“Is exploring the natural world just a pleasurable way to pass the golden hours of childhood or is there something deeper? I am sure there is something much deeper–the development of an inner resource of strength that will endure as long as a man or woman lives.” –Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder
“I cherish the sacredness of these outings. They return me to the father I want to be rather than the one I sometimes am” –Rick Van Noy, A Natural Sense of Wonder: Connecting Kids with Nature through the Seasons
[August 1] We’re all back home now, including my car, which I went and fetched from K.C. last weekend. Andrew got his plaster cast off yesterday and was outfitted with a removable walking cast, and the doctors are hopeful that he seems to be (slowly) healing normally. Nonetheless, he screamed bloody murder as his plaster cast (security blanket) came off, and he’s very reluctant today to put any weight on his foot or let anyone come anywhere near his toes. With Andrew, the emotional healing is likely to take longer than the physical regeneration.
I still have a week before school starts for me, and there’s plenty of unpacking and cleaning and storing yet to do. My car needs some attention, too; besides being absolutely filthy, there’s the matter of the “check engine” light that came on about the time I turned eastward.
Looking back on the trip, here are some lessons learned:
- I may have backpacking down to a science, but I’ve got a lot of room to refine my front-country car-camping technique. A first step . . . I’m building one of these. Moreover, I left town with very few provisions, figuring it would be easy enough to live off the land. But the little commissary in Cooke City, Montana, has very little in common with my local Whole Foods, and my general lack of preparation was one of the factors that forced us to come down out of the hills every few days for supplies.
- I will never ever get a car with an onboard DVD player. It’s totally unnecessary, unless the kids’ sense of curiosity and imagination has already been sucked dry by such a device. Windows are amazing things, and I encourage all kids to try them while traveling.
- The decision to blog the trip was, on the balance, a good one, and I think I’d do it again. Keeping up with all that techno claptrap was something of a pain, and from time to time this added layer seemed to usurp our agenda, but writing and sharing was fun, and the boys were proud that other people followed us and seemed to think that what they were doing was special. Our blogging certainly helped Mommy keep her sanity while we were away from her. For myself, it was a good dry run for what I might do with future summer courses . . . the Field Geology courses and Naturalist Field Study course that I’ve taught in the past could certainly have incorporated this!
One a more serious note, one of the reasons you leave home is to be able to come back and see home from a new perspective, and I’m sorry to say that I’m even less happy with Atlanta summers than I thought I was before I left. Baking in its own heat island and smothered with a blanket of bad air, this has not been a pleasant place to come home to. Of course I expected that. What’s changed for me is that I look at it now in terms of my kids’ experience; they’ve quickly gone back to being caged creatures. I’m as convinced as ever that nothing could be more wholesome for my boys (for all children) than more opportunities to be “free range kids” in healthy natural environments, and I’m determined to give my boys more opportunities, but where to do this in Atlanta? I might take them to Sweetwater Creek, I might take them down to the Chattahoochee River, but I certainly wouldn’t let them play in the water, and I probably wouldn’t let them out of my sight. (Of course, Andrew can’t get out of his wheelchair, anyway, so it’s a moot point right now.) What about as they get older? As a kid, I spent hours with my friends (no parents!) exploring the little pockets of woods in my neighborhood that stitched together the backs of people’s backyards, but do kids do that anymore in the city? Do I have to drive two hours (or three weeks) out of town to give them these opportunities?
And finally . . .
There are some pictures that I didn’t take but that I cannot get out of my head, as much as I wish I could: every single lodgepole pine tree in the mid elevations of the upper Colorado River watershed is dead or dying from pine beetle infestation. The west side of the Continental Divide in Rocky Mountain National Park and the surrounding area is just devastated beyond description. We drove for two hours through a forest that has died seemingly overnight, mountainside after mountainside, valley after valley. I backpacked in RMNP last August, and you could see the beginnings of this outbreak, but nothing like what has transpired this summer. Now I’m not bothered by forest death under natural conditions (the Yellowstone fires of 1988, for instance, were all part of the healthy natural cycle). Pine beetles are native pests, and big outbreaks do happen every couple of decades under normal conditions. But the extent of this outbreak is unprecedented, absolutely staggering, and the cause is alarming–ten years of warmer-than-usual winters have removed the primary limiting factor keeping beetle populations steady, and what you have now is an ecosystem in radical flux. National Park biologists are unequivocal about climate change being the primary factor (among several) contributing to the unprecedented severity of this outbreak. Is this just a taste of things to come?
Of course I realize that I radically expanded my own carbon footprint by taking a six-thousand-plus mile road trip this summer. It bothers me. Theoretically, our family’s cars and air travel are carbon neutral because I purchase offsets for them through TerraPass (who knows, maybe I helped subsidize the windmills I saw popping up in Nebraska and Iowa) , but that doesn’t change the fact that there would be some 5,300 fewer pounds of CO2 in our atmosphere had I stayed home. Oh well. To paraphrase Barry Lopez (I think), it’s not the environment that is degraded, it is humanity’s relationship with it. That is something I can address, at least within my own family.