When did this happen, my son becoming a young man? I watch him – my heart filled with wonder at this question every father asks – as we descend into Cupola Pond in Southern Missouri’s Mark Twain National Forest. Strange Tupelo Gum trees rise into the fog – they put me in mind of swamp, muskeg, standing water… moist, mossy places that seen anomalous in this dry, autumn hardwood forest. The gums rise from bulbous trunks that taper and nearly vanish into fog. The pond’s surface inverts perfectly their reach into the mist. We walk on fallen leaves inches thick.
These tree ponds are found here and there in the Ozarks, sinkholes where the dissolution of limestone left great cavities to collapse into microspheres. Some are porous, feeding underground springs whose currents leap – sometimes dozens of miles away – from holes in cliff faces. Others, like Cupola Pond, hold water. They expand lung-like with rainfall. Still others leech slowly into the surrounding terrain. Their water is drawn upward, outward, oozing into the forest’s low spots.
I am fascinated, and can see that my son is as well. We have lived in Missouri less than a year, having moved from Washington. We are accustomed to water’s unmitigated response to gravity – in the Cascades, for instance – where rushing creeks, cataracts and huge hydro-carved kettles suggest an urgency to its flow. But water seems to travel oddly in this country, alternating between daylight and subterranean darkness, with transitions that are counterintuitive and vague. Here, fluid dynamics perform a slightly altered set of algorithms. It is a perfect place for questions.
Later in the day, a dozen miles distant, we watch a stream spew from a dolomite bluff’s base a hundred yards from the Eleven Point River (so named for a gigantic white-tail buck taken years and years ago). The place is called Turner’s Mill, once the site of a grinding operation, but now going back to forest. On a normal day, the spring discharges a million and a half gallons. My son poses for a photograph next to its opening. We chatter over the noise of the water’s merry egress, then hike down a trail to the Eleven Point and explore its banks. Along a gravel isthmus to a modest shoal, he discovers the skeleton of a bird he believes was a kingfisher. He calls me over. I prod the bones with a stick. Feeling closer to his age than my own is a good feeling. Hiking back to the truck, he finds the most enormous maple leaf either of us has ever seen. (This is saying much: where we lived in Washington, our land had nineteen mature broad-leaf maples. We had thought those leaves huge.) But our lessons of water are only beginning.
A weather front moves in. That night, the Ozark skies drop four inches of water. During the following day there is respite, but at nightfall another storm musters. Lightning, thunder, wind and another three inches of rain follow. Our sleep is fitful. The sweeping, freight-train roar of wind in the trees over our campsite is alarming at times. We rise from our sleeping bags every forty-five minutes to clear weighty rain that has collected in the tent-flies. But then we wake up – where are we? And when – how? – did we ever fall asleep?
Dawn is stunning. Sunrise transforms water droplets on the bare branches of oak, elm and boxwood into rare, fiery jewels. After breakfast, we want to see whether Cupola Pond’s waterline has risen.
Of course, it has. By several feet. The gum trunks are nearly submerged. During the night, we had laughed amidst our alarm about whether our insubstantial tent or the hollow trunk of a gum tree was the better place to wait out a torrential rainstorm. We had decided the trunk. But standing at the new edge of Cupola Pond, we reconsider. Later, we return to Turner’s Mill. At the base of the dolomite cliff, where my son had posed two days before, is a roiling, massive falls. There must be five times the flow compared with our previous visit. We cannot shout over it. Downstream, the shoal is inaccessible, and nearly submerged. Our kingfisher (or whatever it was) will be gone. The river is rich brown, the color of a cup of cocoa. Limbs and detritus float by, coming to the banks in whorling back-currents.
We have learned a thing or two about the diversity of water. And that our new country is not so unlike our old.