We spent the weekend with my son and his family in Vermont. Before heading home we took the kids on a short walk on a nature trail not far from where we were staying.
I get excited about these walks because it gives me the opportunity to share my love of the natural world with my grandkids. There is too much of a disconnect these days between our species and the natural world that spawned us and of which we are a part and parcel. The spiritual nourishment it provides aside, our survival depends on it. Yet, we blithely mine its generosity and abundance as if its bounties were infinite and inherently sustainable. I have no doubt that nature will win any battle we wage against it. Nature might take on different characteristics and behaviors, but it will always win the day. Its adaptive powers far out man ours.
I did not hit the trail with these thoughts in mind. Rather, I headed out, my grandson Grant holding my hand, knowing that even on a short walk in the Vermont woods there would be lots to see and feel and wonder about. Just a few feet into the trail my grandson looked up at me and said, “Pops, we need to watch out for stuff.” By stuff he meant, well, stuff. And stuff we found.
At one point he asked if there were any bears in the woods. Well, I said, there probably are but I did not think we would see any. He agreed that that would be a good thing. A little while later he wondered allowed if, well, we might see a cheetah. I pointed out that they live in Africa and that his grammy and I were lucky enough to see one way off in the distance while crossing the Serengeti in Tanzania several years ago. We agreed that had to have been ‘cool!’
Frankly, there are few things cooler than walking in the woods with my grandson dispelling notions of cheetah encounters! Every once in a while his 2-year-old sister would join us, although she spent much of the time riding atop her dad’s neck. But we did get to look at and talk about some neat ‘stuff’ together.
The forest floor was blanketed with several varieties of ferns, mostly common types, so we were able to identify them and, most importantly, touch them. I believe that “touching” nature’s stuff is crucial. Tactile images can be deeply embedded forever. I began my own explorations of nature years ago because ferns, so old, lacy, and immeasurably beautiful, ignited a fire within me that burns to this day. There were several stands of Interrupted ferns, which puzzled Grant a bit, as I needed to define “interrupted,” and then explain what it means to interrupt something and then explain further how it applied to the fern. He sort of understood, smiled, and then suggested we continue walking, keeping an eagle eye out for more intriguing stuff. I remember thinking how nice it would be if he stays this genuinely inquisitive as a teenager and then an adult.
Along the way we stopped to examine various mushrooms, peeled some bark off a yellow birch, plucked off a leaf from a striped maple, gathered up several blue jay feathers, and on the way back to the car, added a stem of jewel weed to what Grant now described as his ‘collection.’ As we walked along we heard several birdcalls. We have gone birding together before and one of his favorite things to do is hang my binoculars around his neck and search for birds when we hear them. Towards the end of the walk we heard a bird high up in the canopy. He stopped in his tracks and said, “That’s a woodpecker!” He lifted the binoculars to his eyes, craned his neck backward, and aimed for where he thought the woodpecker might be. We never saw it, but the sense of purpose and real joy that he felt in trying filled me with grandfatherly pride. I look forward to the day when we head out on a birding expedition together, tethered to one another by mutual love and a shared fascination with nature’s illimitable treasures.
When we got back home, the first thing Grant did was lay out, very carefully, his collection. In a family picture I took, Grant is holding up the striped male leaf and one of the jay feathers, displaying them proudly. His mom is holding his 3-week-old brother Blaine, and 2-year-old sister Julia, sitting on her dad’s lap, looks admiringly at her brother’s souvenirs. I look forward to the day when pops and the three kids take off to the woods together, looking for ‘stuff,’ with no other thought in mind than to be together for a time in a world so full of life and beauty.