Southeast Missouri State University Press

Trickster Rules

Arthur J. Stewart

It was near noon, and the warm air rising from the weedy field bordering the Blue River was buzzing with grasshoppers and their ilk. With each step we took, they burst up and away in various directions from the weeds. Some had gray-green bodies and coarse black accordion wings edged delicately in yellow; others were greener, sleeker, with more angular bodies; and others still were dusty-green sturdy-bodied conventional hoppers sporting yellow underbellies and roguish yellow stripes on their oversized rear legs. Despite this diversity, their flights inevitably seemed clownish, in addition to being forceful: a tremendous leaping take-off from some waist-high stem or leaf, arrow-straight initially, but terminating in a clumsy spoof of natural perfection. Some, for example, crash-landed tumbling as they hit the earth; a few thumped literally headfirst into tree trunks or bushes. Their objective clearly was quick escape, not nicety. Their chaotic bursting leaps might be viewed as elegant displays of apparent incompetence, I thought; or perhaps, evolutionary manifestations of fuzzy success.

We piled our first load of sampling gear in shadows under the trees along the river’s bank, then trudged back through the buzzing field to the vehicles for more. On a previous visit to streams near the Department of Energy’s Kansas City Plant, in Kansas City, Missouri, we had been rained out.1 Now, on this return visit, there seemed to be little chance of rain. The earth was dry and the leaves of the sycamore trees near the water’s edge were at their late-summer coarsest, worn and starting to yellow. The leaves of the poison ivy, in shadow under the bank-side trees, were large and dusty; they had lost their youthful early-summer shine.

We were here with a crew of eight to finish sampling the fish, aquatic invertebrate and chemical water-quality conditions in Indian Creek and the Blue River at the request of the Kansas City Plant’s environmental manager. The issue leading to this request seemed straightforward: the Kansas City Plant is a production facility and releases a goodly amount of wastewater to each of the two streams; the operators were under stiff regulatory pressure by the state to reduce or eliminate concentrations of chlorine in these wastewaters, so as to prevent possible damage to stream-dwelling organisms. Interestingly, the source of the chlorine in this case was drinking water. In Kansas City, and in most other cities in the United States, water destined to be used for drinking water is deliberately chlorinated at water-treatment plants, to kill or inactivate bacteria ¾ a treatment required by law, designed to ensure that the water is safe for human consumption. But ironically, concentrations of chlorine needed to kill bacteria in drinking water are also sufficient to kill fish, and algae, and aquatic invertebrates. And, like most toxic pollutants, it is easier by far to add chlorine to water than it is to take it out once it has been added.

We had been asked to provide data on ecological and chemical conditions in the two streams, at sites upstream and downstream of the Kansas City Plant wastewater-release points, with the idea that the plant managers might use the data to apply for a waiver of their chlorine- release limit, stipulated in their wastewater discharge permit. If a chlorine-release waiver was not granted, the plant would be forced either to implement very costly in-plant plumbing changes to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars or to add chlorine-degrading chemicals to the wastewaters near their point of release. However, if ecological impacts from the chlorine being released now to the two streams were negligible, the latter option would make no environmental sense because the addition of chlorine-consuming chemicals to the wastewaters would likely be more damaging, environmentally, than the chlorine that the chemicals were designed to remove. It was one of those uncomfortably topsy-turvy, damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situations that unfortunately are altogether too common in the realm of environmental regulations, an area in which one finds festering thickets of laws that routinely run at odds with each other.

Fish living in streams can tell the truth about water-quality conditions, without talking: they do not run at odds with each other, they do not fester like a thicket of laws. And this is why backpack shockers, chest-waders, and long-handled dip nets were among the items we had lugged from the vehicles to the stream-bank. Tools of the trade. A fiberglass bathtub-sized barge with a set of strapped-on wheels (removed for use in water) contained a heavy-duty gasoline-powered generator capable of producing an electrical field strong enough to stun fish, even in waist-deep water. Backpack shockers with smaller gasoline-powered generators were used by persons in waders, working closer to the banks of the stream.

Fish stunned by electroshocking were scooped quickly from the stream with dip nets and transferred first to buckets containing stream water, amended with an anesthetizing chemical, then later to in-stream “fish pens” made from seines, where they were allowed to recover. It was a noisy, jocular activity, reminiscent of an Easter-egg hunt, but conducted in water. Those wielding the dip nets worked arm to arm with those wielding the shocker anodes, totally intent, plunging the nets down into the water to collect fish-bodies flashing briefly from around rocks or snags, or thrashing quickly near the water’s surface, stung from deep pools or shallows by the electric current. Channel catfish, brown bullhead, a golden shiner, long-ear sunfish, stoneroller minnows, blue-gill sunfish, largemouth bass, and a few carp, some nearly as big as your arm, rolling to the water’s surface, stiff and half-stunned from shocking, wonderfully orange-gold and heavy, gasping in the net.

We worked upstream slowly, through pools where the water depth sometimes approached the tops of our chest-high waders, and through ankle-deep riffles, probing the rocks and snags with long-handled ring-shaped anodes. A few slender madtoms, a log perch, and finally, even a Johnny darter showed up. Twenty-one species, in all, from an 80-meter reach of stream. A number not indicative of a pristine midwestern system, perhaps, where one might expect thirty or more species, but not too bad either. Certainly it was a number greater than one might expect from a highly polluted, chlorine-blasted stream. And several of the species that we caught were considered by fish ecologists to be pollution intolerant, providing a bit more evidence for reasonably good ecological conditions.

It always surprises me to see so many fish—buckets of fish!—from a turbid stream like this. From above, the muddy water moves in slow gyres, quietly, steadily, hardly winking under coins of sunlight speckling through the leafy canopy overhead. It offers little hint of the quick, darting activity below the surface. I wonder, sometimes, what it must be like for fish living among the rocks and stones and woody snags in a turbid stream: cool and gloomy to the point of near total darkness, I would guess, and the constant pressure of the water—pushing, caressing, nudging with silent fingers, coiling around rocks and stones, carrying perhaps a bit of scent of things it had come into contact with farther upstream. I am reminded of a portion of a poem by William Carlos Williams2:

. . . And casting an eye
down into the water, there, announced
by the silence of a white
`bush in flower, close
under the bridge, the shad ascend,

midway between the surface and the mud,
and you can see their bodies
redfinned in the dark
water headed, unrelenting, upstream.

On shore, when collection was complete, the fish are hand-scooped individually from the pens, weighed and measured, and examined quickly but thoroughly for physical conditions that might indicate poor water-quality conditions: body lesions, sores, tumors, or fin-rot. They are then released, thrashing and wiggling, to the waters from whence they came.

Standing in shallow water near the stream’s edge, watching this quick but careful activity, I think about the possibility of fish confusion—first the tingling stun of electricity that sought them out from friendly crevices among the rocks, then the burst of light as they are netted and brought momentarily into the air stunned; their senses fogging quickly due to the anesthetic in the bucket, and later, their abrupt transfer to a pen for recovery before release. Confusion, disarray, chaos—.

And suddenly there is it is again, just as I am standing there doing nothing but watching—the word “chaos”, creeping in. It is elusive, slippery as a fish; bursting as a grasshopper unexpectedly from the weeds, disrupting the mind’s innate desire for order. But this time the Trickster is caught. We are here, I think, netting fish we cannot see from turbid water, to make pronouncements about the quality of water here and upstream around the bend, a place we cannot discern; we busy ourselves sorting these fish, by species and size, not knowing anything of their history; we are occupied in tabulating their numbers and weights, developing comfort, documenting pattern. This is our job today, I think: to push back the sense of disorder, even as a few clouds drift carelessly on high, intermittently changing the amounts and colors of the light filtering through the trees, the light intermittently bouncing and sparkling from the water’s surface, the water’s surface intermittently slow-swirling, coiling this way and that as it moves constantly downstream, intermittently steady under the silent force of gravity.

I can feel the sound “aha” wanting to emerge from me: this, the sound resulting to express satisfaction regarding the apparent solution to a problem, developed from personal insight, when the area of underlying pattern suddenly becomes greater than the area under immediate investigation. Whatever else chaos is, it is pattern-clouding. So it is chaos that is constantly both the enemy and close friend of a scientist. And ever the Trickster,3 whose teasing whim sometimes blows a bit of chaos away, letting perception expand, or who drags an extra bit of chaos in, reducing clarity. We should learn to work with the Trickster in college, I think. I can see it now—a punnish course title, “Trickster Rules: 101″—a bespeckled professor, wild-haired, of course, in ill-fitting slacks and a mis-buttoned shirt, mumbling or overloud, in either a monotonic drone or a thickly accented voice, lecturing in a rising and falling cadence, pointing to equations scribbled incomprehensibly on the blackboard with a log-linear model wooden pointer—.

And while standing there, watching the fish-crew finish their work and whimsically musing, something suddenly thumped my chest just above the wader-line. Almost startled, looking down, I see, looking up, a sleek pure green orthopteran, clinging perfectly to my shirt. It is almost motionless, katydid-like, just over an inch in length, with long antenna arching gracefully from the head, back, over the thorax: the left rear leg now is being pulled slowly up and in, closer to the body, even as I watch. The muscles—I can almost see them, somehow in my mind’s eye—the tiny muscles, attached to the interior surfaces of the exoskeletal leg, are contracting, enervated by even smaller neurons, pale threads, the firing of which involves the active flux of sodium and potassium ions and within each muscle cell, hundreds of mitochondria, each working smoothly to produce the energetically rich organic compounds a muscle cell needs to do its work, just like in my body, with the concurrent influx of oxygen atoms and glucose molecules as raw materials, and the near steady efflux of carbon dioxide, the waste. And I swear in that instant as I saw these things, just before the creature leaped, it looked up and grinned.



  1. Stewart, A. J. 1999. “Bridges, rivers, respect, and power.” Pp. 237–240. In D. Ivie and L. M. LaChance, eds.Breathing the Same Air: An East Tennessee Anthology. Celtic Cat Publishing, Knoxville, TN.
  1. Williams, W. C. 1985. “The Bitter World of Spring.” In C. Tomlinson, ed. William Carlos Williams: Selected Poems. New Directions Books, New York, NY.
  1. Combs, A., and M. Holland. 1996. Synchronicity: Science, Myth, and the Trickster. Marlowe, New York, NY.


© Arthur J. Stewart