Go into the gaps. If you can find them, they shift and vanish too. Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock—more than a maple—a universe.Annie Dillard
My mother often praised the virtues and skills of her two children, and since I was one of them I did not mind so much, even when I thought it probably was not true. One of them I heard often was of how I had learned to walk when I was just eight months old. As I have mentioned in previous posts, she was known to exaggerate, but in this case I suspect it was true, since I must have been eager to climb out of my crib and onto a mountain trail and begin exploring.
In my early years camping meant pitching our tent by a river, usually in the Olympic Mountains, where my father would hike up the trail to an isolated fishing hole or a high mountain lake, and the rest of our young family would remain behind, eagerly anticipating his return at the end of the day with his fishing creel filled with trout for dinner.
Those days with my mother were also times to explore though in a much gentler manner than my father enjoyed. Walking with my mother was more like a “stroll,” derived from the German strollen meaning a “leisurely walk.” We walked leisurely all right and with our heads down and our eyes on the ground. On these walks my mother taught me to pay attention to those things on the ground and would often reach down to pick up something if she thought I should know about it. She taught me the old fashioned common names for flowers that she had learned as a child: pearly everlasting instead of strawflower, sweet-after-death instead of vanilla leaf, and my favorite, rosy pussy toes. We once gathered bunches of sweet-after-death, which we dried for its vanilla-like fragrance, then crumbled into sachets for our two grandmothers at Christmas time. Yes, it was illegal to gather such things on National Park land even then. She did not pay much attention to rules.
Our walks took us a mile or two up the river, where we would sit on the rocky river bank, enjoying a lunch she had prepared that morning. We went to special places along the river with names known only by the river’s regular visitors: Staircase Rapids, Red Reef Rock, Dead Horse Hill, Sliding Rock. The latter was a favorite destination, as my brother figured out that we could climb up and slide down its smooth surface into a bracing pool of shallow water, straight out of the snow fields above us on the First Divide. Days would pass in these places, indeed, a lifetime. My mother sat quietly and gathered stones that appealed to her: agates, small pieces of quartz glistening in the sunlight, smooth white rocks that looked like marbles. She put them in her pockets and at the end of the day would sort through her treasures back at the picnic table in camp. As I said, she spent a lot of time looking down at the world.
My brother and I would be equally occupied by the rocks, taking turns tossing them into the river to see who could create the biggest splash. He always won, being older and stronger, but I did not mind, awed as I was by the heavy flat rocks he would lift up from the riverbank and send sailing into the pools. The biggest splashes, four to six feet into the air, would send delighted laughter and screams from us both up into the trees above our heads.
These moments by the river came to an end, and we would stroll back to our campsite. My father would soon join us with his bounty for the day. I would watch while he spread newspapers out on the table and cleaned the fish, especially enthralled by the scraping of scales, sparkling as they did in the afternoon sunlight.
In the evening my father would remove the Coleman lantern from the tent, pump it a few times, and then light the silken mantle, which would burn brightly until we took it back into the tent with us after an evening by the campfire. It seemed no less magical than the sparkling fish scales. We would all watch from our sleeping bags as the light faded into darkness, repeating “Going going going. . .and then suddenly. . . gone!.”
The next day there would be another leisurely walk, or stroll to a different location on the river. There would be egg salad sandwiches on the riverbank. There would be rocks thrown into the river. There would again be fish scales and lantern light at the end of the day.
Many years after these camping trips ended I would carry a wildflower field guide with me on my solitary hikes, pausing along the way to identify new species and repeating the scientific names over and over until they were comfortable to say out loud. I would write in the common names my mother had taught me next to the photograph in the guide, which made it easier to remember the flowers I was identifying. There was something comforting about these names, both the old ones and the new ones. I especially liked the precision the scientific names provided, something I rarely found anywhere else in my life. Each name told a story, the name of the collector perhaps who had first identified the plant, how many leaves it had, even what animals like to eat it. One of my favorites is Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, commonly called kinnikinnick or bearberry.
So it is I grew into a world where I was comfortable on the ground, looking down at my field guide and at the flowers, strolling as I did so. As a young woman it soon became apparent that my marriage was not a happy one, but I found comfort, as many people do. . .not buried in a good book or a bottle but in a field guide and the small things at my feet. Throwing rocks into the river. . .that worked pretty well too.