Meandering in Meadow and Marsh

IN the past several years, on Sundays, I've tried to talk my daughter, Hallie, into what I call "field trips." These trips involve traveling a short distance to explore nearby ponds and rivers. Hallie, though, prefers what she calls nature walks - long meandering musings through the meadow across the street.

This Sunday, we make a compromise. She wants to stay close to home, while I want to drive a few miles north to a bird sanctuary. "Let's do your idea first," I tell her, "then do mine." We agree and set out down our hill to the meadow.

Hallie runs ahead of me through wet matted grass. She wears a waist pack adjusted to the smallest size. For the first time, it doesn't slide down around her knees, even though it holds two oranges, cheese, an apple, and some chips. She always carries the food, while I'm in charge of notebooks, binoculars, and pencils. The schoolteacher in me fairly explodes with the potential for "learning-related" activities.

Today, though, Hallie also carries a black-and-white speckled daybook that I gave her. I offer to take it while she crosses the wooden planks that span the creek. "I can do it," she says. As though to prove it, she skips across the slippery span and slides to a stop at the end where she crouches over the rushing water that splits around rocks and leaves. She hugs the daybook and gives me a big grin.

I try not to hurry her, though I'm anxious to get to the river. She stops frequently, anywhere she sees movement in the grass, and examines the ground for signs of life. She is ecstatic when she sees animal droppings. We discuss their appearance and decide deer have walked this path ahead of us. Closer to the creek, larger droppings indicate what I think are elk. "Are you sure?" she asks me. I tell her I'm not, and maybe their size could even mean a black bear had been there. A look of fear, like a passi ng cloud, shadows her face. "But they're afraid of us, right?"

"Most assuredly," I tell her. We slide down a small hill to a place where the creek is pooled and quiet on the far side and bubbling with several tributaries near our feet. Hallie examines a big puddle that has formed next to one of the small streams. Water-skaters look like swimming spiders as they skim the top. Green leaves and new shoots are pushing through the decayed foliage surrounding the water.

"I'm going to draw this moss," Hallie says. She takes just the tip of a strand of moss and lays it on the journal, open across her knees. In the middle of her drawing, a small moth-type insect lands on the blank white page close to where she's working. She laughs and abandons the picture of moss to sketch this newcomer. She finishes the drawing. As if on silent cue, the bug flies away. I ask her if she wants me to label her drawing "actual size," as she's drawn a bug close in size to the one that has jus t departed.

"That's not actual, Mom," she tells me, "that was real." She asks me how to spell real and writes the word next to the drawing.

I've become single-minded in watching the creek rapids - the river and sanctuary distant in my mind. I tell my daughter the story of the first time I walked this creek, 34 years ago. I was 8, two years older than she is.

My father, her grandfather I remind her, took me fishing here. We came often. I tell her she is just learning the big numbers that could count how many times he and I fished this creek. I use my hands to show her how he taught me to cast a line and string a worm on the hook, though we mostly used fish eggs for bait. "Beyond getting me to set up fish," I tell her, "Grandpa didn't say much." I explain to her how he would hike up the creek and leave me to fish one of the still pools. "I was content to sit a ll day with a good book and my fishing rod," I say, "while he wanted to try a new spot every few minutes."

I watch Hallie marking her childhood by this creek close to home, and I hope for the grace of my father, who allowed me to explore it on my own terms.

AT the end of our walk, Hallie surprises me and says she can't wait to see the birds. We pile into the car, and she arranges our picnic on the seats. "A car picnic," she laughs.

At the river, we eat our snacks and walk a little way into the marsh where we hear the swish of a great blue heron overhead. He lands about 70 feet from us. Hallie stares through the binoculars and finds him. The joy of spotting something through the glasses overtakes her interest in the bird. She waves the binoculars in an arc to view the clouds, the bridges, the river, and at last, my feet.

She aims the glasses again at the clouds and fixes them there. It seems to fascinate her that she could be standing at my feet and have the power to bring the clouds so close. "Look Mom," she tells me as she turns the glasses around, "I can make everything small or..." and she turns the glasses again, "very big." I look through the binoculars and clouds fill the lenses - turn the glasses around and clouds seem a million miles away.

"See what I mean," she laughs, "you can do it too." When I put the glasses down, the clouds are the same, only my perception of their size has changed. I plan to use Hallie's discovery in the next few weeks to make some weighty matters less so - to ascribe larger importance to the small things like the first daffodil in bloom or the warmer weather or a simple nature walk with my daughter. As Hallie would say, "You can see two different pictures, Mom, huge ones with the small end and little ones with the big. All you have to do is turn the glasses around."

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