Thrill of the wild

Last weekend Avery and I (and the brothers in their cart) walked to a beach not far from our house to look for animal tracks.

This beach is part of a wildlife corridor that connects disparate sections of Glacier Bay National Park. Animals use this land, and sometimes my driveway, as part of their route across the forelands.

It is a perfect environment for teaching natural history. We find coyote, wolf, brown bear, and moose prints. Once Avery can identify all of them I play a trick. I find the tire track from the chariot and I ask, “What kind of track is this?”

“Baby snake?” she asks.

Well, almost all of them.

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Alaska: The Last Frontier. The last place where a parent might worry more about their child’s exposure to brown bears than to creepers, gang violence, and guns. I’m proud, but petrified.

Avery walks next to the bear tracks and I calmly take pictures. The only time I’ve ever had trouble with a bear was while fishing. Still, I make sure these footprints lead away from where we are playing, and take the safety off of the can of bear spray in my pocket.

I don’t want fear to ruin our fun. More people in the United States are crushed by vending machines every year than are attacked by bears. There are, however, a lot more bears out here than vending machines.

Where we live it’s sort of uncool to be afraid of bears, but I am. I think back to time off I had in past summers when I canceled planned kayaking trips because I had no one to go with. It’s a shame. Every day that I am out feels precious now.

On the way back I start a game: “Hey Avery… How do we get back to our house? Can you find the way we came?”

My usually independent and brave little girl crumbles. “We are lost!” she cries. “We will never find our way home!”

I pull her close. “Aves,” I say. “Mama knows the way. Your mama is an excellent route finder, and we are not lost. I’m playing a game so that I can teach you to be safe out here. You’re just a little kid now, but you can learn. And when you are a big kid, you can come out here with your friends.”

I can hardly believe my own ears. She can? At what age? And with whom? Will I really let her do that?

Of course I will.

Fear can keep us safe but it can also prevent us from getting outside. If I know anything about my kid then she will grow into a teen who needs a little danger. There are only so many opportunities for adventure and I’d rather not instill too much fear of the wilds in her.

At the end of our driveway, you can turn right and head out to a wild and remote stretch of Alaska’s coast. A kid with a pair of boots can muck up and down a number of sloughs and across tidal flats. A few years later, that kid might get in a kayak and paddle a short distance to watch deer or wolves on an adjacent island. Maybe she hikes in a bit from there to discover a one-thousand-year-old Sitka Spruce; or paddles around to the back of that island to explore a reef covered in anemones and sea stars.

Avery will also have the choice, at the end of our driveway, to turn left. Around the same age, on foot or by bicycle, she will head into our small town. There she will find a school, post office, cafe, grocery store, gas station, and opportunities for a different sort of trouble and adventure. It could be a metaphor, but it’s not.

So I take her to the beach.

Today she discovers mildly-colored goose feathers (not poisonous, she tells me) and baby strawberry plants growing from burgeoning soil. She finds chunks of driftwood left from trees plowed down three-hundred years ago by the oncoming glaciers of the Little Ice Age and loads them into our cart. Without explanation, she intuits that they are special.

When the time comes for my girl to head out into the world on her own, she will go. I do not expect her to be one who waits. Already, she watches the big kids who arrive at school and walk up to the door on their own.

“Me go by myself?” she asks, eagerly unfastening her carseat buckles.

“No,” I say. “Mama’s not ready.”

*

I was lucky enough as a teen to have friends who took me to the wild places. We could ran through passes and over peaks. We belly-slid on the mudflats and did a lot of high-risk sledding. We snuck out once and picked blueberries by headlamp.

Our mischief also took us into town: We found streets that reflected our names and stole the signs. We toilet papered a covered bridge that led into a new subdivision with cookie-cutter houses. We borrowed a paddle boat from a lake house and played on the water until 2 am. We used road construction equipment to rerout traffic past a friend’s house. Twice we were chased by cops but they didn’t catch us.

As Avery grows, I hope she knows the thrill of the wild. I hope she recognizes fear for what it is; learns when to trust it and when to ignore it. I want her comfortable and clear-headed so that she makes it home again. I hope she experiences everything.

Please let her turn right.

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Can we find joy?

When you were a child, did you have some special place in nature? I was lucky enough to grow up at the edge of the big city, and my place in nature was a patch of woods in my backyard.

I built a fort there with my sister and our neighbors in the alders. The branches drooped from our climbing them to form a sort of roof. We tunneled under those long, scraggly limbs, swept out the leaves, put pine cones up in the larder, and built ourselves a happy home.

Being outside has always been when I feel the most free and most essentially myself. When I sink back into those first experiences of the natural world, the feeling I remember is of pure joy.

Lately climate change is threatening that joy. If we continue with business as usual the planet will be ice free by the year 2100. By that time, there may be 10 billion people on the planet. Florida will be underwater, and the largest animal on earth will be the cow.

In 2100, my daughter will turn 73. Anticipating this inevitable crowding, temperature rise, loss of biodiversity, and struggle for resources has me worried. How can we expect life to carry any quality under those conditions? This is not the world I would choose to leave for my child.

Changes are already happening. In Juneau, Alaska, where I live, the snow melted out of the mountains in May this year. There was no frost over Memorial Day weekend to take out the zucchini plants of over-zealous gardeners; meaning that our growing season is suddenly extended by almost a full month. Fields of wildflowers bloomed in the first week of June instead of over the Summer Solstice. Before the first of July we saw 85-degree temperatures, ripe salmonberries, and the tall, blooming fireweed that used to signify the end of summer rather than the beginning.

The ocean is warmer too, and the waters are less nutrient-rich, meaning there is less out there to eat. For five years the humpback whales in Glacier Bay National Park have been in a steep decline and last year they had a total reproductive failure. King salmon returns to Southeast Alaska in 2018 were the lowest we’ve seen in 50 years of record keeping.

I don’t think people are drawing enough meaning from these observations. They are not separate issues; they are distinct symptoms of the same illness. Even with so many warning signs, I’m afraid the end of life as we know it is going to catch us by surprise.

Again, I shake it off. Bad situations always get worse before they get better; the downward spiral is a kind of progress. Pain pushes until a system breaks, and then we find a new way forward.

Climate change is especially scary for parents; because our peace of mind depends on world that will maintain a friendly, habitable surface beyond our natural lifespans.

I hear some friends saying they don’t want to have kids because of climate change. I’m not sure exactly why; maybe these sensitive people intend to slow emissions by limiting population growth by one human at a time. Maybe the idea that children will inherit our ecological damage seems too unfair. Perhaps they know parenthood would increase their worry and suffering. Maybe it’s a combination of all of these reasons.

If you don’t want kids, then don’t have them. They disappear your free time, rub avocado on anything, and sixteen years later inevitably scream, “I hate you!” into your face. Bringing a new life into the world is a contract that should not be entered into lightly.

But don’t opt out of parenting for the sake of the planet. Only when we are whole, when we stay human, will we do our best work. Let kids inspire you to live with your eyes open, and find joy, no matter how small, in every day. Fear of the future isn’t reason enough to miss out on your life.

Five years ago I saw climate change ramping up, and my need for a baby only intensified. Kids drive my commitment to talk about this thing and prioritize solutions whatever the cost. Before I became a parent, I might have gotten tired and stuck my head in the sand. But now, I can’t. With my daughter as my muse the burden of this work feels more serious, but also somehow lighter.

In Parenting from the Inside Out, Dr. Daniel Siegel writes: “Enjoying your child and sharing in the awe of discovering what it means to be alive, to be a person in a wondrous world, is crucial for the development of your child’s positive sense of self.” I feel this intuitively: That the play and fun threatened by anxiety are the very resources we need to get all of us through the climate crisis.

I have an awesome memory of being nine, sitting on the tarmac in Anchorage waiting to fly to California with my mom and younger sister, and the three of us singing “I’m so excited! And I just can’t hide it! I’m about to lose control and I think I like it!”

Flying standby, all of us in dresses, and waiting for our red-eye to take off, we serenaded our airplane. Can you imagine this happening today? Of course not. But maybe that’s because you haven’t met my mom. My mom is a master of spontaneous fun, and she does not embarrass easily. A silly childhood is a gift my mom gave me.

Sometimes this kind of fun is an effort for me. But it’s getting easier. Because of my child, I have memorized lyrics from the Moana soundtrack. Because of her, my husband goes to the swimming pool and does handstands underwater with a goofy grin in his face. Because of her, Grandma goes down slides saying, “Wheeee!” and makes herself sick on meri-go-rounds.

I would like to say I am giving this gift to my daughter but actually the reverse is true. In wanting my daughter to be proactive and resilient, I too am becoming proactive and resilient. Thank you, A, for bringing silly back.

*

I went to Anchorage this summer and got to take A and my nephew B back to that little patch of woods behind my parents’ house where I used to play.

The backyard is not the same. It is cleaner now; with more light and fewer mosquitoes. The alders fell down and my parents cleared the brush. It is better in many ways, but I can’t help feeling nostalgic.

How many of us have returned to our special childhood place and found it changed? Or maybe the land you love hasn’t suffered anything extreme, but it looks different when seen through an adult lens. Can adults return to changed natural places and also find joy? I don’t know how to, but we have to try. Otherwise, we will only hurt ourselves and our children.

There are days when I don’t know how I will cope; when a tightness grabs ahold of my throat, and I focus too hard on the constant flow of traffic. I miss the way things used to be; but playing with A helps me to accept changes in the natural world and feel grateful for what beauty remains.

I would have liked to see the American West when bison roamed the eastern slope of the Colorado Rockies. I wish I could have rode over the Sierra Nevada to find a raw California coast glittering in the sunlight. I would like to have seen an un-dammed Columbia River teaming with salmon spill over a wetland full of nesting birds.

But my life would not have been better for it. Every generation has feared for their childrens’ future. We stand at an extreme and important moment in Earth’s history, but the emotional stress we feel as parents at this time may be less unique than we think. It is hard to know what matters except in hindsight.

In sad moments I take a hard look around my city. I find beauty in the architecture; in the intentions of city planners and their vision for the future. I do my best to focus on the ways things are improving. Sometimes, all we can do is accept the times we live in.

*

There is a lot of beauty still in the world, and it deserves to be celebrated: For our kids’ sake and for our own. Returning to my childhood backyard is difficult for me because I know how it used to be and I see the changes. But through my daughter’s eyes, nothing has been lost. Perhaps one day she too will rake the leaves, gather pine cones, and feel that same joy as I once found there.

As we bravely step forward and raise the climate change generation we will help our kids through uncharted environmental disasters and emotional challenges. Despite the uncertainties, it is we adults who will miss the most. This gives me some comfort. Shifting baselines are the blessing curse of passing generations.

I believe, whole-heartedly that my daughter will have a good life as long as I teach her to appreciate the world for what it is and not for what it used to be. I’m not saying it will be easy; I’m saying I have to try. I don’t know if we can find joy in this world, but I know kids help joy to find us.

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Thanks C & M for the good conversations that led to this post.

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Little corvid

My daughter is a little corvid. She shows off (Leo her rising sign). She persists with puzzles (This buckle is mine!) She is social and quick to make friends. As of this week she can scale her crib, open the bedroom door, and toddle out to her slack-jawed mother when she’s supposed to be napping.

But this post is about learning language.

Today our precocious toddler turns 1.5. My husband and I counted up 25 things baby A can say or sign. The volume of language she has picked up surprised us almost as much as realizing that she’s already outgrown the shoes that were too big in August.

In the morning, when baby A wakes up and head-butts me in the face, it is still dark but the first word out of her mouth (so I thought) is “outside,” meaning she’s ready to go. This was cute, and fulfilling of my Nature Baby fantasy, until I realized she is saying “other side,” meaning my left breast is out of milk and she wants to switch to the right.

I want nature to be so built into her understanding of the world that she won’t remember learning about it. For this reason, and because things get coo-coo if we’re in the house too long, we are outside twice each day.

Outside is a good place for new encounters: The more stuff we do, the more words she learns. A hands me a pebble and cocks her arm back (throw mom! = 26). I give it an emphatic toss. She squeals good job!’ = 27. She hands me another pebble, which I throw. She says, “Wow!” (28).

Since my generation still needs a ‘good job!’ for completing basic bodily functions, I’ve tried to avoid giving our daughter a lot of positive reinforcement. I like to think my smile and shining eyes are enough for her, and that she’ll gain inner metrics by which to measure her merit, rather than looking to others for an atta-boy. In case I’m wrong, she has her dad’s loving praise.

Which means baby A already gives me more positive reinforcement than I give her. This can’t be good.

*

I have held back from teaching baby A the standard animal sounds – ruff, meow, pin, tweet, moo – in favor beginning her education as an artist. I introduce her to real animals, and she makes up sounds for them.

While endless board books teach the virtues of the cow, few have anything to say about wild animals. Right now baby A considers every mammal from muskox to moose to be a dog – “Ta-do,” she says. Thankfully she just picked up on birds (ie. the chicken), which are decidedly not dogs.

I’ve started to teach her the corvids.

*

A murder of crows, gathered into a winter flock, patrols the beach. “Crow,” I say, snapping my hand under my chin like a beak.

“Da-doe!” Says baby A.

She may not have a lot of words, but she makes such good use of her small arsenal that I’m beginning to think I could communicate in any language if only I knew how to say mama, dada, two, shoe, eye, apple sauce, and pizza.

We hear a raven beat its wings twice as it lands in an elderberry tree. “Caw!” it says. “Bird,” I say, snapping my hand under my chin like a beak. “Raven.”

“Da-doe!” she says, pointing upward. Da-doe has become the word A uses for basketball hoops, ceiling fans, and very tall people. It’s general, but I’ll take it.

Corvids are language learners too. If you hear something outside and you don’t know what it could be, chances are it’s a raven. Ravens mimic many sounds in the forest – from dripping water to a croaking toad. They also can be taught to repeat words.

Baby A insists on her own way of doing things. She’s just a as likely to make up language and teach me as I am to teach a word or sign to her. Now that she has a “word” for bird she may or may not pick up the sign, but I’ll keep trying.

Baby A also impresses me with moments of mimicry. Though I don’t quite give her credit for these, I have inconsistently heard her say ‘bean,’ ‘diaper,’ ‘stick,’ baby,’ and ‘tomato.’

We watch as magpies fly like gliders over a meadow. Their wings come to their sides and they dip and flare out and they glide. Dip, glide dip, glide dip all the way down to the ground. These birds are new arrivals that migrate down river corridors from interior Alaska in late September to over-winter with us on the coast.

Magpie,” I say.

“Da-doe!”

In the evening we talk about the birds we saw. “Da-doe!” She says, pointing outside. “Bird,” I say, snapping my hand under my chin like a beak.

“Da-doe!” She agrees. Then, placing the back of her hand on her forehead, she wiggles her fingers.

*

Nature baby

On Monday I climbed Mt Juneau with an old dog and a baby on my back. It was important that I do this, here’s why: For 11.5 years I have lived in Alaskan places where there was little to no hiking. Also, there were no stoplights in these towns, so invite me on your road trips please, but don’t expect me to drive.

Trails are a strangely urban phenomenon; a town has to have a lot of people around to generate demand and afford them. So, tiny Alaska = no trails = very little time in the high alpine. I’m not in great shape.

Even in Juneau (tons of trails), it’s hard to raise a nature baby. Looking at microfeatures, through the eyes of a 3 foot human, there is very little flat ground unless it’s covered in gravel, aka choking hazards. A steep hike might take you up a 30 degree slope, but even a flattish trail is usually narrow with that type of edge. Babies must be carried, almost all of the time.

This brings me to Mt Juneau, basically the steepest place in town. The push was motivated by this image: At the top, a wide, rolling, expanse of tundra would greet my tired body. I would lie in the shade behind a rock outcrop admiring the heathers, while baby A toddled safely around on the tundra. Talus dog would swim in a nearby snowmelt pond just far enough away not to attract the baby.

At the top, I thought, I could finally put her down and let her walk. It would feel so good, and it would be so much fun, that I wouldn’t want to leave. We would do the whole ridgeline – once my favorite hike in Juneau – casually spending the day in the high alpine, skipping down the ridge hand-in-hand-in-paw.

The hike up was hard, but I loved it. It smelled like dirt and ferns, and there were lots of hot switchbacks. Did I mention it was 75 degrees F this day? It took three hours up, twice as long as I’d anticipated, but no matter – the day was ours. That my climb was a quest for flat, baby-proof ground was not entirely conscious.

I saw two mountain goats and a tiny least weasel, who I found because I stopped for one of my many breaks near its hidy hole. “Too close!” It chirped. “Too close!”

We had a great day. The summit, however, was no place for a toddler. The ululating ground was covered in shale broken into jagged, spear top-like points. The ridge looked like a knife edge, and some of it was still snow covered. Thanks for nothing 20-something-super-fit-bad-memory-brain.

I took off baby A’s sweat-drenched clothes (my sweat) and fed and changed her while Talus lay in a lingering patch of snow. Then I ate everything I’d brought for the long ridge day: two sandwiches, cashews, protein bar, fig bars. If I let go of A for an instant she would roll down slope (micro-slope) or find some broken glass. Neat. Then I realized I had no energy for the trek down, and started down.

I couldn’t help but think about how many things in life do not turn out how I thought they would be.

Take parenting: Before I had A, I imagined her immobile babyhood lasting until she could cut hearts out of construction paper. I pictured her eating homemade veggie-based baby foods and sleeping soundly, in a crib, possibly in her own room down the hall.

Instead, I have a one-year-old, sprouting teeth rapid fire and growing as tall as the cowparsnip under a midnight sun, who sleeps in my bed. Last night she kicked me in the face twice. My child’s main food groups are cottage cheese and avocado, and she otherwise takes veggies only in those ready-made squeeze pouches. The more time I spend preparing baby foods the more she hates them.

Back at Mt Juneau, Talus struggled from the top. He was tired, hot, sore, and before long dramatically bleeding from two places. It made me want to cry that I brought him up there. I’m retiring him from climbing mountains. The first climb for A turned out to be the last for Talus.

Then I developed a cold sweat with vertigo and nausea and other fun symptoms of heat exhaustion. I thought about asking for help, there were lots of people passing by, but I couldn’t think of what to say – “I’m struggling.” “I don’t feel well.” I had to walk down, one way or another, so what was the point in making a fuss? They were all so supportive like, “Yeah! Great job mama!” And, “You’re so awesome!” That’s what I would have said to me too.

The only saving grace was that baby A was awesome. I told her all the way down how she was helping her mom, and when we got home I let her taste my chocolate ice cream.

So, there’s the dreaming and then there’s the doing. They’re different. The dreaming keeps us going, moving on toward new ambitions and adventures, making sure that we don’t get too comfortable or stagnate. The doing puts money where our mouth is, makes sure we walk our talk, prevents us from drowning in a life of unrealized dreams.

But the dreaming is quite often more fun than the doing.

This idea got me through doing life in the sub-Arctic and countless days where hammocks and palm trees turned into hot bus rides down nauseating mountainsides.

The late, great Fred Bull called this Type II fun. It isn’t actually fun while you’re in it, but when it’s all over you’re glad you were there, and glad it didn’t happen any other way. Because if we don’t press right up against that edge where struggle brings pain, then what’s the point of being alive? Try harder, feel deeper, and do more, even if it’s not always exactly fun, and life will be full of riches. Just don’t sunburn the baby.

As everything changes, a place remains

Change is a usual theme around Gustavus, Alaska. The surrounding mountains have all been rolled over by icefields. Each generation sees the disappearance of its own tidewater glacier, and another hikeable ridgeline that becomes overgrown by impassable alder thickets. Though today, as I walk a familiar trail through the Sitka spruce trees, I am grateful for the way this place stayed same over the years as I changed.

Fourteen years I’ve been walking this trail, catching and eating salmon that run in the river down the way. The friend with me, hiking in his waders, changed with time. Then I married and came here less often, with a husband to bring a backpack full of shining fish home to me. But I see that the river still riffles in the same places, and I trust that come summer the fish will pool by the same rocks that we, and the black bears, know.

Walking this trail feels like the best parts of going back to my parents’ house, where posters of James Dean and old ski heros still hang on my bedroom walls. All of that time, swoops of old man’s beard have hung from these same boughs; angel wings have sprung from the same wet logs.

I moved here when I wanted the world to stop spinning, so I could lose the feeling of never being enough. In this place, I thought, I will just be in love and sit back and be satisfied. And it worked. You were enough for me.

But we’re starting a long slow move to Juneau now. I could kid myself into thinking it will be the same when I come back to hear the wrens’ songs and raven wingbeats in the air. But that’s not how life works. I will only ever belong to one place at a time, and we are trading wild spaces for fancy jobs and well-beaten hiking trails, and I will lose my sense for whether coyotes have been digging voles out of the strawberry fields lately or not.

I am not exactly leaving because I want to; it is just what is happening. I’m sad to go, but I’m not exactly leaving against my will either.

Because when a person leaves a broken world and comes out here, they heal. I have more to give now, because of you. I have to go back, because I am going back. I might not be able to fix a single thing that is wrong with the world, but I won’t turn away from it either. I will look every flea bitten dog square in the eye and say, ‘I see you.’ If there is muck and mire, I will exist in the mire.

If I stayed, Gustavus, I would never have felt all of this for you.