By Gene Wilburn
Behind our small ten-acre farm, just outside Lyndon, Illinois, ran a railway line, and beyond that, another farmer’s field, and beyond that, “the Slough.”
The word slough often denotes a muddy swamp but in this case it was a river inlet off the Rock River, which starts in Wisconsin, winds through Illinois past towns like Rockford and Rock Falls and empties into the Mississippi at Rock Island. And while slough carries a lot of negative baggage — “a state of moral degradation or spiritual dejection” according to Merriam-Webster, and in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, “the Slough of Despond,” meaning a “swamp of despair,” this slough, whose formal name was Hamilton’s Slough, was a delight and wonder.
To get there you had to squeeze through the barbed-wire fence at the back of our farm, cross the railroad tracks, then squeeze through another barbed-wire fence at the start of the next farmer’s field. You could climb over the fence, but squeezing through was faster and easier, especially since repeated squeezings had left one section of the aged fence wire with a deep sag. If there were two or more of you, one person would hold up the top barbed wire while the next person squeezed through while pressing down the bottom wire. If you were on your own, you squeezed through carefully, limbo style, so a barb wouldn’t rip the back of your shirt.
Next came “the crossing of the field.” This part always made me nervous because the field’s owner often ran his dairy herd into this particular spot, and if the cows saw you they’d start running your way. I had no fear of cows, but the farmer also had a bad-tempered bull, and the grownups had once or twice warned us to watch out for that bull. I don’t know if they were serious or just teasing us — there was much teasing of kids in the 1950s — but that was all it took to plant the terror firmly in my mind that one of these days the bull himself would come charging.
Because of this we always crossed close to yet another farmer’s field so we could jump the fence if necessary. We never tarried while crossing, but covered the 150 yards or so at the fastest clip we could while trying to appear nonchalant.
The barbed wire on the far side of the farmer’s field was relatively new and unpliable, forcing us to climb over. Once over that final hurdle, you emerged at what we called “the top of the slough.” The slough, which meandered about three miles in from the river, passed alongside a steep hill on one side. I believe, in hindsight, that the hill was some kind of small escarpment, and “the top of the slough” was, in fact, simply the top of the escarpment. From the top to the bottom the height was maybe twenty feet or so.
Once at the top, the real adventure began. Just to the left and sloping down into a small ravine awaited a thicket of thorn trees — honey locust trees with long, hard, sharp barbs. It was easy to accidentally slide down into the ravine and meet a honey locust waiting with outstretched barbed limbs to help you break your fall.
But on the right was one of the prettiest sights of my childhood. A grove of shag-bark hickory trees extending all the way to the edge of the escarpment, and a view of distant farmlands beyond. You could see almost all the way to Prophetstown, three miles away. It was dead flat and most of what you could see was corn fields, with a bit of building showing here and there in the distance. Farmers’ barns, silos, and houses.
Where you have shag-bark hickory, you have squirrels that harvest the delicious nuts. Most of us are accustomed to urban squirrels that have learned to live among humans and thrive, not to mention boldly charging right up to you to beg for food. No. These were the wild variety. They got hunted from time to time and at the sight of any of us they bounded for the hickory trees and kept on the opposite side we were on. They were extremely skittish at the sight of humans.
The walk from the top to the bottom of the hill was a choice of the steep way or the easy way. The easy way, with its gentle incline, lay maybe fifty yards to the right and was one of the best approaches to the water. It was our usual route to the water’s edge.
The slough itself teemed with life. It provided a home to hundreds of carp that would occasionally jump out of the water and re-enter with a splash that rippled outward in waves of concentric circles. Crayfish lurked under water near the shore.
The air trilled with the sound of insects and frogs. Here and there among the cattails were muskrat huts, looking like tatty beaver-hut knockoffs. If you kept still you would soon see a muskrat or two plying through the still water, their vertical tails acting as rudders. We were too far north to have any poisonous water moccasins lurking in the waters, but I’d read about them and that was enough to keep me on the alert in case one of them hadn’t consulted the guidebook.
My biggest fear of the slough was not drowning — the water was maybe three or four feet at its deepest. It was the mud — oozy, black, slimy mud that seemed bottomless when you poked a stick in it. Even if you stepped into it near the shore, it was hard to lift your feet out of it. It inspired me to coin the word quickmud — an analogy to quicksand. It was pretty tame stuff compared to real quicksand, but being raised on TV adventures that featured miscreants and innocent folks alike being sucked down over their heads in a quicksand mire, I supplied similar attributes to the slough’s bottom.
I was also leery of stepping on one of the many turtles that liked to sun themselves on logs and rocks and then bury themselves in the mud to cool down. I never saw anything other than painted turtles but, unlike water moccasins, snapping turtles were common in the Rock River and I didn’t want to meet one by accidentally stepping on it.
My favourite slough denizens were the herons — great blues and great whites. Watching them fly in on broad wings to take up stalking positions was thrilling. They were well-fed herons, feasting on fish, frogs, and crayfish. Multicoloured sulphur butterflies flitted over the flowering plants that grew at the edge of the water, and often gathered in large groups to sun themselves on bare muddy sections of the shore.
I must confess I pinged one or two of the butterflies with my Daisy Red Ryder BB gun. Every boy in my class at school carried a BB gun when he ventured out into the countryside — there weren’t many naturalists around in the 50s. Nearly all the farmers did a little hunting, mostly for rabbit and squirrel, which they ate. It was a rite of passage for boys to graduate from shooting a BB gun, to acquiring a .22 calibre rifle, and, when you got old enough, a .410 gauge shotgun. Soon after that you got a driver’s license.
I read in a science book at school that if you collected some pond water and looked at it through a microscope you’d see it brimming with microscopic life. I borrowed one of my mom’s pint canning jars and let it sit in the slough water for about half an hour, then took it to school next day. Sure enough, through the microscope in the science lab, I saw my first paramecia, amoebae, and hydras — a sight that sealed my lifetime interest in natural history.
In winter the slough froze over solid and if there wasn’t too much snow on the surface, you could slide across its surface and peer through the ice to see what was below. There wasn’t that much to see, but if you were above a muskrat channel under the ice, you would sometimes spot a muskrat swim through on its way to or from its hut.
If I’d been Canadian then, I probably would have learned how to ice skate, but I didn’t own any skates and ice-skating and hockey weren’t particularly popular with my classmates. Our winter sport was basketball. Illinois was, and still is, as far as I know, basketball mad. We are shaped not only by our experiences, but our culture.
However, someone once gave me a pair of old barrel-stave skis. They were optimistically crafted with a small groove at the bottom back of the stave, presumably for stability, plus a single leather strap loop for your boots. But barrel stave skis, as you can imagine, are curved and they’re curved exactly the wrong way for skiing.
Occasionally a friend or some of my younger siblings — Jim, Howard, or Lori — and I would carry the odd little skis to the slough and try to ski down its steeper side. Not one person ever made it to the bottom while remaining upright. The curve of the skis caused them shoot up in the front and down you’d go. It was fun anyway and one day we tried sitting on one ski per person and tobogganing down the slope that way. With a bit of luck you could make it all the way down, though usually you spilled off part way. I once slid off the ski into a particularly deep snow drift head first and backward, forcing snow down the back of my neck. It was a waker-upper.
Although it was fun to share the slough with some of my town friends from school – a couple of us even camped out overnight on the top once, and cooked meals over a Boy Scout fire — my favourite visits were the ones I took on my own. There was a harmony and serenity to the place that seeped into my boyhood spirit and prepared me for that most extraordinary book I encountered later in high school: Walden, by Henry David Thoreau.
There was a natural beauty about the slough, and a Bradburyesque dandelion-wine magic, that helped sustain me through my ensuing dry years in Arizona. Slough of Despond? Not at all. The slough of innocent adventure and the beginning of a lifelong love of nature. Despite the ever-present quickmud.