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Elbows Deep

As activism goes digital, it also becomes more abstract. Ted Haviland and the Ozark Stream Teams stay focused on a place they can touch.

Text by Jake Abrahamson | Photography by Nate Luke

Ted leans over the stand and sticks his face in mine. "Look at 'em all." A smirk spreads, a smirk that says, You're just like the schoolkids. Because I don't see what he sees.

But then my eyes adjust to the logic of the mud, and a constellation of larvae and crawdads resolves into sight.

"It's crawlin' with buggers!" he says.

Craning a pair of tweezers, Ted brings into his palm a pinky-size arthropod. I would say centipede, but it's too robust to be a centipede. Armored, segmented, fitted with dark brawny mandibles, it looks like the war machine of the river bottom. He cups it near his chest, his shoulders drawn into a protective canopy, and says, "Dobsonfly."

"That's a fly?" I ask.

"He's a hellgrammite now. This guy'll become a dobsonfly," Ted says.
"Those are some pincers."

"Ooooo yeah. Uses those to hunt. You put him in the ice tray, and he crawls into the other parts and eats the smaller bugs, like a lion." Without looking up from the seine, he says, "Hon, we got a hellgrammite."

"OK. Hellgrammite." Pat, seated in a beach chair on the rocks, marks it on her sheet with a flourish of the wrist.

As MC of the canoe-building event, Ted struts and prowls, a drill sergeant with watch in hand.

Because the buggers rely on consistent water quality, taking inventory of them is a more accurate way to gauge a river's average health over time than, say, measuring its nitrate content, which can change momentarily.

I pinch up a translucent tube. It is gel-filled and moves like a caterpillar.

"You know what I tell students about that one?" Ted chewy-whispers. "I tell them it's bait. Then they're interested."< /p>

"What is it?"

"Let me see here. I think it's a water snipe."< p /> "Water snipe," Pat says.< p /> "Not yet, hon. We gotta look it up. Now let me see here." Ted runs a finger down a paper titled "Dichotomous Key to Stream Macroinvertebrates." He says, "Fleshy, fingerlike extensions, head not apparent, up to four inches. Now that's a crane fly." He raises his voice. "You hear that, hon?"< /p> "Crane fly. Got it."

We tweeze more buggers into an ice tray, calling out our discoveries to Pat. As we go on, I realize that more and more things I thought were water beads are really water fauna in various phases of their wriggling, infinitesimal lives: riffle beetle, crawdad, dragonfly, midge, and so on.

These upper waters are healthy and clean. In fact, as we plug our bug count into a formula from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, we learn that this part of the Jacks Fork, though low and overwarm, is in certifiably excellent condition.

The sun crawls out from behind a tree, and the Havilands spend another two hours doing the work that the Department of Natural Resources has trained them to do. Ted does the bug dance twice more, a few yards up- and downriver of the first spot. Seine, count, return, excellent. Seine, count, return, excellent.

As we pack up, a high-pitched, cigarette-worn cry ripples over the river. "Poleigh! Poleigh! Poleigh Ester!" Pat is calling for their dog, a Boston terrier clad in a personal flotation device, which has trotted upriver to cool off. I feel a tinge of sympathy for it. We seem to be in a pocket of trapped heat, and the warm water offers no refreshment. Ted tells me it's not normal for this water to be so warm, so low. I look back at the river. It wends between towers of foliage, all prematurely brown. The whole scene gives off an infernal feel, a hint that we're looking through a window to some future when the forest water will be too hot to cool us down or nourish the trees on its banks.

Ted does a trash sweep. He gives me a long, tight hug, and then we leave the Prongs behind.

Another torrid day in the Ozarks. It is the annual Scenic River Stream Team Association picnic. Team No. 713 is here in full, along with a dozen other teams that work in the Ozark National Scenic Riverways. Rows of volunteers shelter under a pavilion, gossiping about the horrible sun, about a small wash of rain that came down last night. The heat has been unrelenting, and rumors of its effects swirl through the air. Cattle are said to be swarming to felled trees and ripping off the leaves just to chew something damp. One guy says that he tried to hose a squirrel away from his garden but that it just stood in the spray, lapping water off its belly and paws. The air is as crisp and dry as an empty skillet over fire. You can almost sense the river evaporating as it trickles on through.

Ted Haviland sits off to the side, legs crossed, back arched, chin curled to a knee. He puffs on his pipe. Here, he holds the status of a village elder. To the kids, he is a quirky grandpa. To the adults, he's a respected sage on the subjects of river quality and pipe carving. For 20 years he's watched over this river. He wants to tell me who everyone is.

He points first to Angel and Tom Kruzen, the rare Stream Teamers who write grants and deal with politicians. As he continues down the line of sweating bodies, though, he realizes that the web of relations is too tangled to explain, and so he pantomimes playing banjo while tooting the Deliverance riff.

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