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In the riparian zone

Riparian rolls off the tongue with a rich, ripe sound -- as well it should---riparian being a lush, sexy place. Riparian, with a Latin root meaning riverbank, refers to lands adjacent to rivers and creeks. The water of a stream or river is like a tree; half of it spreads out and is hidden underground. This underground flow creates a jungle of deciduous growth that nourishes a b’jillion songbirds, waterfowl, beaver, muskrats and weasels.

The riparian zone is the hot spot in May and June. Forget Senior Prom or bachelors at the brothel, even Hugh Hefner couldn’t keep count of all the sex occurring in this erotic place. Bugs are doing it, birds are doing it; frogs and fish have done it. The birds are bragging about it.

Ducks, like the harlequin, who spend their winters bobbing on the waves of the Pacific, feel amorous hearing the sound of gurgling water. They breed and choose to nest in the tall grasses along a small creek. Herons congregate in large rookeries, building their nests high in the cottonwoods that grow along a riverbank.

The inner bark of water-loving cottonwood, aspen and willow are a mainstay food for beaver. Beaver dams act as a sediment filter, catching silt that would otherwise suffocate fish eggs and disrupt insect reproduction. Dippers, snipe and sandpipers eat the insects; osprey, kingfishers and otters eat the fish.

Riparian zone vegetation provides shade to keep the water cooler for fish. The roots knit the bank together and erosion is minimal. In a healthy water system, all the elements from caddis fly nymphs to moose are held in circular balance.

A river can be robbed of its riparian partner when a road engineer or an agriculturist sees the need to straighten the river’s course. Portions of Thompson River have been channeled to accommodate the private haul road. Water in a straight line moves faster, cuts deeper; consequently, the water table is lowered, changing the lush riverbank into a high, dry site.

The creek that flows through our place had some dozer work done on it in the late 30s. Martin Ovnicek decided to straighten out a horseshoe curve. The creek, at this gradient and flowing through these soils, has an imperative to curve itself. With each high water event the creek is carving another horseshoe bend, just downstream of the old one. Martin would be sick to see the creek cutting into his hayfield and knowing that he caused it.

Many of the original landowners along the tributaries of the Clark Fork logged and cleared their fields right to the edge of the creek. With only cross cut saws, and using teams of horses and a lot of dynamite, the work was physically demanding and must have seemed never-ending. With the advantage of hindsight, and first-hand knowledge of how susceptible to erosion bare banks are, new owners are planting trees and shrubs to re-vegetate the creek side.

Bordering our place is a three-acre triangle formed by the forks of the creek and the county road. It is a wet region that has never been farmed. Grazing was minimal. It is a jungle of hawthorn, alder, dogwood, cow parsnip and tall grasses. At this very moment ---June 17, 6:17 am -- the thicket is clamorous with catbirds mewing, yellow warblers warbling, northern waterthrush chanting, cedar waxwings buzzing, swallows chattering, and song sparrows singing. The music of sex fills the morning air and calls the sun to rise.

This thicket is a nursery for many of the valley’s songbirds. Since it is wider than the ribbon of bank vegetation landowners have grudgingly left, it provides a larger, safer habitat. I try to use the example of the productive thicket as a rationale to make our hayfields smaller and let the riparian zone be the erogenous zone that nature intended.

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Author info

Lou Springer Lou Springer lives in Heron when not out on a river somewhere.

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riparian zone, erosion

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