Meet Brendan - the seven-year old nephew I inherited last December when my sister married his father. Brendan spent most of his first year in life in an incubator and is still working hard to catch-up to the rest of the seven-year-old world. What he lacks in size he more than makes up in heart and bravado.
The second-time we ever met was the occasion of his birthday and I gave him a hermit-crab kit complete with live specimen and all the trappings needed to nurture a happy crab. Although he was surrounded by the wished-for camouflage gifts, monster toy trucks and plastic green infantry men -- he took an instant liking to the crab and me. He passed my "possibly curious about nature" test and we instantly bonded.
My sister asked me to come back to Oklahoma during his Spring Break to spend sometime with him - which between the lines meant "be a good uncle and come babysit" and I obliged. For our first outing I took him to the Museum of Natural History - or rather he took me - he knew the path to every dinosaur, every rock, fossil and feather in the place and asked me to explain it. If he only knew that I had been waiting most of my life to able to regurgitate the vague bits of information I learned as an amateur naturalist in Oklahoma to someone who actually cared. Eureka! Hours later, he left the museum with a booty of rocks, fossils and shark's teeth and I left with a semblance of an idea how far a little patience and curiosity can go toward being a positive influence in this little boy's life. I walked into that museum not much more than a curious ornament recently added to Brendan's new life and walked out a proud Uncle.
Toward the end of the week we all went on a family outing to the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge for what was promised as a short hike and lots of fishing. I would spare any reader that lives in a mountainous state the image of what is considered a mountain here - but knowing that the mountains are 500 myo - let me just suggest that some erosion has taken place in the last 449. Coming from the Sangre de Cristos in Northern New Mexico - it took some imagination to see these forlorn piles of granite rising out of the mixed-grass prairie as mountains.
Not knowing Brendan all that well yet, I asked him if the (toy) gun he brought was for hunting animals on our little hike. He explained very matter-of-factly that he did not like shooting animals like his other uncle but that he wanted to protect me from rattlesnakes. He informed that they were dangerous and would chase us and kill us if we saw one.
I sat him down and explained about rattlesnakes and the truth of them and what they ate and how they hunted and protected themselves and and the good things they did for the ecosystem then added that in my 40 years of hiking in Oklahoma and New Mexico -- I had never once seen a rattlesnake. I assured him I had very good snake-on-a-hike karma and there was nothing to worry about.
He was having none of that -- they were mean and dangerous and would chase us he insisted again. No matter how interesting and exciting of an uncle he perceived me to be - there was no changing his mind on this one. I had done the best I could do to ally his fears.
I have always believed that the true education of the heart comes from the land - that in the solace of nature certain truths are discovered and understood. I have seen the natural world conspire to teach a lesson, in the most magical of ways, and today would prove no exception.
Hours later we were fishing from the public dock of one of the parks reservoirs - three of us Brendan, his father and me. It was one of those mild March days that experiences all four seasons in each hour. The three of us separately worked both sides of the dock, crossing back and forth, in hopes of catching a large-mouth bass that were expected to be spawning and aggressive eaters this time of year.
As I crossed back to join them thirty feet away on the other side I became cognizant of of a new object now taking residence in the middle of the dock - a shadowy figure not there minutes ago.
After the double-take I saw that between us now, seemingly out of nowhere, was five feet of muscled, sinewy Western Diamondback Rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox) the granddaddy of Southwestern rattlers and mysteriously arrived for the lesson that needed to be taught that day. Let there be no doubt that nature is the greatest teacher.
It appears the snake was teased out of its winter den by the warmth of the sun and then while crossing the dock perhaps a passing cloud or cool gust of March wind rendered it back into a state of near hibernation - seemingly freezing it in motion. Staying well out of the strike range, it was the perfect opportunity to prove to Brendan that rattlesnakes do not chase you with the intent to bite and kill.
For a long while we admired this great specimen and timely teacher and not a word was spoken about the synchronicity of events that had just passed. We were all humbled by the majesty and power of nature and the lessons taught that day. Eventually, the sun came out again, the wind settled and the snake's tongue began to dart furiously and soon it was making S-curves across the cement dock heading toward something more familiar. On that cue, we packed up and left too - also making S-curves with our car around imaginary mountains -- and heading back toward something more familiar.
Coming Soon: Small Wonders: Adventures with a Seven-Year-Old - Part- Two: Baptism by Butterfly. Chickasaw National Recreation Area.