Recently, my teenage son made the following statement: "Dad, I am not a nature boy!"
The impetus for this proclamation was a canoe trip I had been planning for a couple of weeks. I wanted to get out on the water one last time before the big Maine freeze, while there were still a few leaves on the trees. But Alyosha wanted none of it.
Ever since adopting my son seven years ago, I must admit that I have indeed tried to make a nature boy out of him. We live on the Penobscot River, and I have sought to take full advantage of its beauty.
From the start, I introduced him to the wonder of slipping through water in a canoe, at dawn, when the mist is lifting like a maiden's veil. We have fished the river, swum the river, and sat on its rocky islands to observe bald eagles soaring overhead.
As a little boy, Alyosha seemed to take the river fully to heart. On many days I watched him slopping along the muddy shore in his bare feet, his pants legs rolled up and his fists brimming with frogs. In winter, when the ice formed a sheet of glass, he skated there. And in the vibrant spring runoffs, he stood on the riverbank, gleefully tossing rocks into the torrent.
As the years passed, though, he showed less and less interest in the river, and in the nearby woods and hills, for that matter.
His attention turned with increasing intensity to sports and music and the ongoing social scene at his middle and high schools. And, like a lot of kids who have grown up in a rural or small-town setting, he concocted images of a faster life in a big city.
In short, it became harder and harder to interest him in a canoe ride that had no other object than to savor the peace and calm of the river.
So when I announced this recent trip, he dug in and drew a line in the sand. He was no longer a nature boy. It was as if he were saying that it sufficed that I enjoyed the waters and woods, as if I were the family's environmental representative and he were the emissary to the "civilized" world of computers, TV, and soccer tournaments.
For some reason that resonated very deep within me, I decided not to yield. It's not easy for a parent to alter the determination of a teenager to have his way, so I had to be clever. Cunning. In short, I whined. And then I detailed an image of a father slipping off on a canoe trip without the companionship of his only son.
It worked. I had expended a great deal of political capital in one great battle of the parent-child Bulge to get him to come along. I had to. It was a bluebird day: clear sky, windless, warm, with the sugar maples reddening along their edges and the waterways swelling with recent runoff. Who was to say how long it would be before a day like this came again?
And so I packed a solemn Alyosha into our truck. I could feel him seething with the sense of having been hoodwinked. But as we drove along, he eventually uncrossed his arms and we made small talk about school, his friends, and the boon of a weekend that gave us nothing but time on our hands.
I took my son down a remote road that wound through hill country. Eventually, we came to a small bridge passing over a meandering stream that, in the distance, disappeared among silver maples and birches. "This is it," I whispered, so as not to disturb the scene.
My son's response was a grim monosyllable: "Wow."
We unloaded the canoe from the roof rack and set it afloat along the shore. We boarded, took up our paddles, and set off with the merest lapping of cool, clear water against the hull.
My son sat in the bow, in front of me, paddling languidly.
Then he nicked his head and said, "Log," almost to himself, as he planted his paddle so as to steer us clear of the obstacle.
As we passed under the canopy of silver maples, there was a flutter of activity to our right. I caught the flash of deep blue and felt my blood rush. "Know what it is, Alyosha?"
"Great blue heron," he said matter-of-factly. And on we paddled, our dialogue reflecting the scene that embraced us.
"Is that a beaver?" I queried as a dark form broke the surface in front of us.
"No," said Alyosha. "Too small. Probably a muskrat."
We portaged two beaver dams before the stream opened into a mountain lake. Not another person there. We paddled to the far end, bringing the canoe ashore by a modest waterfall. We disembarked and sat on some rocks, sinking our teeth into apples and banana bread.
After our repast, my son stood, walked to the water's edge, and stood there like a statue, his hands on his hips, regarding the lake. He was as quiet as the water itself.
I took note of his broadening back, the burgeoning muscles of his teenager's arms, and his tallness. It was not long ago that this was the little boy who couldn't help me heft the canoe, who couldn't handle a paddle, who had no sense of running water. But now, despite his protestations, he was at home here. I could feel it in him.
I felt the strongest urge to voice this, to say, "See, you are a nature boy, after all." But the wiser angels of my nature prevailed, and I held my tongue. I knew what my son carried within himself, and that was certainly enough for now.
Having contented myself with this consideration, we paddled home in silence, through the sedge, past the osprey's nest, under the leafy canopy, and up onto the sandy shore, barely ahead of a gracious autumn rain.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society