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.


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.