Shady Brook takes me back to childhood

Published 8:54 am Wednesday, June 13, 2012

by James D. ‘Archie’ Howell

My brother is building a boat. I can see it in our back yard, extended, resting on two saw horses.

It’s simply constructed with two wide boards for the sides and enough various widths to fill the flat bottom. A few ribs strengthen the bottom and hold it all in place.

It’s about 10 feet long, determined by the length of readily available boards at Fisher’s Mill.

Common pine, the most available wood in our area is used for the bottom and sides, but cypress is used for the ends. Cypress doesn’t swell up when wet, I’m told. It has a seat built across each end. I won’t call them a bow or stern; that sounds too official.

This is a bare bones fishing boat — square ends, not graceful, but very functional. A coat or two of grey paint completes the project. Color is chosen more for its availability than attractiveness. We’ve somehow accumulated a small supply of grey paint; we generally use what’s available over something that has to be purchased.

The boat is launched into Shady Brook. I’m told that it takes about a week for the boat to swell up and become watertight. I have faith.

Some time later, we depart our path (my brother has allowed me along), turn right, down the hill around a curve past Lovers Lane (I don’t understand that), and down the shallow bank of an ancient swamp that covered this area.

We start slowing down at Fisher’s Mill, cross the short bridge at Shady Brook and turn right onto a woods path. Just past the bridge on the right across the old roadbed next to the woods is a flowing (artesian) well. Clear, clean water flows from a pipe about two feet above ground. I’ve tasted the sweetness many times.

The well water flows down an embankment and into a pond. Around the pond are the concrete remains of a gristmill sluice and the dilapidated remains of a bath house/dancehall.

I don’t know how all those things relate to one another, but abandoned stone mill wheels are still hiding in the bramble for me to examine when I visit.

We stop at the falling-down building. A woman is living here now, with children, and we stop to say “Hello.” I don’t know how or when she arrived, but occasionally we bring food and other things. We drop off something today.

We continue around the slight curve to the short, shallow bank where our new boat is tied up to a small cypress tree. The gristmill remains are off to our right.

Sometimes there are other boats here. Although it is a part of our farm, it can be considered public access; space and fish are shared without animosity. My brother bails rainwater and other seepage with a tin can and unties the boat from its tree.

I take my seat in front, and my brother paddles out into the run of Shady Brook. The dam is yet to be built at the country club, and water here flows smoothly.

There’s not much current, really; this whole area is part of the swampy watershed of the Nottoway River. Water flows a few miles southeast and becomes part of the Nottoway not far from Delaware Beach.

We move upstream today; my brother casts a lure into dark waters and retrieves it haltingly, working the bait in hopes of attracting a fish. I watch.

It really is beautiful here; majestic Cypress tree limbs hang far out over the water. Smaller branches dance and wave, almost mournfully, in the occasional breeze. Turtles turn fallen trees and limbs into sun porches.

Silence is broken only by the Z-z-z-e-e-w-w, plop of a reel unwinding and the occasional flop of a distant fish jumping. Silence is as much in reverence for the quiet grace of this place as it is to not scare the fish away. The occasional insect’s buzzing seems loud; sweet, oxygen rich air fills our lungs.

My brother paddles; I’m not permitted that job as yet. I don’t mind; I drift into a place that will become familiar territory years hence — a mental refuge from the immediacy of problems.

We fish for some time, without a bite, and return the boat to its mooring. The truck ride home is quiet; it was not an unsuccessful trip.

When I am stressed by day-to-day pressures, I retreat to that quiet place of my childhood, where my spirit can rest and be refreshed. My thoughts return to Shady Brook, a homemade, flat-bottomed boat, cypress trees, and soft waters. I am home.

James D. “Archie” Howell is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at