Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Baptism by Butterfly; Baptism by Fire

Originally posted October, 2007

This past weekend I took my seven year-old nephew Brendan to Tenkiller Lake in northeastern Oklahoma for a little nature getaway -- as I have promised to do regularly since moving back.

I believe that those of us not raising children, for whatever reason, are in a unique position as non-active parents to influence kids in ways not always possible by their hard-working and hard-loving parents. Sort of the good-cop/bad-cop dynamic, if you will. It was certainly that way for me growing up as I longed to tumble into the warm hugs of my various unconditionally-loving grandparents, aunts and uncles. If it really does takes a village -- then they certainly provided the soft, subtle edges with which to explore and examine life without the fear of parental objection...i.e. the dreaded "no" and "because I said so".
In returning to live in Oklahoma I arrived with the hope that I might be able to provide a parallel universe for my nephews and nieces; one that created a more significant connection to the natural world and perhaps would also allow for nature to rank an equal if not more compelling landmark in a geography rife with organized sports, television and the computer. Spending time with kids in nature is a responsibility those of us fighting for the welfare of the environment need to take much more seriously – it is without question an investment toward the protection of those sacred outdoor spaces we so dearly love and cherish. I feel the time spent with my nephews and nieces out in nature is not only an investment toward their emotional and physical well-being but might even inspire their future stewardship of our planet.

The trip to Tenkiller Lake was my third outing with Brendan since returning home in August. These adventures are always taken with the hope that those mysterious forces of the natural world would arrive bearing some unimaginably wonderful surprises to create and inspire that sense of wonder so often missing in kids today.

In our first outing, posted previously, Brendan got a very timely, first-hand, close-up lesson from a western diamond-back rattlesnake; so far – so good. In our second outing at the Chickasaw National Recreation Area, he stepped out of an ice-cold swimming hole formed by spring water trapped in slick travertine rock and was instantly covered from head to toe by about a hundred brightly-colored yellow tiger swallowtails.The idea of butterfly kisses took on a whole new meaning in that moment as I watched this shivering boy undulate in the currents of warm air and butterfly wings on this August afternoon.

For a brief moment I thought he might suddenly be carried aloft – slowly rising like a wayward balloon meandering in the thermal currents created by the sheer number of so many softly beating wings. Butterflies and boy together suspended in the fleeting shafts of bright light from the afternoon sun were nothing less than pure poetry and looked as if they had arrived from some other heavenly, ethereal place beyond the pale grasp of this moment. Brendan’s mother, who died during his birth, was crazy about yellow butterflies and it was not hard to imagine that these beautiful winged messengers arrived with her belated but tender kisses. I could only hope this baptism by butterfly would prove to be such a remarkable moment for Brendan that it would keep him engaged and longing to return to the natural world in order to sustain his heightened sense of wonderment.

Last weekend during our outing in the eastern part of Oklahoma still designated as "Cherokee Country" we took an early morning walk on a lightly-traveled path that wound through dense thickets of oak and hickory forest, cut through layers of limestone rock stacked like the loose and crumbling walls of ancient ruins and meandered down to the crystal clear shores of Tenkiller Lake. When we arrived to the shore Brendan announced with wide-eyed bafflement and a sense of nervous alarm that the lake was on fire. A very warm day was followed by a very cool night and now what looked like wisps of smoke were being fanned off the water by the early morning breeze giving the eerie sensation that the water was indeed on fire. Ah, the bountiful grace of nature seldom disappoints and I cannot contain my gratitude as it leaps and bounds in these magical moments.

And within that hazy instance of serendipity and perfect grace marveling at Brendan’s reaction to the smoky mirage on the water -- I realized this moment was not necessarily all for Brendan. Suddenly, I too was seven years old again -- marveling at that same abject sense of wonder I experienced the first time I discovered a whole new world in the mixed woodland and prairie fields hidden on the fringe of my suburban life so many years ago.

It seems I have come full circle and I arrive some forty years later -- seven years old again and reveling in that first moment that the natural world caught my eye and commanded my senses for what would prove to be the entirety of my life. And that’s when it suddenly dawned on me -- standing there next to Brendan as that watery fire danced and swirled and disappeared into the warming air - that this overwhelming drive I had to see the world was born from that unending sense of wonder and discovery the natural world provided during my childhood years.

For the last 22 years I have lived the wanderer’s life - traveling the world not only as a career choice – but to feed this unquenchable desire for discovering new places. Six continents and 85 countries later – I finally understand that this desire to travel and discover the world was seeded in those simple, tender moments of play in those childhood fields inspired by that same sense of wonder and awe that only nature exacts.

July 2011

Four years later - back at the sacred water hole.

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