The Swimming Hole

Photo SKSmith ©2006

In a flash fiction piece of mine due to be published soon, there’s a scene set in a place I visit occasionally, not far from my home. I bicycle there sometimes on mornings during good weather. It’s a little swimming hole in a local creek, and while the event I describe in the story is totally fictional, the place is real.

There’s a gravel bank by a bend in the creek, with plenty of flat stones perfect for skipping. Depending on how dry it’s been, the water gets deep enough that I can’t touch bottom for a small area. Maple and sycamore trees line the stream, but the gravel bank is bare of vegetation. I often see deer and herons around it, and a couple of times I’ve seen snapping turtles sunning themselves on the bank in the spring.

Most of the time when I go there in the morning I have the place to myself, but occasionally I’ve seen tents set up there. I just leave, trying not to disturb them in that case, if they haven’t seen me. Otherwise, I exchange a brief greeting before I go.

I went there again last Saturday morning, arriving about 10:00 AM. It was the first time I’d been there since last fall. When I pulled off the bike path there was a tree down over the trail to the swimming hole, but I was able to get around it. A little farther along there were another couple trees down, ones that appeared to have been cut with a chainsaw and felled beside each other in such a way that they would block the path. I parked my bike there and continued on foot, carrying the water shoes I’d brought with me. A little farther along another tree was down, cut the same way. They seemed to have been cut recently, probably only a few days ago.

The spot itself wasn’t disrupted, except for the remains of a campfire on the gravel bank. It was littered with beer bottles, potato chip bags, and the remains of firecrackers. The Fourth of July was only last week. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen a campfire there, but this one was particularly messy.

The sky was clear, but the bank was shaded and the air relatively cool for early July. I was alone this time, and swimming alone is a remarkably bad idea. I waded some in the shallows, skipped stones, and generally relaxed for twenty minutes or so.

I think I’ve figured out why the trees were cut across the trail. I’ll bet the farmer that owns the bean field that flanks the trail got tired of people going back there to party, and worried that if one of them got hurt, he could be liable. The firecrackers probably pushed him over the edge.

If true, I can see his point, given today’s legal climate. Still, I think it’s a shame that all of those who had peacefully enjoyed that spot over the years are punished now for the inconsiderate behavior of a few. Ideally, people that take a woodland trail to a secluded spot should be responsible for their own safety, and be considerate of the land they use. Packing out their trash seems like the least they should do.

With everything dire and important happening in the world, it seems trivial to complain about this small restriction of my recreation. I suppose it is. Still, I’m reminded of the adage, “If everyone swept their own doorstep, the whole world would be clean.” Why is it so difficult to think about others, about how what you do affects your neighbors, or the planet as a whole?

I hope I don’t have to stop going to this place altogether, but I guess that’s a possibility I need to consider. I’ve enjoyed my visits to this little swimming hole over the years, and it provided a scene for a story of mine, after all. I’ll always have fond memories of it.


The flash piece, “Loops”  is due to be published in the Sept/Oct 2016 issue, of “Children, Churches, and Daddies” ( ) See my piece “Night” in the current issue, June 2016.

“My” Pond

My Pond_1There’s a place I know near Black Hand Gorge, west of Nashport, Ohio. You pull off the road and into a parking lot by a public hunting area, walk down the path into the woods, take the first fork to the left to a little woodland pond surrounded by pine, maple, and oak trees. It’s a big enough pond that it has fish, though mostly the blue-gills there are small.

I’ve been going there now and then on sunny afternoons for nearly twenty years, when I could take an afternoon off. In the spring I see painted turtles and occasionally some snappers sunning themselves by the shore. There are beavers around, though the pond doesn’t seem to have been created by a beaver dam as far as I can see. There are patches of spring beauties and bluets carpeting the clearings around it in the spring, wild roses, queen anne’s lace, and daisies in the summer, and goldenrod in the fall. I’ve seen deer, squirrels, chipmunks, blue heron, red-tail hawks, ducks, bull frogs, and blacksnakes there, in addition to the beavers and turtles.

I’ve found this a relaxing place to read a book and to work on poetry. I have enough poems that I’ve written at that location over the years that I’ve visited it that I could put together a chapbook of them, if I chose. Some of those poems have already been published, or have had favorable responses at readings.

In the past, this spot has had more visitors than it seems to get now. This has good and bad aspects. While I enjoy the solitude when I go there, the trails around the pond are becoming more and more overgrown. I’m having to pull poison ivy from around the spot where I like to sit and read.

I suppose I’m trying to have it both ways. I want the solitude, but I want it to be free of poison ivy, and something to keep the mosquitoes down would be nice.

This is exactly what I fear will happen. It’s become a special place for me, one I’ve started to think of as “my” pond. If it became well known and popular, then before you know it the muddy trail leading to it would be paved with interpretive signs explaining the local features. A visitor’s center would pop up with concessions for ice-cream and sandwiches and souvenirs, and uniformed park rangers would guide groups of school children around on educational tours.

That’s why I’ve lied about the location of this pond at the start of this post. It’s actually in a different part of the state altogether.

Selfish of me…


(Thanks to Robert A. Heinlein)

Urban Farming

Urban Farming lg_1


My wife and I, somewhat jokingly, call ourselves “urban farmers.” On our small suburban plot we have several garden beds, a few dwarf fruit trees, some grape vines, and blueberry bushes. We try to do everything organically and use heritage seeds.

If it were a business, it’d be a miserable failure. I’m sure we’ve spent more on buying plants and seeds, and on building the raised beds that are high and sturdy enough to use for seating, than any offset we get on the grocery bill. The planters I built are as much landscape architecture as they are garden beds.

Last year we planted some heritage popcorn seeds we got from the library’s seed exchange program. If you haven’t heard of this, some libraries have a program where you can “borrow” seeds for the growing season. Once the plants grow and the seeds mature, you collect some and take them back to the library.

Anyway, we planted heritage Seneca Red popcorn. Only a few plants came up and survived. (Young corn plants look an awful lot like grass, and I hadn’t been told they were planted there. My wife was very annoyed with me.) Came the fall, we got a few ears of corn and enjoyed a bowl of popcorn that we’d grown ourselves. A few kernels went into a bag to return to the library.

We didn’t get around to returning the seeds to the library until the next spring, but it was still early enough to sow them and have some ready by the fall. We were surprised, however, to find that the library wouldn’t accept them. The person at the library told us that if there’s another corn field within five miles it’s possible for that corn to cross-pollinate with our heritage seeds. Since we did not go to the extreme of covering the developing ears of corn and hand pollinating them with an artist’s brush, we weren’t able to guarantee that those seeds were still the heritage variety.

I see their point, but I wonder if something more is behind their reasoning. If they had happened to be cross-pollinated by a patented breed of genetically modified corn, it could become a legal issue for them, from what I understand. I hear that a number of farmers growing heritage, GMO-free corn have been put out of business when the patented genes blew on to their crops and cross-pollinated it.

What I don’t understand, is why is it that the farmer whose field was cross-pollinated by those patented genes is the one that’s at fault. Why is he the one that is sued in this case? If anything, it seems to me that it should be the other way around. After all, the crop of (formerly) heritage GMO-free corn is now less valuable, and that farmer has sustained a loss because of this. If any crop of patented GMO corn within five miles can do this, I don’t see how hardly anyone could grow heritage corn, certified GMO-free.

If I had a koi pond, and a neighbor sprayed insecticide on their plants, which then drifted on the wind to my pond and killed the fish, I’d think I’d have a valid complaint against them. However, if my neighbor’s corn crop cross-pollinates mine, making it less valuable, I would apparently be at fault for possessing the patented genes in my corn seed that my neighbor allowed to spread onto my crop without my permission.

How can that be right?


Mother’s Day

Iris picture_1So, Mother’s day has passed, and where I was the weather cooperated beautifully. My wife and I went to my son’s house, and he grilled hamburgers and hotdogs for lunch. My daughter-in-law had a “Mom off duty” button pinned to her shirt, and some of the time she even tried to take it seriously. I tried playing at soccer in the back yard with my son and grandson, and no one got hurt too bad. I noted a bruise on my calf the next day that I didn’t recall previously.

Early that morning I’d visited my own mother, at least symbolically. She’s been gone for more than five years now, and my father had passed long before her. I pulled some weeds from the border around their headstone and planted some periwinkle. The irises that my brother had planted are looking great: healthy and just about to bloom. The daffodils that my wife and I planted had flowered last month.

Mothers—parents in general, I suppose, but particularly mothers—have a grip on our lives that transcends understanding, a grip that death cannot break. I call myself a writer, but this relationship is not one that can be explained in words. Described, maybe, but not explained.

In one of my current writing projects, a short novel, there is a funeral scene, where the woman who died is modeled in part on my mother. She’s actually an amalgam of several people I know, in addition to components drawn from my own imagination. I’m up to version 27 of that novel, meaning that I’ve decided that revisions became sufficiently “significant” that I saved the work in progress as a new version 27 separate times. No, I don’t work quickly. I couldn’t guess exactly how many times I’ve read over that scene while polishing and revising the novel. Hundreds, I wouldn’t doubt. I still find my tears spilling over as I read the funeral scene.

The funeral I describe isn’t even anything like my mother’s. I doubt that the scene is all that remarkably moving to anyone else. Neither my editor nor any of those who read it in the Internet Writer’s Workshop made a particular comment about that, anyway. I think it affects me only because of what it brings to my own recollections. I’ve written other scenes where characters died, but none of them have affected me like this one, probably because they’re more pure invention, not rooted in that most basic of human bonds, the one between a mother and child.

My mother shared my excitement upon hearing that my chapbook of poems had been accepted, but she died unexpectedly before its publication. I was able to insert this dedication before the book went to press:

This book is dedicated to my mother, Reva Smith Shaffer, the one who introduced me to poetry to begin with. The hours she spent reading nursery rhymes, James Whitcomb Riley, Robert Louis Stevenson, and others finally bore fruit in this volume. Though the words here are mine, I’d have written none of them without her influence. Thanks, Mother.

And I still thank her.

Tree climbing

Red Maple 1
Photo by Steven K. Smith

Between the ages of six and twelve my family lived on a township road in north east Licking County, Ohio. In the yard bordering the road were six huge maple trees. They seemed huge to me at the time, anyway. One of them had a limb that jutted out horizontally from the trunk only about six feet from the ground.

It taunted me. My older brother, Dave, was able to reach it and swing himself onto that limb, and once there, other limbs were in easy reach, but I wasn’t able to reach that lower branch for  a while. How I envied him!

It’s hard to remember for sure now, after more than fifty years, but I probably made it into the tree by the time I was eight. It was better than any playground equipment at the school, and as soon as the spring weather allowed it, I spent much of the time I could wrangle away from  chores and homework in that maple tree.

At one point in the dim past the tree had been topped. Two cut off stumps of the main stems made a good place to sit, maybe thirty feet above the ground. Smaller branches growing up past the “chairs” made backrests and gave a convenient handhold when necessary. I used to take a book up there and read for an hour or more at a time.  Sometimes I’d climb past the chairs into the smaller branches near the top and feel the wind wave the tree branches and me along with them.

My parents didn’t seem to mind us climbing the tree. They told us to be careful, but that was all. I did fall from one of the lower branches once or twice, but never got really hurt.

Yesterday my wife and I went to Dawes Arboretum for the Arbor Day celebration with my son and his wife, and my two grandchildren. There was a group of professional arborists there instructing people on tree climbing. My grandson Jason was in tears over the fact that he was too young to be allowed to climb.

They had ropes up the tree in various places, and climbing harnesses, and helmets for those participating. A table set up nearby had volunteers handling the release forms. The lowest branch on this tree was more than ten feet in the air, so something would have been necessary to get up to it, I suppose. It’s been years since I tried any tree-climbing myself. Probably seven years. I don’t suppose my bones would now be as forgiving of a fall as they were when I was twelve, so I don’t go very high now, when I try it, and I carefully stay to the thickest limbs.

Last night I loaded Google maps and looked for my childhood home with the maple trees in front. I zoomed in on the road, and I know about where the house was, but I couldn’t find it, even inching along at the maximum magnification on Earth-view. That road hasn’t yet been surveyed by Google’s Street-view cameras. Apparently, that house is gone now.

At Dawes, by the arborist’s setup, it was interesting to watch the faces of the adults gathered around the tree, faces turned upward, eyes wide, sometimes shouting up warnings to be careful. I agree they should be careful, but I’d also want them to experience the adventure.