It’s a beautiful afternoon, and I’m sitting on my little dock long the White River in Indianapolis, and despite the E. coli and other pollutants in the water, it is a bucolic and peaceful setting.
Above me is a mulberry tree. There’s a scrum of birds high in its branches, feasting on the fruit. Their motions are causing mulberries to fall directly into the river beside me.
The berries plop, sending out ripples, then float. And float some more.
Before a massive toxic spill in 1999, there would have been no floatin’ time for these tasty morsels – they would have been snatched up immediately.
On Dec. 13, 1999, a white wall of foam came pouring out of the Anderson, Ind., Wastewater Treatment Plant. Eventually, we understood that aquatic life for 57 miles along the White River had been profoundly harmed, including the death of 4.6 million fish. The scene in my backyard was carnage. Numerous fish were found in various poses of death.
The source of the toxins was a discharge from Anderson-based Guide Corp., a factory that made automobile headlights.
Before this ecotastrophe I would sit on this dock and watch fish devour these mulberries. Within feet of me, carp and catfish would swim to the surface, gulp down the berries, swim away and come back, like a Ferris wheel of fish.
Today, the berries float. Nothing happens. There are ducks and geese and blue herons, and there are even bald eagles nesting downriver. I see raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks, plus possum and foxes. Around sundown, I often see a beaver moving up and down the river.
But the fish are few and far between, and the river clams are also all but gone.
So I sit and think about this toxic plume and our wasteful ways, and pine for the days of the procession of ugly fish.
Then I spy something that wasn’t there before. Just to my left, in the water. Is it a stick? No, it looks like a head.
Yes. It’s the head of a turtle. I can even see its legs, now, as it stands in the riverbed.
I can see its eye. I think he’s looking at me. Neither of us moves, possibly for the same reason. We’re stuck in this unexpected encounter, checking each other out, afraid to move for fear the other will do something.
He blinks. So do I.
I know we all see turtles along the river and the canal, sunning themselves. This guy’s of a different species with a bigger head and a thicker neck. I’m guessing he’s a snapper, but he won’t show me enough of his body to know for sure.
Okay, I’m anthropomorphizing by calling the turtle a “him” and a “guy” and I’ll go a step further and bet he’s an old codger.
In fact, I hereby dub him Old Codger. Maybe he’s lived by my dock for a long time.
Somehow, he survived the Great Plume. All I know for sure is he reminds me of the great lesson of sitting on the river, any river: patience.
If you sit long enough, something will show up.
Uh-oh. I’ve become distracted by these thoughts and when I look back, he’s in motion. A mulberry is floating past him, and he opens his mouth and snatches it, then disappears beneath a log in the water.
Well. It was no Ferris wheel of fish, but on this summer day in the year of the apocalypse, it’ll have to do.
I scan the other shore, turn back. No turtle in sight.
Two blue herons pass overhead, flying in opposite directions.
The reflection of a jet contrail in the water is a white, wiggly line.
Old Codger is still, presumably, beneath the log.
It’s all right. I can wait.