Gabriel, Peter and I escaped to the woods the other day. We escaped a load of wet laundry in the washer, carpets speckled with dirt, and bathrooms crying out to be cleaned. Despite the mess, we needed the escape; life has been hard and conflict-wrought lately, and we needed the healing of tree-shaded paths and one-on-one time with each other. Our escape route would take us to a small waterfall a friend had told us about the day before; it would be a long walk for Gabriel, but the promise of an exciting destination was enough to keep his three-year-old legs cheerfully moving down the path. He marched along with a walking stick he had discovered on the side of the trail, balancing himself with the stick as he forged across creeks, and, true to Gabriel-form, intermittently pretending to weed-whack long grasses that grew along the side of the trail.
I wondered if the spirits of our little group would remain high enough to make it to our destination. Often we start out well, but energy and enthusiasm lags as the distance we cover grows. I used to bring snacks, thinking it would provide inspiration to continue our journeys, but that proved to distracting--the main question would then become not the hike but when and where we would eat our snack and how much of it there was. Trail mix was more engaging for my three year old than nature, and so much would go unseen.
Fortunately, on this particular journey, I had left the snacks at home, yet we still had much to sustain us. Everywhere we turned, the bounty and the beauty of nature was spread before us. Small creeks welcomed rocks plopped into their shallows by gleeful toddler hands. Tiny freshwater clams peeked out of the mud at the base of the waterfall. A black water snake slid by, and we watched from a respectful distance as he flicked his purple-black tongue in and out. A friendly birdwatcher pointed our eyes towards an amazing daytime sight: a huge barred owl peering down from a tree branch quite near the trail. His black eyes blinked and his feathered head swiveled as we passed his perch; he seemed almost as surprised to see us as we were to see him. As we emerged from the woods into the sunshine, an abundance of butterflies and moths amused Gabriel. Even in a small, unassuming puddle on the side of the path we found treasure: hundreds of tadpoles flitted between marshy grasses.
The beauty of such moments, for both myself and my children, is that they cannot be produced, and thus cannot be consumed, as one might “consume” a television show, or a ride at an amusement park. In those cases, there is a certain expectation of planned for, anticipated, perhaps even calculated enjoyment--there is a certain element of surprise lacking. With nature, there is always the element of the unknown; the risk of what may or may not be. Nothing can be demanded; there may be clouds of gnats or rain; there may be sunny skies and wildflowers; in either case one must accept what has been offered and make the best of it. I am glad to immerse myself and my children in this dynamic whenever I can--either on short walks or longer camping trips--because it is good for all of us. We learn to accept the gifts for what they are-- exciting moments of experiencing something new or challenging ones that call us to cheerfully make the best of a tough situation.