One advantage of growing up attending Catholic grammar school in the 50’s and 60’s was the push from the teachers to read books. Summer reading in high school required such reading as Catcher in the Rye, The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Moby Dick.
Before that came the very foundation for reading. It was likely around 5th grade or so that we were first introduced to the opportunity to order books from a list for a dime per book. I don’t remember all of what I ordered or read, but 2 books in particular stand out for me some 60 years later.
Big Red and Old Yeller were both books about kids and dogs, and they were much more than that. Reading these books went hand in hand with breaking free of farmwork on a Saturday afternoon and heading for the woods. Accompanied by a friend or two on occasion, and always by my dog Wilbur, I could easily get lost in the freedom and connection of the natural world. Mostly this took the form of a gully in the woods with a stream running through it, gurgling it’s way towards Irondequoit Bay. The fort we had built could always use a little maintenance, and climbing inside, lighting the 2 or 3 candles and just sitting in that sacred space was magic.
Yesterday I took my two youngest grandkids to see The Call of the Wild. The story by Jack London was another book that I had read when I was young, one which added to the impact of raising my awareness of the beauty and bounty of the natural world, of the adventures that might await those willing to step into the unknown. In The Call of the Wild, the main character, Buck, is a dog who ends up in the wilds of the Yukon during the height of the gold rush. As he spends more time in this wilderness, he finds himself called more and more to his wild roots.
Since my grandkids were old enough to walk, I have taken them to visit the woods, to offer to them at least the opportunity to forge the connection that I have been blessed with. Often we have hiked back to the land bridge that wends its way through the wetlands, along the base of the drumlin and towards the pond. Early on these treks I encouraged both Chloe and Colin to look for sign. As I know it, sign is an indication that something has happened in this spot. It might be a deer track, a bit of rabbit scat, a broken branch or the sweep of a hawks wings on snow, accompanied by a few drops of blood. We have had many great moments putting together a story of what might have happened when we have found sign in the woods or field, along the stream or by the pond.
I was quite certain that the movie would hit me hard, though I did not know in what way. Several times I found tears rolling down my face. The emotion that wrenched them free was about loss. Chloe told me after the movie that she cried, and I was open and vulnerable with her, telling her that I, too, cried. No doubt we’ll process this movie when we are in the woods.
What I know right now is that it is through books and movies like The Call of the Wild that I first became interested in the natural world. It was through living on a farm and free time being so precious that time romping along streams and climbing hillsides in the woods initiated the feeling of freedom and connection. The flash of a red fox moving off ahead through the trees, and the great horned owl landing on the branch of a hemlock tree five feet from my head cemented awe and wonder.
A blessing for me today is the knowledge that I have done what I can to introduce my grandkids to the joy and serenity of nature. The fear is that long before they reach my age, much of that world of dragonflies and raccoons, spicebush and beech trees will live only in memory and in books. The abundance that my generation has been so blessed to enjoy has been directly responsible for degrading the world that we live in on so many fronts.
In The Call of the Wild, Buck’s loving companion, John, is dying and his parting words to the dog are “Buck, you are home. You heard the call.” I am full of gratitude that I found home so early in life. Now I dedicate myself to preserving as much of the natural world for my grandkids and their generation as possible. I hope that they, too, are able to hear the call.
Steve Aman, The Wandering Bobcat