When I was growing up, the high point of my family's interaction with the outdoors was driving through Rocky Mountain National Park on our way to visit my uncle and pausing at a scenic overlook. I lived in an endless suburb of housing developments and shopping centers. Although I eventually found solace along a wooded bike path that ran next to a creek near my house, I had only the vaguest sense of what the things I loved there were called or why they were there.
In my first botany class in college, I was startled to discover that trees have buds in January; I had always assumed they just appeared in spring. After college, while identifying prairie grasses for an ecology research project, I discovered I loved working outside. I realized, though, that just knowing the names of things was not enough; I wanted to understand why things were the way they were. I decided to go to graduate school to acquire the knowledge I craved about my surroundings.
I now teach ecology to college students, and their hunger for this information is palpable. Probably, like me, they want to connect with where they live and to be part of something bigger than themselves.
After all these years, I have finally logged enough hours to be fairly fluent in the language of nature, but when I meet native speakers, I am jealous. Compared to them, I still feel like an outsider. So when my son, Jesse, was born 11 years ago, I wanted to immerse him in nature right from the start. When he was very young, I read The Sense of Wonder, Rachel Carson's essay about how to develop a lifelong love of nature. Carson wrote of taking her grandnephew out in nature even when it was "inconvenient, interfering with bedtime, or involving wet clothing that has to be changed or mud that has to be cleaned off the rug." Of one such time late at night, she wrote: "I think we have felt that the memory of such a scene, photographed year after year by his child's mind, would mean more to him in manhood than the sleep he was losing."
Yes, yes, I thought. I vowed to take Jesse out in nature despite the extra laundry and the lost sleep. Since he was a baby, we have tried, and sometimes succeeded, to get out into the woods at least once a week as a family. When Jesse was a toddler, my friends and I formed the Muddy Boot Brigade and tried to meet at different natural areas once a week. Since he was in first grade, Jesse has spent Fridays at Crow's Path's Field School getting muddy and building fires. But even now, as time-sensitive opportunities arise — looking for the Northern Lights or checking out the river at flood stage — they never seem to come at a good time.
I remember a particularly ungraceful April night when my son was 5. I took the recycling to the curb around 10 p.m. and noticed it was raining. Since the beginning of the month, I'd been watching for the first rainy night, when all the salamanders and wood frogs from the surrounding woods would trek to their nearest vernal pool to find a mate.
Vernal pools are low-lying spots in the forest that fill up with snowmelt for a few months in spring and summer and then dry out, so they are safe from egg- and tadpole-eating fish. The closest one to my house is a 15-minute drive, and I'd been taking my husband and son to that one every year. But after a few icy false alarms, I had been tasked with scoping it out alone before bringing them along.
I stood by the recycling bin that night, thinking longingly of my bed, but eventually I went back inside, grabbed a headlamp and my rain gear, and headed out.
When I got out of the car, the chuckling of the wood frogs enveloped me immediately.
I called my husband, Ben, from the pitch-black parking lot. "They're here," I announced. "Will you wake Jesse and get him ready to go?"
"Sure," he said, but he sounded doubtful.
When I walked in the front door, Jesse was crying loudly on the living room floor. He was dressed but was resisting help putting on his rain gear. Ben's mouth was tight. Somehow we got the stiff vinyl jacket and pants on Jesse and dug out another headlamp from the not-quite-on-purpose piles in the corners of our house. I found his hat and rain boots, but only one dry mitten. Eventually I found its mate, mud-encrusted, in the dirty-laundry basket. I wanted to yell. I settled for slamming the door on my way out.
When I read The Sense of Wonder, I imagined my whole family sharing joyously in these rituals. But that night, Ben was tired and a little sick, so Jesse and I went to the pool by ourselves.
I strained to buckle Jesse's floppy body into the back seat, and he sat bleary-eyed as we drove silently. When we pulled into the parking lot, he said sleepily, "I don't know if I can get out."
We made quite the racket bushwacking in the slippery darkness to the pool, and the frogs were quiet by the time we arrived. So we turned off our lights, slid our backs down two skinny maples and waited. Just as the frogs tentatively resumed their calling, Jesse said, "I'm ready to not do this anymore."
I told him he could turn on his headlamp, and he cast light around the pool, making crazy designs. It eventually fell on the yellow spots of some salamanders, and he excitedly pointed them out. We saw two frogs join together and not let go. We sat silently in the middle of this sensuous racket for a half hour, and we drank it all in: the soft rain, the smell of mud, the silent salamanders, the chuckling frogs, the amazing convergence of them all arriving here together, at the exact same moment, and our being in the middle of it.
And then we went home.
During the drive, I thought of Rachel Carson's grandnephew. And I wondered: When Jesse is grown, will the part that's been photographed by his child's mind be the crying on the living room floor and sitting too long in the dark, or the awe and wonder of the chorusing frogs?
As my son gets older, I sometimes ask myself how many more expeditions he'll want to go on with me. I'm trying to play my cards right and not force him into anything. But when he found out I was writing an essay about this trip to "our" vernal pool, he perked up and asked, "When is that? We didn't miss it, did we?"