Learning gently how to see
It was in a negative sort of way that he taught me about nature, that foxy father of mine -- making a game of it. Not for a moment did he ever suggest a lesson might be driven home.
"Here, gnaw on this twig," he'd say. (That was an old Indian way of quenching thirst.) "Sit on the stone wall and just ruminate." I memorized the characteristics of black birch, picking off the leaves, peeling back the bark, sampling its flavor. Subconsciously I recorded texture, markings of branch and trunk, in every season.
He was never didactic, saying: "Study this. Compare designs." Instead, he took me on a field trip. Together we gasped, sighting a lowland leaping with autumn flames. The rich, red, speckled leaves were small. "Swamp maples are at home in such places," he casually observed. Their trunks were gangly, divided -- seemingly too exuberant to pause long enough ever to fatten out.
As we climbed higher I added the related yellow, bigger leaves to my bouquet. "The earliest settlers must have thought the gutters of the New World truly were lined with gold," he commented, "seeing all these sugarm maples." Such trees were maintrunked and strong, with a comfortable roundness. Still later we examined the pale, sharply defined leaves of silverm maple -- like lemon ghost-craft on the ground. Their trunks were also divided. New leaves in spring came in spaced clumps. I could find no two fallen leaves alike, and sensed some master plan in their design. My father intended I should note this, without any preaching on his part, sharing his sense of rightness.
"You can't miss the squirrels' fair-weather nests in the treetops, once leaves are shed." Sighting straight up the rough hickories, I mentally photographed the shagbarks, effortlessly distinguishing between the various nut bearers. Squirrels and chipmunks, jays and other wildlings, were busily gathering winter stores. Looking through bare branches opened my heart and mind to expanses of sky, feathered acquaintances flying through, beneficent sun or cloud patterns momentarily framed there. Everything moved, nothing was still. I appreciated the design, old as creation, full-fruited as the original buried seed.
Pheasants would be in sumac thickets beyond, their hues blending with the reds and browns. Or they hid in patches of scrub oak -- leathery or maroon as the late sunlight slanted. He told me why the oak trees held fast their leaves throughout blustery winter. It made sense. There was enmity between two Indian tribes, he recounted. The young braves were eager to go on the warpath. The elders, knowing of the suffering, the irreparable losses such action brought, cautioned patience. Pressed hard by their impetuous warriors, they finally compromised. "When oaks stand naked, that will be the signal for war to begin." (Of course those trees never reach an utterly bare stage. Always they hold some old leaves fast till next spring's buds push them off.) When those hot-blooded braves grew resigned to waiting, they mellowed and put aside grievances. But just in case, the oaks remember. They sprout new leaves, greening the forest overnight -- faithful to their peacekeeping responsibility.
It was a joy to study under my father, though most of the time I wasn't aware of learning. A tree might be absolutely skeletal, but I'd know its shape against a pewter sky. How did such easy identification mature? I'd seen it in familiar summer dress, watched it color autumn, gathered its grounded leaves to preserve between the pages of a favorite book. It became natural as breathing to recognize intimately a tree whose bark I'd read with my own eyes and hands, whose form-fitting trunk served as a comfortable support. From elm tree swings I'd kicked at the sky, viewing cloud castles through maternal veils. And tasted the crystal life-sap of March maples.
"The sycamore blotches as it ages," my father acknowledged, sighing acceptance. But how lovely, I realized, collecting its buttonball offspring. Its immensity could be measured, its distinctive bark-pattern recognized from distances. Coat peeled, it defied the elements. Without being aware, I became an amateur philosopher -- at least a respecter of maturity. Not in a day or a season or many years did I absorb this wisdom. Only in a lifetime of translating and recording my father's brief comments and long, pregnant silences. Respect for life entered my pores, wrote an indelible message on my heart. Through him I perceived the mysteries of the universe in relation to eternity -- as far as my finite thought could travel. The value of my father's gift -- the waym he gave it -- fills me with love and wonder to this day.