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.
Wild at Heart
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

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