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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

My Father's Hands

I don't remember my father's hands, but I remember the tadpoles.

When I think of my father, his hands are the first image to coalesce. They were enormous. Even after I got older, they made mine look like little baby hands. So to a child standing by his knee in the shallow water, the sight of the tadpoles squirming in those gigantic paws must have been striking. But when I think back to that day, I don't picture his hands, or the brackish water or the brownish-green muck. I only see the tadpoles.

During the walk to the frog pond, my father had told me about the tadpoles' transformation into frogs. I could hardly wrap my head around it. I remember struggling even to articulate my confusion. The tail falls off? The tail... goes away? Where? The tadpole... turns into... a frog? This tadpole will... take in part of itself? Its flesh will... flow?

The words I was hearing seemed unbelievable, but they were my father's words, so they had just enough substance to bear me on a leap of faith. My consciousness expanded to include this magical vision of transformation. It's no wonder that those wriggling, slimy teardrops expanded to fill my vision, imprinting themselves on my memory like sauropods on Jurassic clay.

Those memories gestated inside me throughout my awkward childhood and adolescence, though I doubt my father ever knew it. I don't think he ever quite knew what to do with me, let alone figured me out. He was a man of his generation: an NRA member, a hunter, a straight-talkin' traditionalist. I was a fat little introvert, perennially buried in comic books and lost in my head.

He would take me on walks in the woods, and although I never expressed an abundance of enthusiasm for those walks, they set a precedent. At the age of twenty-one I discovered a love of hiking. Clearly this love grew from a childhood spent wandering alone in pastures, fields, orchards, ravines, ridges and roadsides, but that wandering can't be detached from its context. My father's simple act of taking me on walks into the woods showed me that taking walks into the woods was a thing that a person could do.

By the time I neared my teens I was predictably disaffected. Memories of a particular fishing trip cause me the worst pangs of regret. My father got me up early in the morning and drove us to one or two fishing spots that didn't pan out. He said he was taking us to another spot, and I fell asleep in the passenger seat. When I woke up, we were headed home. I said "I thought we were going to that other spot" and he said something noncommittal. I could hear the resignation in his voice. I always felt like that was the moment when he gave up trying to relate to me. I always wished he'd just gone ahead with his plan. I wish he hadn't let my disaffection defeat him.

In 2008, while my father was dying in a nursing home in Chittenango, I discovered the Link Trail. Getting out onto that trail for an hour or two here and there did far more than keep me sane. It created connections not only between me and my younger self, but between three generations. For five years I've felt those connections grow. Sometimes bittersweet feelings sweep over me as heavily as ocean waves. I struggle beneath them, struggle to articulate their depth.

In 2010 I became a steward of a mile and a half of the Link Trail: the section between Irish Hill Road and Damon Road, south of Cazenovia. I've been proud not only to contribute to the trail, but to be responsible for part of it. I'm proud that that's my section. I'm proud to share the trail that I help maintain with my niece and nephew. I'm proud to pass along a tradition of wandering into the green, of cupping a wonder reverently in hands large or small.

Last month I did my first mowing of my fourth year of stewardship. And as I thrust the mower into the tall grass, those waves came rolling back stronger than ever before. I thought of my father dying in the nursing home. I thought of how we connected more during those last few weeks than we ever had before. I thought of what it meant to me to escape briefly into hidden, magical places. I thought of my radiant pride at sharing that magic with the young people in my life. I reveled in this year's bright new blossoms. And my heart fluttered with the skittering motion of mama spiders as they fled with their egg sacs through the grass I'd just cut. I saw things only I can see, and I saw them as only my father's son can see them.

I don't believe in God--at least not in the way that most folk would recognize. I don't believe in heaven, much less that my father is looking down on me. But I believe that when I share nature with a child, it's his hand that guides me.

Thursday, December 1, 2011


I'm always bragging that not only do my niece and nephew enjoy hiking with me on the Link Trail, they practically beg me to take them hiking on the Link Trail specifically! Here's proof.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Fun with the Kids along Canastota Creek

Before we played "Three Billy Goats Gruff" with the kids, we had fun hiking to Canastota Creek, not to mention playing the simple game I've played with my daughter for seventeen years: "Throw the stick from the upstream side of the bridge and watch it appear on the downstream side."

Teaching Dylan and Abby about Seed Dispersal

Here's my favorite thing to do with kids: take them out in nature and hone my translation skills.

I have an engineer's vision of natural processes as being cut from the same cloth as heat transfer and osmotic gradients. I think of seed dispersal and root branching in terms of entropy and suface-area-to-volume ratios. But I can't talk to kids about heat transfer and osmotic gradients and entropy and surface-area-to-volume ratios. I need to fit my vision to their eyes. Between the majesty of nature and the child's perception must stand an intermediatry: a Metatron whose voice a nascent ear can hear. To be that Metatron is a life's calling.

I've given variants of this speech to Dylan many times during our walks along the roadside. To teach Dylan, and now Abby, the sundry evolutionary innovations in seed dispersal, I speak in terms of mother and child, of animals and fire. Nature has no intent, but I rely heavily on anthropomorphic imagery. A decade or two from now I can explain to them my abstruse notion that evolution doesn't happen, but rather fails to not happen. For now, I fill their heads with vivid images of nature to lead them to reverence.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Three Billy Goats Gruff

Grace and I drove to Oneida on Thursday morning to spend Thanksgiving with my family. We'd barely gotten our coats off before Dylan and Abby started asking if we were going hiking on the Link Trail. Oh yeah. I've got 'em hooked.

We hiked in from the Mount Pleasant Road trailhead, crossed Canastota Creek, followed the railroad bed for a few hundred yards, and turned around. On the way back, we made a few little movies based on an idea I'd had while crossing the bridge on the way out: "There are four of us. And we're all different sizes. We have the perfect cast to enact 'Three Billy Goats Gruff'!"

So we shot these videos with Grace's phone. There was much giggling. Especially when we started switching up the roles assigned to each actor. My favorite is the last one, in which Abby plays the Biggest Billy Goat Gruff.

Monday, November 28, 2011

A video survey of my section - October 22, 2011

On October 22 I spent a few hours working on the Irish Hill section, the mile and a half which I steward. The trail didn't need mowing, but I gave it a quick manicure anyway. Happily, there was again no vandalism. I'm hopeful that I'm wearing out the vandals.

There were a lot of branches, and one medium-sized tree, fallen on the trail, but nothing I couldn't wrestle away. I used a lot of them as trail guidelines. When I got to the Irish Hill end, I remembered a conversation I'd had with a gentlemen who lives just down the road. He had looked down the trail and assumed it went straight. So I arranged some branches to better delineate that first sharp turn, similar to what Steve Kinne did farther on where the trail bends to follow the stream.

On the way back I took the time to shoot three videos, because the leaf color was worth sharing. Here they are. Enjoy.

Monday, October 24, 2011

CNYNCTA 2011 Meeting Presentation

Here are the photos I used in my presentation at the Canastota Library yesterday.