My Brain on Creek
2021, Senior, Creative Writing
One evening in November of 2019, I walked through the “Creek Show,” a design competition that showcases local artists’ creative engagement with the Waterloo Greenway, a public park that runs beside Waller Creek in downtown Austin, Texas. As I strolled along the banks of the still-flowing Waller Creek, not yet knowing that there were just a few more months left of the before-times, I saw clearly how creeks are a critical element of Austin’s social, historical, and ecological environment. The piece, “Ghost Boat,” evoked the cultural history of not just Waller Creek but all of the natural waters that continue to wind through and under our city spaces. These waters sustain us. They are a critical element of our local identity. And acknowledging the changing landscape around them forces us to reckon with the impacts of Austin’s rapid growth. The Ghost Boat installation featured glowing rowing oars that had been positioned precariously in the middle of the creek, arranged to resemble both the structural outline of a boat and an exposed set of skeletal remains—the creek’s past, its insecure future. The soundscape imbued the space with an otherworldly atmosphere. I wandered through “Meander,” a piece meant to conjure a “supernatural aquifer.” Traversing the hundreds of tendrils of blue light hanging and rustling through this tented corridor alongside the creek provoked a soothing hush amongst the observers—and within me.
Austin may be land-locked, but our appreciation of creeks and local waters reflects our understanding of the value of cultivating openings for “blue mind” experiences in civic spaces. This “mildly meditative state we fall into when near, in, on or under water” is not just something I crave for my wellbeing—it’s necessary nourishment for our communities, too—for Austin especially. It’s impossible, for example, to imagine Austin without Barton Springs, the natural cold springs pool in the middle of town. Jumping into its waters every New Year’s morning with other shivering Austinites is pretty much peak Austin.
I learned about blue mind spaces and began thinking about what they mean to me around the same time I first read Herman Hesse’s short novel, Siddhartha. Siddhartha said, “Seeking means having a goal. But finding means being free, being open, having no goal.” This Kingdom of Calm, I recall asking myself, does it exist in Central Texas? I have always known intuitively that time near water is key to re-setting the landscape of my mind. It’s the critical variable whose presence allows me to pivot away from the consuming specificities of my bodily needs for snacks and movement and the prevailing mini-dramas of the day towards something more expansive. As a small child spending time on the coast with my grandparents, I found that the warm mid-Atlantic surf quieted my body and mind and opened up a new slow lane for me that didn’t feel like it featured anywhere else in my world.
In October of 2020, as our extended period of confinement due to the coronavirus persisted, my hunger for ocean waters swelled. I felt the kind of “sea fever” that poet John Masefield wrote about, an ache “…for the call of the running tide/ a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied.” My mind felt restless, chaotic—all of the uncertainty of the time was dulling and stultifying. Was it possible, land-locked amidst a pandemic, to explore what it means to set seeking aside so that I can open myself up to finding? Feeling itchy for sea breezes and vistas, I recalled walking along Waller Creek the year before. The lighting had transformed the creek’s limestone beds into bioluminescence. It had been such an unexpected surprise to find not just the ocean but a portal into the Kingdom of Calm right there in the heart of our urban downtown area.
Austin, Texas is not only “the live music capital of the world,” it’s also “a city of creeks.” There are thousands of miles of creeks that flow throughout the city. Among them, Boggy Creek and Onion Creek, Bull Creek and Shoal Creek. They feature wetland plants and great blue herons. You can fish in them in the rainy seasons and search for fossils in their sunbaked streambeds in the summer during dry periods. I grew up doing both. To this day, walking across the rickety bridge in my neighborhood that traverses Shoal Creek still feels like an adventure. Will the creek be running? What might be visible today? It’s transporting and restorative to find my way back into my blue mind—even for a minute.
And so, that October day, I decided to head to Taylor Creek, an off-shoot of Lake Austin in search of even a whiff of blue mind. It was a beautiful, crisp, sunny Saturday. Austin had finally arrived at its sweet spot: fall. Our extended season of extreme heat was winding down. It had been a particularly long wait. Taylor Creek runs through Mayfield Park, home to an ostentation of peacocks (“ostentation” being the awesome collective noun appropriate for this species.) The Mayfield Park peacocks were funny and startling, an unexpected joy, their wildly colorful feathers still shocking even though I’d been seeing them there since I was a child.
A short ten-minute hike later, I found my way to a rocky ledge that juts ten feet over a leaf-covered cliff. I settled in. Austin sits right in the middle of “flash flood alley,” an area that flanks the Balcones Escarpment, the wooded hills that separate the Edwards Plateau in the West from the Coastal Plains. It is apparently the most flood-prone geography of the continental United States. I could see the water below flowing rapidly through Taylor Creek, and I spotted indicators of previous, recent high-water marks. Austin often floods in October, and I imagined the exact spot on which I now perched inundated and underwater.
But eventually, I felt myself easing into my blue mind. I heard the birds singing songs in the distance. I felt the whisper of leaves in the breeze. I noted the sound of my breath. My thoughts slowed and sharpened. I thought about what it means to feel connected with nature and the environment around me—both here in Austin and also globally. I missed the ocean deeply. But I felt a burgeoning sense of gratitude for the public water spaces in my community. I thought about how I hoped that Taylor Creek—and all the creeks in town—will survive Austin’s spiraling growth. I want to be able to come here in ten years and find the Mayfield Park peacocks and Taylor Creek thriving, an urban blue mind refuge for the next decade’s City of Austin residents.
Siddhartha also said that water is the “voice of life, the voice of Being, the voice of perpetual Becoming.” My small pandemic water story is also a story of becoming. This is the gift of creeks, of rivers, of water. Blue mind spaces have a way of calling us to action to protect them. They demand that we think not just of what they do for us—but what we can do for them.
The last paragraph of my piece talks about how "my small pandemic water story is also a story of becoming." I don't think I fully realized until I finished writing this essay how inextricable exploring my love of water is to deepening my understanding of myself and who I want to be in the world. I want to be a steward of our precious waters, and while I’ve typically thought that this means ocean waters, being landlocked in the pandemic has given me a new appreciation for local waters—in this case the creeks of Austin, Texas. The story of Austin is really a water story. But I imagine that this is not unique to my hometown. Moving forward I hope to find ways to combine a local focus on water awareness with global advocacy. I wanted this piece to bring a specific water context to life as it captures my actual reflective experiences engaging with local waters—both real and imagined.