“Daddy, what’s that?”
“It’s a gilled snail baby. Cool, huh?”
“Aw… It’s so cute! Look – one, two, three. Three snails, Daddy! Let’s find some more.”
And so it goes with a child at the river’s edge. An afternoon wasted on riverbank shoulder rides, throwing rocks and splashing, stirring leaf-cakes in pools, and finding rocks to sit on is not an afternoon wasted at all. Walking hand in hand in the warm fall sun, looking for rocks with holes worn in them from the relentless work of the waters, and talking about where she wants to go on a “special date” later is surely one of life’s most precious moments. Such treasures don’t have to be few or far between, and it doesn’t take easy access to a river or stream to build memories like this. Add some sun, fresh air, and a patch of green to an afternoon with a child and you’ve got a recipe for something fine be it in a national park or just a wooded ditch in the city.
I could tell you that I look for times like this to build an appreciation of nature in my little girl. I could wax eloquently on the values of exposing children to nature and unstructured play; the benefits are well documented and my professional path has led me to give such talks over and over again. I could do all this but I won’t. Get out there and those things take care of themselves. The simple fact is that I do it for much more personal reasons than that. Maclean wrote of his childhood surroundings in wild Montana: “Ours was a world with the dew still on it.” His words are among my favorite to describe a sense of wonder at the great and the green. My own reasons for going there with my little angel are many, but chief among them are that it just feels good to hold that little hand in mine and watch her eyes light up when she finds just the right stick to walk with or to feel her little cheeks on my head as she rides high on my shoulder. Tell me that’s not heaven here on Earth. I dare you.
She speaks to us with words in the sound of waters over the rocks. The trick is to sit quietly and to be patient enough to listen. Sometimes the sound is that of a whisper, reminding us of things we’ve known but forgotten – or more often than not – telling us of things we’ve not yet admitted. At other times there’s laughter in it… Lyrical and musical in cadence and rhythm… Calling us and bringing a peace we often don’t allow ourselves.
There’s a tradition of finding a small treasure or totem – a leaf, a stick, pine cone, acorn – and holding it tightly, attaching a wish or a worry that you’ve carried. When the time is right you release it into the water and let her carry it away. Wishes are carried out and allowed to grow and perhaps be found later in life. Worries are released and washed away.
And so it is this morning as I sit on a limestone ledge carved out of ancient seabeds and listen to a river whispering and laughing over rocks and dancing through sycamores. The sound surrounds me and is gently accompanied by crickets and the gentle rustling of leaves. The words are keeping me still. I’ve brought with me a worry and a wish here to the water’s edge. Soon enough I will set them down and let them ride the sparkling current.
The worry I bid farewell to.
And as for the wish… The wish is one I pray finds us all.
Look for it on the current. Listen for it in the waters.
His trees are still marked. The flagging is faded and falling.
It isn’t that the trees he didn’t mark weren’t special. You keep some things and you let others go.
You decide what to carry and what to set down. You decide what to change and how to change it and how to keep only parts of others.
In the end, the story is told whether you’re active in it or not. We don’t own our own stories; sometimes we just play a part. Others will read it in what we’ve written, what we’ve saved, the words that have passed between us, or even in the flags we’ve tied to saplings to save because if for no other reason, we just liked them.
Author’s note: A few years ago on the way to a funeral reception for one of the best men I’ve ever known, I noticed several small trees marked with flagging tape in the woods along his driveway. I took note of what they were: redbuds, a sassafras or two, some other species. It struck me that this was a lasting signature on the land (as Aldo Leopold once wrote was written with the axe and spade rather than the pen). Now several years later the flagging is mostly still there and the trees a little larger now – obviously saved from the brush hog and chainsaw. I’ve thought about this. Those who know me lately know I have great respect for the storyteller, whether that be in words, light, or whatever medium the Muse inspires. Our stories are more often than not misunderstood in our own time, and perhaps even more so later on. And sometimes, they’re as simple as just liking a tree because we think it’s special in its own way.
I imagine a few friends from here and there, past and present may find this space. Perhaps you are one of those friends. Perhaps you’re a friend I’ve simply not met yet. Regardless, I hope that what ends up landing here will be of interest to you.
I welcome you to the river’s edge, the trailhead, the overlook, the campfire, the front porch, or whatever other metaphorical place you are comfortable. Personally I love them all.
See you down the river…