Wild at Heart

More and more wilderness vanishes from the world every year, but as I learned from my mother, it takes only the smallest bit—a warbler, a paw print, the call of a snipe—to open a kid’s eyes.

July 2010By Comments

TREE FAMILY: Growing up in the Houston suburbs, I had one of the last American childhoods free of an awareness of the loss of nature.
Illustration by Yuko Shimizu

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. Whether by 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 yards of our Houston suburb, littering the driveways and sidewalks with sharply gnawed fragments of hickory nuts that pierced the feet of barefooted walkers, or simply by supporting my boyhood predilection for keeping as pets whatever bayou creatures I could capture—slender grass snakes, bewitching with their emerald sheen; giant bullfrog polliwogs, their bulbous heads seeming to suggest a cetacean intelligence; prehistoric soft-shelled turtles, pancake-shaped with pale bellies and periscope necks; freshwater crawfish; five-lined skinks; box turtles; catfish; topwater minnows; ramshorn 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)—my mother impressed upon me, from my earliest rememberings, the habit not just of looking beyond one’s self but of being stimulated and enthused by what the world had to offer.

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, and I’m grateful to her and consider myself lucky. 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 may well be perhaps not.

Surely there were days of my childhood that passed without some contact with nature, but those are not the days that remain in my memory. What I do remember is the excitement of discovering any animal’s tracks in the backyard and how my mother and I would spend hours mixing up a plaster of paris cast and, subsequently, making a wax imprint. Decades later, I saw such imprints in the offices of wildlife biologists—casts from the immense paws of grizzlies, wolves, mountain lions—and I would feel a kind of immediate kinship, never mind that my own childhood quarry had been basset hound, opossum, raccoon. The specificity of detail preserved in those casts—the wonder of fittedness—was no less present in the wrinkled delicate underfeet of the suburban raccoon than in the toe-pad-tufts of the Canadian lynx.

A glow would heat up and incandesce in my mind when I saw these things and when I engaged with that outside world. I am not willing to admit yet that my middle-aged mind has grown darker or sealed over with the plaque and detritus of time, minutiae, and, perhaps worst of all, the dross of familiarity, when 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. Those neural pathways are still open in me—they may even still be illuminated—but often I don’t notice the light anymore. In my vision of the boy-in-nature I was, I see the light of his mind glowing even in the darkness of nightfall, lit like a burning lantern.

What I now realize was rare about my mother’s embrace of suburban nature—rare and wonderful—was the good fortune of my not viewing that embrace as either instruction or leave-taking. She didn’t arise each day with a parenting checklist but instead brought me to nature more organically, without the pressure of an agenda. 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, sometimes one of the easiest to forget.

Would I have loved the deep wilderness as much had she not loved our backyard? There is no telling. When she heard the snow and Canada geese fly overhead at night in the fall and winter, on their migrations to the Katy Prairie, she called us out onto the lawn. Nothing of the grand spectacle of the living escaped her notice, or her celebration. And like the best of guides, she allowed me my own discoveries, my own burnings, with the pleasure, perhaps, of the hunter-gatherer who shares his or her good fortune with those about whom she cares or loves or who brings a fellow hunter into a forest or a valley where the hunting is good.

It was my father who took me to wilder places. Since the early thirties, 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 tourism had taken over, a time when grassfires still kept the cedar burned back, and all they could afford to lease in those hard days 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. The lease was too rocky even for goats, and without 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. The Comanche 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 weapons 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 few hours. In Houston I had sought out whatever wild little pockets of vacant lot woodland, cattle prairie, and oxbow bayou I could find at the farthest edge of the slowly expanding suburbs (in whose expansion, certainly, we were complicit), but 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 cacti, so far—it seemed to me as a child—from the hand of man.

The Hill Country was as wild to a ten-year-old boy as Alaska’s Brooks Range or Canada’s Muskwa-Kechika: It is all a question of scale. Wyoming’s Wind River Range, Utah’s Uintas, Colorado’s San Juans, Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness: A healthy earth needs these cores of big untouched country to help serve as wellsprings of vitality and integrity, but smaller, initial, more moderated contracts with nature—sparrows, marsh rabbits, white-tailed deer—can help serve as a bridge from where we are now, frazzled and confused, cautious and slightly benumbed, back to the touchstone of a larger and wilder landscape, where the brushstrokes of nature were—and are—bolder and often more complex.

We would do well to remember that all the world was once wilderness. The world we entered, and which shaped and sculpted our brains as well as our bodies, and our systems of logic, was wilderness. It was, and remains, the base line, the foundation, of whatever we choose to call “nature”—the place where all the rest of nature first came from—and on a microscopic scale, at an interesting point in history (the late fifties and on through the sixties), I was extraordinarily fortunate in my growing-up childhood, in a place 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.

Our culture today understands that due to horrific affluence and consumption, the rest of the world—and we in it—exists in a time of increasing scarcity, paucity, and diminishment. So it is with a bittersweet feeling that I remember my 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 midrange security and stability but instead after the system has received its first major damage. The conifer that is struck by lightning, girdled with that distinctive spiral, summons all its energies to produce a greater crop of seed cones than ever before, casting them down onto the rich waiting ashes of the burn below. It was like that in the suburbs I inhabited at the edges of the prairie and woodland, where the bulldozers’ first blade cuts and the diggers’ first clawings had scratched that rich soil, summoning an even greater and 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, like pioneers, farther into the fraying edges of what had once been a great kingdom unto its own.

What I remember in particular 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 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 midflight 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: a mistake.

These were big toads; they gorged every night, all night, on that suburban 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, they 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 Saint 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 tar-paper-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. 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 high we could fill our tall buckets. 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, a hundred or more, in each bucket.

We would have wars with them. 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 and 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.

Firefly lanterns lined our bedsides in the summer back then. Cicadas whirred and crash-landed, glittering jewels spinning and buzzing at our feet. 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 a blessing.

What blessings might we inhabit now, similarly unrecognized? They must be out there. They must be all around us, still.

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