Audubon did an exhibit in 2006 titled “Hooked on Nature.” One of the features was a corner in which the naturalists identified a person who inspired them to become a naturalist. I chose my dad.
The text I wrote then reads as follows:
This photo is one of my favorites. I don’t remember the moment, I was two years old or something like that. But my dad always has an attention for detail and it is that attention that led to small discoveries in the natural world. Like blowing dandelion seeds. We would take canoe trips and walk trails and visit parks and play and play and play outside. There was a beat-up, dog-eared bird book that sat on top of the microwave and an entire shelf of field guides in our library. Amazing naturalists, like my dad, inspired me.
My dad died suddenly a few weeks ago, though it feels like both a lifetime ago and yesterday. My connection to the outdoors and the land under my feet began with him and comforts me now. I listen to the chorus of crickets sing at night and know that the music they create has a hint of his wisdom in it. The grasshoppers that buzz these now short days are fueled in part by his stubborn industriousness. The bats that whisper-whoosh by my head contain the agility that he once had and so longed to have again.
His calm demeanor is ushered in on the soft rain that caresses the apples, goldenrod, and hawthorns, which dissolves into a philosophical reflection of time, death, life, and love in my heart and mind. I am reminded unceasingly these days of his absence through his ubiquitous presence in everything around me. Neither something I’m getting used to quickly nor understanding. Nature, the outdoors, that which is wild and free, can heal. That I know. It will take time.
On his desk he had nature interspersed with a variety of other eclectic and odd artifacts: a red squirrel tail among the fountain pens, a raccoon tail hanging on the lamp, turkey feathers in an inkwell, a small tin of acorns, a rock. He understood life in a way I couldn’t possibly but may someday. He knew things I will never know despite desperately wanting to.
He loved crows and ravens and I am noticing them more present in my world, or at least I am more attuned to them right now. I am drawn to the poetry of Wendell Berry when he speaks of the peace of wild things, hearing the words in my father’s voice. I long to take the canoe out and be on the water, one of the places he could find himself.
I never knew this until his sister flew in from Oregon, but he loved the pointy trees of the western landscape and had a “tree” in her neighborhood that he would visit every day that he was there. Upon sitting at his desk, the poster that he had on the wall (unremarkable, dentist-office-type poster) featured it all – cabin in the woods, canoe, lake, pointy trees. I envision him sitting there at his desk staring at the poster and getting lost in his imaginary world, far away from the humdrum of life and the pain of rheumatoid arthritis, and the aches and limitations of getting older.
And thus nature becomes healing to both of us – as an escape from reality but one that makes living in reality better. He will never come back, yet he won’t ever really be gone. Every crow, each canoe trip, the symphony of an autumn evening, and more – Moleskein notebooks full of nature notes, old typewriters, feathers of any sort, pocketknives, sliderules – is my father, right here in the living world with me.
My mother, brother, and I will continue to laugh and share memories, be amazed at his planning ability, and shake our heads as we uncover more of his collections and gain insight into a man who spent most of his life quiet and observant. We will get there, to a place where unbidden tears do not accompany every memory and sadness is overtaken by fond recall.
In the meantime, my brother and I will take out his canoe, I will use some of his field guides, and his pocket bird call will now reside with me. I will plan to visit his tree someday. And I will let the ravens call him home.
Loss is lessened when the burden is shared it seems, especially by those who understand it personally. Audubon Remembers is happening on November 23, 2019 and it is an opportunity to celebrate our loved ones through nature and share stories about the people both living and alive that made us fall in love with the natural world. As a tribute you may elect to plant a daffodil bulb to commemorate the connection between you and your loved one, one that will continue to bloom anew each spring. Find more information online.
Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.
Sarah Hatfield is Education Coordinator at ACNC.