Mobile's Three Mile Creek: Beauty's refuge hidden in the refuse

Mobile's Three Mile Creek: Beauty's refuge hidden in the refuse
By Bill Finch
on April 20, 2014 at 11:00 AM

Sometimes, I think there are places on Three Mile Creek only the devil and I have seen. I can imagine when it was the creek nature gave to us, rolling out of the pinelands of Spring Hill, through the pitcher plant bogs and white cedar glades now sunk under the murky lake of Municipal Park, through banks of tall trees draped with Spanish moss at Toulminville and Prichard's gentle hills, spreading out to meet the Delta below the high plateau called Alabama Village. Now, Three Mile Creek swamp is caught between the city's hindquarters and the railroad tracks, and we all turn our backs on it.

Toilet paper hangs where there was once Spanish moss. There are islands and beaches made of Styrofoam cups and building scrap and discarded balls of every size and shape. Only the homeless call it home; where Three Mile tries to find its way around Conception Street, bootleg apartment complexes made of tattered tarps and broken shipping crates hug the low mounds of high ground. Looking at it reminds us what a mess we are. So no one comes to see.

The swamp tries to ignore the slight. Happy clumps of sky blue iris are framed by worn out tires. Radiant white Delta lilies bloom beside black plastic bags stuffed with what I'd rather not contemplate. Wild hibiscus grow up around the blank screen of TV's latest cast-off technology, our refuse their last refuge.

I come to Three Mile Creek swamp every spring with a mission, to seek its help in controlling our neighborhood mosquito problem. The swamp isn't the problem; it's the solution. Three Mile is rich with creatures jumping for the opportunity to keep mosquito problems in check, and I bring a few home to put them to work in my garden.

Mosquito fish, almost as plentiful here as the mosquitoes, are notorious consumers of mosquito larvae. So notorious, as a matter of fact, that their legendary virtues as mosquito control agents may be a bit exaggerated. Some argue that they've been put in places they shouldn't be, and there's some truth to that.

But they belong on Three Mile Creek and in the stagnant pools and ditches of our Gulf Coast cities. I have seen with my own eyes a pack of our native mosquito fish literally herd mosquito larvae -- squigglers, my mother calls them -- into a tight, dark circle, and then, like hungry wolves, they pick them off one by one.

Maybe other fish can be as effective. But few other fish can live in the shallow and deadly still waters where mosquitoes love to breed. I've had a family of mosquito fish inhabiting a three-foot-high water jar in my front yard for six or seven years now. I just introduce a new hot-blooded mosquito fish stud into the mix every now and then.

It's nothing to pick up a few dozen mosquito fish when you swoop a net through the marshy vegetation along the banks of Three Mile swamp. Just throw out the odd beer bottle or old shoe, drop a couple of fat females in the bucket, and you've got more than enough mosquito fish to keep a garden pool clean of mosquitoes for a few years.

For good measure, I keep the funky little insects, too. Quite a few of them are dragonfly and damselfly nymphs, which are, ounce for ounce, even more effective than the mosquito fish at controlling mosquito larvae. But once my official business is done, I can't help but linger to watch the blooming iris illuminate the swamp, and the mating fish light up the tea black water.

The swamps of the Atchafalaya may boast the world's most colorful iris. But the iris of Three Mile Creek come close. I've seen two or three species here, in colors ranging from a deep vermillion purple to a blue so pale it almost looks white. Just below, beneath the water's surface, is color like I've never seen on any flower anywhere in the world. It's the rainbow glow of Three Mile's native fish. Sailfin mollies – yes, the wild version of the mollies we put in our aquariums, except far more colorful – drag their proud topsails along the water surface, their tails flickering like a neon blue sign and their cheeks and flanks flushed tangerine.

In the thicker vegetation, the golden topminnows can barely hide their brilliant tails. My friend Ben Raines says they look like French fries dipped in catsup, but there was never a McDonald's french fry that gleamed that color of gold, and I never saw catsup that was so bright, it looked like it was on fire.

In Louisiana, they've learned to celebrate their native iris, and they take tourists out to see them. On Three Mile Creek, we love our iris so much we quietly bring dumptruck loads of debris and dirt to pour over the wildflowers at the water's edge, so there'll be more room to accommodate scrapped cars and abandoned metal buildings. I can't imagine what we'd do with colorful fish in a state like Alabama, where the world's most beautiful fish are commonplace. Sailfin mollies and golden topminnows are not nearly big enough for all-you-can-eat specials, so we just let the devil decide what to do with them.

I got all the mosquito fish I needed last Saturday. But I'm going to follow the devil down there again. The iris are blooming between the tires and the fish are flashing among the rusting bed springs on Three Mile Creek. Care to see?