Artifacts of a Naturalist Childhood

The other day while digging through a cabinet in our garage, I stumbled upon a shoebox that had been shoved to the back and that showed signs that it had been there for some time. When I finally cleared everything in front and on top of it away in order to extract it and investigate what it contained, I noticed immediately upon lifting it from the shelf upon which it rested that it was very heavy. Opening it, I found that it contained an assortment of rocks, shells, and other curiosities wrapped carefully inside a bandanna. These were the artifacts of my first explorations into natural history during my childhood.

From where they all came I cannot correctly say. One, a piece of obsidian, I recall being given by the husband of my piano teacher, an amateur “rock hound” himself. Another, a hunk of brain coral, likely came from one of the people with whom my mother worked at Bumble Bee Seafoods (the tuna boat captains had been to such interesting, far off places). A large piece of agate I recalled finding in my grandparent’s backyard. The origins of the rest were, and at present still are, mysteries.

I remember greatly treasuring these items when I was a boy. I kept them prominently displayed in my room, spread out atop my dresser like some prized collection in a very small and poorly funded museum. So important were they too me that even once the tempestuous teen-age years hit, I still kept them safe. Did I perhaps subconsciously know that one day the Sturm und Drang of youth would subside and I would find them interesting once again?

Now once again unearthed, or at least un-cabineted, this childhood collection now rests prominently alongside the books in our library to help me remember that as our own daughter grows older, she may one day find that the things she once found so fascinating, things in which she and I now share interests, uninteresting. However if the interest was well supported when it was alive, even a hiatus from it will not extinguish it and one day it may very well return and continue to grow once again.

Looking Forward, Looking Back

As I sat in my Astoria hotel room yesterday afternoon looking out on a flock of Western and Glaucous-winged Gulls that was perched on a deteriorating portion of a long-abandoned dock that the Columbia River had yet to fully claim, I suddenly found myself wondering what would have been had I taken up bird watching while still a boy living in that very same town. The spot where the hotel room now sits is the same place where decades ago my father and I sold the salmon we had caught; we were Columbia River gillnetters. What would it have been like to have been a young bird watcher with such an abundance of gulls, ducks, cormorants, terns, and other coastal birds so close at all times?

Taking up bird watching as an adult as I did, I often feel I missed something by not having had the experience as a child; something important that so many bird watchers I have known recall so fondly but which to me shall forever be a mystery. How much television did I watch when I could have been studying the ducks swimming on Young’s Bay? How much time did I waste “hanging out” when I could have been puzzling out the gulls in flying about the West End Mooring Basin? The very thought itself strikes pain in my heart when I consider too deeply.

Such is mid-life. The “what if…” questions come all too frequently; most without answers – or worse, with answers the truth of which one cares not to admit. Lingering too long upon them will most certainly lead to despair, thus it is best to pause only briefly to acknowledge the lesson to be learned from them then begin making plans for the future to act accordingly.

I generally do not make New Year resolutions; they are too soon forgotten and left unaccomplished. Better simply to set a general course for personal improvement and let the details emerge as they may. Time once lost can never again be found; thus paying closer attention to the choices I make each day shall be my motto so that upon the dawning of the next year my answer looking back upon the one just completed shall be simply “better.”

May 2010 bring all of us the answers we seek.

Contemplating the Grand Cycle

“If you love birds as much as I know you do, how can you possibly eat them?” That was the question I was recently asked by a friend for whom I have great respect and whose interest in the answer I trusted to be wholly sincere. Truth be told, this is not the first time this inquiry has been made of me, sometimes in earnest and other times in sarcasm. The first time it was asked was by a colleague who was a life-long hunter from a family of life-long hunters and who worked for a hunting product manufacturing company. Even though his tone was somewhat challenging (my non-hunting ways made him a bit suspicious of me), I could sense that he was genuinely confused at what he saw as a contradiction in my activities. His hunting of wild animals was the perfect correlation (as he understood it) for his belief that those proclaiming “animal rights” (among hunters a phrase synonymous with “anti-hunting” and therefor “anti-gun”) were wrong in their beliefs; therefore as I watched birds with the same intensity as he watched the animals he stalked on hunts, my not killing them must have meant that I was against eating them as well. Continue reading

Father and Son

The following is an essay I wrote back when our daughter was just a toddler. I hope you find its message just as relevant today as I did when I wrote it – and still do.

Early this past Father’s Day morning, just after 6:30, our two year old daughter came bounding into our bedroom and onto our bed. As she is beginning to talk, she delights in naming people and things at every opportunity.

“Mama!” she squeals as she pats my semi-conscious wife.

“Yes, sweetie – Mama,” my wife drowsily responds.

“Papa!” comes the next eager announcement, as she points to me while partly crawling, partly falling over my wife.

“That’s right, sweets – Papa,” I manage to croak.

The little one sits up between us, “Gran’ma?” she asks.

I hear my mother in the kitchen making coffee. “Grandma’s in the kitchen, sweetie.”

“Gran’pa?” she asks.

This is a new word for her; one I’ve not heard from her before. I hesitated. I thought of calling my dad and telling him that his grand-daughter has just said “Grandpa” for the first time. Then I remember that I can’t do that.

You see, just this past May, after knowing him for over thirty four years, my father did something I never expected him to do – he died.

I knew this Father’s Day would be different, but until the moment the cheerfully inquisitive “Gran’pa” came out of our two year old’s mouth, I didn’t quite grasp just how difficult it would be. For the first time in my life, I faced Father’s Day without a father.

I know that I am not the first person to find himself in this situation. It is a club with millions of members, not one of us wishing membership.

For those of you who did not know my father, I’m sorry you didn’t. He was quite a guy.

He went to work on a milk wagon when he was eight. Shortly after that, he was run-over by a car, breaking his leg so badly that the doctors wanted to amputate it. My grandfather refused to allow it. At best, he wasn’t expected to walk again… but he did.

He learned to paint and repair cars. He worked on the docks. He drove trucks. He was a soldier and a veteran, a small business owner and a commercial fisherman, a husband and a father. Most of all, he was an honest, decent, hard working man.

Stalwart, a bit stoic, tough as a keg of nails, and sharp as the edge of the crew cut he wore throughout his life, he was proud to be an American but he never forgot Finland, from which his father came at the age of twelve, alone.

Some of you may be very close to your fathers. Others may be estranged, distant; perhaps you haven’t spoken in years. For the latter, a word of advice – patch things up now. Tell him how much you’ve learned from him. Don’t wait. You don’t want the only time that you tell your father how much you love him to be in the intensive care unit wondering how many hours he has left.

Whether he is close or estranged, affectionate or distant, you only get one father. However you have lived your lives together, you will never understand how much it hurts to lose him until it’s too late.