated continents on the other side.”

The symmetrically forked river elms often hump gracefully over the water forming the most wonderful of weeping canopies.  Early in the morning, the sun rests upon these boughs, reflecting the water’s surface back onto the underside of the tree, producing a shimmering sun dance of exquisite beauty.  I am accustomed to pull under the elm in my boat for a break from the midday heat.  Once enshrouded, I find myself in an aquatic forest chamber of unequaled enchantment.

No wonder the American elm was the tree of many a Native American council.  I renewed my covenant with the Haw River that morning as I do each outing I am there.  But the Haw occasionally displays the barren form of the elm that has lost its vitality to Dutch Elm Disease. Its white skeleton stands distinct against the wall of green along the bank. More often, I find it resting with part of its trunk out of the water, like a Loch Ness Monster, after having succumbed and fallen into the river.

I am reminded of the vulnerability of species in the face of alien invaders.  Logs of English Elm were imported into the United States for veneer manufacturing in the 1930s carrying a beetle with a deadly fungus.

But nature has a marvelous way of adapting.  On this spring day, I was wafting among the mill pond islands in the front position of my two-person boat.  Relaxing, with my legs stretched forward like solar panels, I became aware that a spider was busily weaving a web between my legs.  Beginning at my knees and then moving toward my feet, this small hitchhiking friend was taking full advantage of my stretched position.

I found myself delighted and honored that this member of the Haw River community felt I was such a useful part of the local framework.  Maybe it mistook my two legs for the dichotomous branching of the elm from which it had probably just fallen.

I had certainly been affirmed by the other party in my covenant that day.  I had slowed down enough to actually be a part of the web of life that is still surging in our midst.

From the best I can tell, the Haw River is named after an old English word for fruit.  The word is used in a number of common botanical names such as hawthorn and possomhaw.  The river might then be remembered for its colonial reputation of being a fruitful farming valley.  But the fruit that stands out most prominently on the banks is the native and wild-growing pawpaw.  Sometimes reaching thirty feet, this big-leafed member of the tropical custard-apple family can be found along the river’s edge in dense thickets or “patches” of dozens or even hundreds of treelets.

By June, its pear-shaped fruit is often seen dangling over the water’s surface.  I always return later in the year hoping to find a few ripe, orange pieces of fruit.  But more times than not, the locals have been served first - opossums, raccoons, squirrels and birds.

The mill pond offers the chance to observe all these wonders from the river without having to be concerned with rapids that lie further upstream or below the dam.  Occasionally, I meet boaters whose only passion is to experience the biggest splash from whitewater.  To this crowd, arriving at the two miles of backwater on the mill pond is only a letdown to be tolerated before confronting the real action again. 

While there is much benefit for body and soul in the challenge of maneuvering a boat through swirling water, I doubt these folks have allowed themselves to be closely serenaded by a prothonotary warbler.  I’m even more certain they have never had the companionship of a river spider confidently weaving a web in their laps.  Such are the rewards of slowing down on the mill pond.

Dave Owen is a native of Durham, a local naturalist and tropical rain forest guide.
Photo by Mapquest: aerial view of the Haw River with Bynam dam at lower right and mill pond and islands upstream to the left