The Gift From Our Fathers
It was all black mirror water, jade green duckweed and pearl gray leafless trees. A soft gray day. We arrived at the millpond in northeastern North Carolina, with our food, water and canoes last week and set out paddling to our campsite on a hillside covered in beeches and poplars. There were thousands of saplings among the larger trees— so many that the woods were the color of a dove.
Our first night was chilly and we built a fire. Because we hauled our gear in a canoe instead of on our backs, we were able to bring a few luxuries. I had a pork chop to cook my first night out, and gathered wild ginger root to add to the skillet. Just before dark we went back down to the black mirror pond and slowly paddled the area. We stopped every few minutes to sit in silence, absorbing the magic. Huge cypress trees grew out of the water, each creating a little island where soil and seeds collected, so among the roots of the cypresses appeared swamp roses studded with fat rose hips, pine trees, ferns, or sometimes animal life. While still and looking around, Jim caught my attention to show me that our canoe was less than ten feet from a nesting goose, camouflaged among the roots of a cypress. Her nest was flocked with her own down, and she did not flinch or make a sound when we came so close.
Back at camp we listened to geese trumpeting up and down the channel. As the light faded the bird sounds did too, replaced by frog sounds. We heard spring peepers, and frogs that made a sound not unlike lumber being dropped, or hammers at work. We later read that the area is home to the carpenter frog.
We slept through rain, and woke to a sunny day, bright and warm. With food packed for lunch we set out to paddle to the swamp. Along the way we saw countless turtles sunning themselves. On one log were fourteen turtles, shiny as dinner plates. Dick saw an otter. And we came upon four massive beaver lodges. We stopped by one cypress to study the water snake sunning himself among the roots. The final destination was a place known for thousand year old cypresses. We paddled as deep into the swamp as we were able. Submerged logs prevented our paddling out the backside of it. When we docked for lunch Jim discovered a tiny turtle the size of a beetle.
Back in camp the men set out on a hike and I slept in my unzipped tent with the warm sun and afternoon breeze taking me under. We ended our day watching the black water go bright with the reflected setting sun, and the pale dove gray trees grow black as darkness set in. The warmth of the day had transformed the forest so there was suddenly green everywhere. We made a list of all the creatures we had discovered. We talked about our fathers and their legacies. Dick’s father— the perfect man to have three sons, raised them camping, and all three men grew to keep up that tradition. We all marveled at the gift he had given his sons, and the deep pleasure they have always had in feeling at home in the outdoors.
After dinner Dick produced three cigars, and sitting by the campfire puffing on mine brought my father to me. He always had a humidor of Cubans beside his big chair, and anytime I wanted I could sit on his lap and have a puff of his cigar. I would have eaten a rattlesnake steak to get my father’s attention, so smoking a cigar was nothing. It’s probably been a couple of decades since I had that particular sensory experience, and it rocketed me back to the man who taught me to love the woods. He had a hundred practical excuses for being outdoors. He fenced in our entire farm at one point, and that required a couple of years of Saturdays in the solitude of our woods, with his son, a helper and some libations. And of course, there was hunting. In order to spend some time in his company I attempted to hunt with him. He refused to pretty it up for me. One cold morning on a dawn squirrel hunting trip I managed to kill a squirrel and he made me skin it and cook it. I learned that what I killed I had to consume, and how tough it must have been for my ancestors to make something good to eat out of what is available.
I remember my favorite fourth of July, being in the woods on a wide creek, spending the day wading and sitting on the big rocks with my family. When it was time to choose a Christmas tree we walked through the woods with an axe hunting the perfect cedar. We grew up eating quail pie and venison. Our lives were always circling back and reconnecting us to the woods, the wild. I get it now. Whatever the excuse, being in the woods restores my soul. There is a wash of peace that comes over me like a religious experience. My father was a deeply spiritual man and he passed that on to me intact. He modeled for me what it means to live among the trees and the boulders, the creeks and the fallen leaves. It is the core message of the work that I do and it is the way I choose to recreate myself. And it is a constant reminder that no matter how depraved and selfish humankind may be, we are not in control and Eden still exists.