My inspiration to have a child came in part from a walk with my wife in eastern Colorado. It was nothing spectacular, rounded red rocks and spare pines, but it prompted a vision...
My inspiration to have a child came in part from a walk with my wife in eastern Colorado. It was nothing spectacular, rounded red rocks and spare pines, but it prompted a vision of walking with a son or daughter and sharing the occasional observation, doing my part to raise a kid that shared some fondness for the natural world.
What was I thinking? The other day I asked my son, now pushing 16, why he doesn’t like going out in nature.
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“I don’t like the calm,” he said.
My daughter summed up her attitude years ago, pounding on a picnic table in the Blue Mountains of Oregon and screaming, “I hate camping!” She wanted to get home to make a Backstreet Boys Web site.
So much for this father as a guide to the natural world. Which has me wondering just what makes the fathers in the 19 essays collected in “Father Nature” so different from me.
Here’s a quick theory: These fathers are scientists whose sons and daughters get folded into their lifestyle more easily than mine. Others treat the woods and waters with so much awe and sanctimony that their reverence can be a little much.
Fortunately, Paul Piper, a Western Washington University librarian, and Stan Tag, a Fairhaven College assistant professor, have pulled together such an eclectic set of viewpoints and experiences that their book avoids getting crushed beneath the virus of preciousness plaguing nature writing.
Of course, it is easy to get profound here. The book looks at both the experience of fathering and being fathered, and it is rich stuff. Moreover, our parents and children are our most immediate connection to the big processes, the whats and wherefores of the world, the vast before and beyond. Mix fathers and their offspring and nature, and (if you aren’t just burning Rice-A-Roni on a camping trip) you’re getting pretty heavy.
The trick is to be concrete and nuanced, like “Recoveries” by James McKean, a kid from Tacoma who went on to be a Washington State University basketball player and is now teaching English at an Iowa college. His father forged his sense of place, taking him fishing in places like Sekiu, Point No Point, the Hoh River and Westport. He bought him fireworks to set off on Hat Island, off Everett. In the end, after his father has died, McKean can recall his father’s deliberate and thoughtful manner through the stringing of a fishing rod or fishing until dusk.
Bernd Heinrich, a raven expert and University of Vermont biologist, argues that children cannot appreciate nature without having serious contact with it. This is jeopardized by other forms of entertainment, a recurring theme of these essays, but also by a fear of handling living things for fear of hurting them. Heaven forbid that a kid should have a wild pet, and hunting … well, that’s anathema to huge tracts of the pro-nature crowd.
But not all children are destined to follow in Dad’s lug soles. Stephen J. Lyons, a former Pullman writer, folds an appreciation of nature into the “list of axioms” he would pass on to his daughter, Rose. They range from “memorize some lines of poetry” to “exercise, but never weigh yourself.” She retreats into late adolescence and her Walkman, while Lyons hopes nature can offer her some refuge from a society overrun by celebrity and shallowness.
It’s unclear what will win out.
“Nature is boring,” she says. “Nothing happens.”
To which Lyons replies, “Exactly my point.”