Learning That's Not Locked Between Book Covers

Charity, they say, begins at home, but so does learning. And if it hadn't been for my father, I'm sure that my education would have been much poorer. Dad was not content to let the schools take over the instruction of his children; he set out to teach us his own values and experiences. He read to us from Mark Twain and James Fenimore Cooper. He took us to museums and libraries. And, more than anything else, he emphasized the value of outdoor education and experience. Dad wanted his daughter and two sons to grow up into competent adults. He remembered his provincial Minnesota childhood when he and his brother were Eagle Scouts, swam in the Blue Earth River, and hunted ducks with the family labrador, Terry. Experiencing the outdoors would, he believed, lead his children to be responsible, resourceful adults. Sometimes I think that if the time had been right Dad would have been a voyageur, one of the mountain men who roamed 18th-century America's wild rivers in birchbark canoes, gathering pelts and trading with native Americans. Stuck in the 20th century, he satisfied himself with exploring the forests out of a car and, when we were home, taking us along for the adventure. I remember the afternoons we spent with him playing ''ambush'' in the woods: My brother and I were Robin Hood and his Merry Men, loafing the days away in Sherwood Forest; and Dad was the Sheriff of Nottingham, coming to catch us if he could. Few families visited more national parks than we did. Every summer, we'd pack our camping gear - the US Army tent, the metallic-green Coleman cooler - and drive east. By the time I was 10 I'd been to Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, Sequoia, Mt. Lassen, Yosemite, Crater Lake, Bryce Canyon, and had ridden across almost every state in the West in the back seat of a station wagon. When we were little more than preschoolers, Dad took us on long hikes and then, to develop character, refused to carry us back to camp when we got tired. We rolled up our own sleeping bags and helped tie them on the roof rack of the car. We roasted marshmallows on a stick over an open fire and learned not to burn them. Waking in a sleeping bag at the crack of dawn, I'd look up into the gray sky and wait until Dad got up and started the fire. As the smell of crackling wood suffused the campsite, I'd come out and try to get warm. He'd put a tin pot over the flames, and we'd talk. He heard the birds and named them by their songs. On hikes, he showed me animal tracks. I learned that sighting a ground squirrel was something to note; seeing a deer was a special privilege. By the time I was 12 I could make a fire by myself and even pitch the 10-foot high Army tent. One year I got into trouble for some third-grade indiscretion at school. Dad gave me a choice: Write three 200-word reports on national parks or be grounded. I started to write. To Dad, education wasn't trapped between the covers of a book. Although he worked inside, he was never completely happy unless he could be outdoors at least once a day. One year we planted a garden in our backyard, inspired by frontier writer Laura Ingalls Wilder's account of growing a milk-fed pumpkin in her book ''Farmer Boy.'' Our pumpkin, for some reason, wouldn't drink its milk and hardly grew big enough to carve. Dad supported my interest in horseback riding. He lent me the money to buy a horse on condition I pay him back. I spent hours of every day riding through the farm roads around our town. I had become like Dad: If I couldn't be outside at least once a day, I felt I had wasted my time. Today, although my work is all inside (homemaking and writing), I still love to learn by doing: cooking, gardening, horseback riding, hiking, and of course, parenting. Being outside for a couple of hours dramatically improves my attitude.

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