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As with the best of gifts, the recipient did not even recognize the gift as such until long years after the giving. I'm pretty sure that when I was growing up in Houston in the 1960s my mother did not keep a tally, an internal registry, called Nature Quota or Things to do Outside Each Day for the Betterment of My Children. Instead, paying attention to nature—and I think she would have defined the term "nature" as any and all living things beyond one's self—was simply how she lived her life. She did so with a passion and vitality that was contagious, whether commenting on whatever bird had just arrived to spray seed from the backyard feeder, or naming the different gray and fox squirrels that patrolled the suburban yards and littered the driveways and sidewalks with sharply gnawed fragments of hickory nuts that pierced the feet of barefooted walkers. She supported enthusiastically my boyhood predilection for keeping as pets whatever bayou creatures I could capture—slender grass snakes, bewitching with their emerald sheen, giant bullfrog pollywogs, their bulbous heads seeming to suggest a cetacean intelligence, prehistoric soft-shelled turtles, pancake-shaped with pale bellies and periscope necks. Freshwater crawfish, nine-lined skinks, box turtles, catfish, topwater minnows, ram's horn snails: it must have seemed that at some point every creature in the kingdom of life had passed through and lived temporarily in our home, and from this parade, my mother impressed upon me the habit not just of looking beyond one's self, but also of being stimulated and enthused by what the world—the natural world—had to offer.
This was not a message or ethos that was preached by her, but instead, one she lived by example; it was simply how she inhabited the world—one of the ways she loved the world—and when you love something, you want to share it. This is an obvious but important distinction—the fact that she didn't arise each day with a parenting checklist, but instead brought me to nature more organically, without the pressure of agenda or correct or incorrect answer.
Nature—wild nature—was going away then, too, as it is now, but I think we lived in that last time of grace before the full foreknowledge of the rates of extinctions and loss had become a part of our consciousness, a part of the new culture of a more complete going-away. Folks like myself are sometimes guilty of saying things like I wish I'd been born a hundred years earlier, or How I would have liked to have seen this country when it was young and whole and strong—but the truth is I can't really complain. I had it pretty good.
In retrospect, from a natural history perspective, I think I got to inhabit the last good childhood unfreighted by that degree of awareness of loss—that she and I got to inhabit it together—and I'm grateful to her, and consider myself lucky, even if possessing also the bittersweet guilt of the survivor. I must confess that these days I do not always follow my mother's model, and when I show my daughters some aspect of nature, whether sublime or subtle, I often do so with that confusion of self-awareness: wondering, is this something—a warbler, a certain glacier, the sound of a snipe in spring—that they will be able to share with their children? Knowing, sometimes, that the answer well may be Perhaps not.
I understand or believe that there are genetic dispositions—pre-existing circuitries that might illuminate in the midst of the natural world—and that surely my mother's (and my father's) and mine were wired from birth for such ignition. But brain research is showing that equally powerful neural pathways can be built in the brain for such things even if none exist at birth. With regard to my own naturalist's upbringing, then, I believe I got a double dose. Surely there were days of my suburban childhood that passed without some contact with nature, but if such days existed, they have been scoured clean in my memory by the eradicating winds of time.
What I do remember is the excitement of discovering any animal's tracks in the backyard, and of how we would spend hours mixing up a plaster of paris cast, and, subsequently, a wax imprint. Decades later, I would see such plaster imprints in the offices of wildlife biologists—casts from the immense feet of grizzlies, wolves, mountain lions—and I would feel a kind of immediate kinship, irrespective that my own childhood quarry had been basset hound, opossum, raccoon. The specificity of detail preserved in those casts was no less present in the filigree of pad, the wrinkled delicate underfeet of the suburban raccoon than in the tufted toepads of Canadian lynx.
What it was like, back then—I remember this, now—is that there was a glow that would heat up and incandesce in my mind when I saw these things, and when I engaged with them and with that outside, natural world, which was only half a step farther than the interior life of my mind.
Back then, I was not aware of such illumination—the blaze of those existing pathways surging with the recognition of attachment, the match and fit of their desire and the sculpted world beyond, as well as the burning of new pathways across the not-yet mapped territory of my boyhood brain—but looking back now, I can see that that was how it must have been.
I am not willing to admit yet that my middle-aged brain has grown darker or sealed over with the plaque and detritus of sediment, minutiae, and, perhaps worst of all, the dross of familiarity, when in truth there is still so much in the world that by all rights should be every bit as mysterious to me now as it was then. In the looking-back, though, it seems to me that in my vision of that boy-in-nature, I see the light of his mind glowing even in the darkness of nightfall, lit like a burning lantern.
My mother would have been in her early thirties. Surely her own mind-in-nature was still glowing brightly then. Like the best of guides, she led me to places where those pathways lit up, and then stepped aside, allowing me my own discoveries, my own burnings, with the pleasure, perhaps, of the hunter-gatherer who shares his or her good fortune with others, or who brings a fellow hunter into a forest or a valley where the hunting is good.
Nearly every Saturday morning, after I had finished watching the early showing of Bomba the Jungle Boy or Tarzan, my mother would drive me way across town to the Museum of Natural History for their weekly Saturday lecture. The chief reptile guy for the zoo was Dr. John Werler, a kind of local Crocodile Hunter decades before such a niche found fascination with the general public. (Like many in his profession, Werler had on occasion been bitten by his quarry—usually a rattlesnake—but always, he survived.)
Sometimes the lectures would be about piranhas or Komodo dragons—other times, less exotic Texana, though no less fascinating: mockingbirds, wolf spiders, armadillos. I drank it in. This attentiveness was the fabric of my days. There were other components to my days, but nature—even suburban nature, which was the only nature I knew, beyond that of my imagination, and those itchy wilderness pathways not yet fully constructed in my mind—was always the touchstone of those days.
I want to be clear: my mother was not a science wonk. There was less science in those days, and it was less accessible. She was more of an observer and participant and also, more than anything, a daily celebrant. To use a most common cliché, it rubbed off on me. We were cut from the same cloth.
It was my father who took me to wilder places. Since the early 1930s, he and his brother and my grandfather had leased a hunting camp on a thousand acres in the hardscrabble rocks and canyons of the Hill Country, up past Fredericksburg. It was a time before cedar and tourism had taken over the land, a time when grass fires still kept the cedar burned back, and the only land my family could afford to lease was the ragged land that nobody else wanted.
As rough and worthless as that country was to the economic models of the times, it was beautiful to us. Too rocky even for goats, and certainly possessing not enough soil for cattle or crops, it was a jumble of giant eroding granite boulders in the shapes of globes and rectangles and fantastic animals—a rhino, a camel, an Easter Island visage, a clenched fist—and the Comanches had revered it. Their flint knappings and arrowheads lay in the scree and granite chat aprons of the disintegrating hills, and it was not hard to imagine encampments of them, in the old days, sitting up in those boulders, building their fires, and making arrowheads with antler and stone.
My father took me up there a couple of times a year, driving long distances over rough ranch roads the last couple of hours, and even though in Houston I had sought out whatever wild little pockets of vacant lot woodland, cattle prairie, and oxbow bayou I could find, there at the farthest edge of the slowly expanding suburbs—in whose expansion, certainly, we were complicit—there was no comparison, in terms of wildness, between those city-edge pockets of thriving and somewhat disturbed nature, and the scale of ecological integrity I found in the Hill Country, back in the rocks and cactus, and so far—or so it seemed to me, a child—from the hand of man.
Back then, the Hill Country—the lease we called "the deer pasture"—a joke, for certainly, there was no pasture—was as wild to the ten- and twelve-year-old boy I was as would be Alaska's Brooks Range and Canada's Muskwa-Kechika, as an adult. Wyoming's Wind River Range, Utah's Uintas, Colorado's San Juans, Montana's Bob Marshall Wilderness: it is all a question of scale. Certainly, a healthy earth needs these cores of big untouched country to help serve as wellsprings of vitality and integrity for those scattered distant archipelagos of mere "nature"—call it the managed pastoral, the domesticated living. But these smaller, more moderated contacts with nature—the sparrows, the marsh rabbits, white-tailed deer—can also help by serving as a bridge back from where we are now, frazzled and confused, back to the touchstone of a larger and wilder landscape, where the brushstrokes of nature were and are bolder and more complex.
We would do well to remember, I think, that all the world was once wilderness—the world that shaped and sculpted our brains as well as our bodies, and our systems of logic. It was and remains the baseline, the foundation of whatever we choose to call "nature"—the place where all the rest of nature first came from. I was extraordinarily fortunate in my growing-up childhood, in the late 1950s and on through the 60s, in a place, Houston, that was decidedly no longer wild, to have both nature and wildness in my life: to have the daily example of my mother, as well as those farther trips with my father.
Again, what I realize now was rare about my mother's embrace of suburban nature was the good fortune of my not viewing that embrace as either instruction or leave-taking. There was not that veil of impending sorrow that accompanies many of my own moments in nature these days, when I pause to consider the endgame, the underlying fundamentals. She walked in beauty all of her days, we wrote of her, after her too-early death in 1991, and the older I get, the more I realize what an accomplishment that is, in any age: seemingly the simplest thing in the world, yet paradoxically one of the easiest to forget.
Would I have loved the deep wilderness as much had my mother not loved our backyard nature so much? There is no telling. What I do believe is that it is a continuum, and that I couldn't be luckier. It might have been nice to grow up in Alaska, trapping beaver and sewing our clothes from caribou skin, but to have grown up in the petrochemical corridor of Houston, I couldn't have been luckier. When she heard the snow geese and Canada geese fly over at night in the fall and winter on their migrations to the Katy Prairie, she called us out onto the lawn to hear it. Nothing of the grand spectacle of the living escaped her notice or celebration. All the love of wildness in me that would grow later came, I think, in large part from my good fortune to have both parents, in different ways, willing to step toward nature and wildness, rather than away.
The point is not so much whether one, wilderness or the pastoral, is a substrate for the other, nor is one better than the other, but of how rich we are to still have both, to still have an opportunity for a sense of balance in lives that often feel cut-off and imbalanced—though cut off from what, we sometimes cannot even say.
My own personal view is that the rarest thing is the wilderness—that big country grows smaller every day—but that with a child, the smallest serving of nature is all that is required to ignite that lifelong relationship with what, for lack of better phrasing, we call "the natural world."
One more thought. I perceived—and still believe—that as a child, I existed in a time of bounty. I think our culture today understands that due to our horrific affluence and consumption, the world exists in a time of increasing paucity and diminishment. This is a situation that is aggravated by our increasing estrangement or detachment from the rhythms, pulses, and celebrations of our lives, and lives beyond our own.
It is with a bittersweet feeling that I remember those childhood days of plenty. There is often a phenomenon in nature where the peak of a system's productivity occurs not in the relative stasis of mid-range security and stability, but instead after the system has received its first major damage. The conifer that is struck by lightning summons all its energies to produce a greater crop of seed cones, casting them down onto the rich waiting ashes of the burn below.
It was like that, I know now, in the suburbs I inhabited at the edges of the prairie and woodland, where the bulldozers' first bladecuts and the tractors' first clawings, had scratched that rich soil, summoning a more inspired outpouring of life from that initial disturbance.
Everywhere I looked there was a scurrying, with the bayou bottomland sending a diaspora into the newly colonized yards and gardens, as we and our houses and homes crept farther into the fraying edges of what had once been a great kingdom unto its own.
What I remember in particular, when I consider the bounty—the pulse of what I am tempted to call excess—are the toads. Every yard in our new subdivision had a sputtering little gaslight streetlamp, so that late at night in the summer after the sun had gone down, and the stars were silhouetting the tops of the tall pines, the streets of the new neighborhood each appeared to be like winding rivers of dull gold. The gaslights were intended to mimic the Victorian quality of merry old England—street names included the words "Windsor," "Brook," "Glen," and the like—but what the gaslights looked like to me were tiny campfires, candles in the wilderness.
And in the summer, moths and lacewings and June bugs swarmed the yellowpanes of those lights in a coming-and-going that was as perfect as the tides. Each afternoon the mosquito fogger would drive down the streets in his big tanker-truck, fumigating the neighborhood in a toxic glowing blue light, but still the insects came, night after night, not long after darkness first fell and the ever-burning streetlamps resumed their primacy in that suburban black.
Just as unfailingly, the toads gathered around the streetlamps like diners crowded around a great feast and waited, not impatiently it seemed, for the wing-burnished insects to collide mid-flight and tumble to the ground, or to damage their wings against the hot panes of the glass, or to simply become tired of flying and flutter to the ground for a while: a mistake.
These were big toads; they gorged every night, all night, on that bounty. I cannot describe to you how many there were. Not only did they crowd around every little streetlight that stippled those lanes through the forest, one-sixteenth of an acre at a time, they also filled the sidewalks and spilled out into the streets. They emerged at nightfall from beneath every stone in every garden, hopping through the lawns of newly shorn St. Augustine; they conquered, reclaimed, and colonized the pavement nightly.
They were, of course, flattened, out on the streets. There were no roads in the summer that were not decoupaged with the tarpaper-flat legacy of what and where they had been.
They were slippery and squishy beneath the wheels, at night, but the next day the summer sun quickly baked them paper thin. Mockingbirds and blue jays carried most of them away like miniature sandwich boards, but despite the nightly reduction, there were always more; they kept coming, again as if answering the tides.
My friends and I would some nights for entertainment walk up and down the sidewalks of our streets, collecting the living ones from beneath the streetlamps, simply to see how full we could fill our tall buckets. (There is nothing, I realize now, more repulsive than a boy.) The buckets grew heavy and stretched our arms, the toads hopped and wriggled and writhed, it was a strange sensation to be carrying the lives of so many in each bucket.
We would have wars with them. I don't mean that we used them as weapons, but instead, we set up rows and columns of tiny plastic green Army men at one end of our sandboxes, then emptied a bucket of a hundred or more toads into the other end of the sandbox, and watched, like Romans observing the Christians versus the lions, as the toads galloped over the tops of the Army men, the soldiers' rifles and grenades utterly ineffective against the power of the living. We would laugh to see how easily the infantry of mankind was crushed, laid to level beneath the advance of the legions of toads.
Firefly lanterns lined our bedside tables in the summer, back then. Cicadas whirred and crash-landed, spinning and buzzing at our feet, glittering jewels dropping like the bombs we practiced for in school fallout shelters but that never came. We stood in richness at the edge of loss—some would say at the edge of an abyss—and yet we did not see it. Our days were not freighted with foreknowledge. It was not so much an innocence as instead a blessing.
What blessings might we inhabit now, similarly unrecognized? They must be out there. They must be all around us, still.