"The time of childhood is going to go fast," says Rick Bass. "I'm doing what I can to slow it down. There's still time for me to learn some of what they see and know and feel."
After fifteen years of listening and watching and hiking around and hunting this valley—fifteen youthful years, no less—we’re starting to learn some things. We’ll never know enough, nor even a fraction of what we’d like to, but we know where the wild strawberries are sweetest, in the tiny little lanes and clearings no larger than a house, where little patches of soft, filtered, damp light fall down from the midst of the old-growth larch forests, little clearings where the snowshoe hares come out of those old forests (despite the protestations of timber company biologists who say the rabbits—and their primary predators, lynx—don’t live back there) to nibble on those new sweet berries in July.
Late in July, we like to try to get into some of those patches just before the legions of rabbits do, and pick a little basket of berries. The girls have a tiny doll’s basket (the berries are no larger than the nub of a pencil eraser, but contain more concentrated sweetness than an entire bushel of the mega-irradiated, supermarket jumbo-giants), and because I’m colorblind, I can’t find the tiny strawberries and have to rely on the girls to do the harvest.
They’re delighted by my weakness, and by their sharp-eyed superiority, and delighted also, as junior hunter-gatherers, to be providing for me. We all three have little baskets—in the dimming blue light of dusk, I absolutely can’t find a single one—and from time to time the girls take pity and come over to where I’m down on my hands and knees, searching, and drop a few into my basket.
And as is their habit, they eat far more than they pick, not even really hunter-gatherers but more like wild animals, feasting in the moment, letting their bodies do the hoarding, rather than jars or cabinets—the girls more a part of the forest, in that manner, in that moment—and by the time it is too dark to see well, and we must walk back toward our truck, the baskets have barely enough strawberries to drop into our pancake batter for the next morning: but they will be memorable pancakes, and it will be enough.
Just as we reach the truck, some friends come driving by, and they stop to visit for a while in the dusk, with the old sentinel larches so immense all around us. Our friends' own children are grown now, and they reminisce about picking wild strawberries with their children when they were Mary Katherine and Lowry’s age.
They keep telling me what everyone has been saying since the day each of the girls was born—about how fast time flies—and I agree, and thank them for their counsel. They keep looking at the girls’ little baskets of berries and smiling, and saying that same thing again and again throughout the course of the lazy-dusk conversation—and yet I don’t know what to do about that truth, that inescapable flight, other than to go out into the patches of light scattered here and there along the edges of the old forest and pick strawberries with them in the evening, just as we’re doing. And while I’m very grateful for the advice, I also wonder often if it, the time of childhood, doesn’t sometimes pass faster for the parent by considering and noticing the speed of its passage, as opposed perhaps to a sleepier, less attentive, less fretful awareness of that passage and its nearly relentless pace.
Either way, it’s going to go fast. I know I’m doing what I can to slow it down. Reading to them in the evenings; cooking with them; taking them on hikes, to swim in the mountain lakes.
Any activity I do with them could be done faster and more efficiently, but only recently have I come to understand that the slower and more inefficiently we do these things, the greater is my gain, our gain; the less quickly that galloping stretch of time passes. Taking three hours to fix a single, simple meal is a victory. Coming back from two hours in the woods with only a dozen strawberries left over is a triumph. Chaos and disorderliness can be allies in my goals of spending as much time as possible with them. If I’ll only watch and listen, they’ll show me—for a while—how to slow time down: instructing me in a way that I could never otherwise learn from the caring counsel of my friends.
Still, it’s good to hear it, even if bittersweet. I know not to argue with them, or deny it. I know, or think I know, the sound of the truth, and it’s wonderful to have their support in the matter.
We say our leisurely good-byes and part company in the hanging dusk, which is turning quickly now to darkness, so that we need to turn our lights on, traveling down the road on our way through the old forest. On the way home the girls would eat every single one of the last of the berries, if I let them—would run right through the last of our supplies in only a minute or two—and so I put the little straw baskets in the cab of the truck, just out of reach.
A couple of days later, after an afternoon spent at the waterfall, we’re walking along a gravel road, again at dusk, and again the girls are finding the tiny wild strawberries. It’s the 27th of July: hot days, cold nights. It’s a couple of miles back to the truck, and the girls alternate between running and walking slowly; and again I try to relax and release, and give myself over to what seems to me to be the irregular, even inscrutable logic of their pace, their seemingly erratic stops and starts. Stretching their freedom, then coming back.
They run pell-mell for a while down the road, then slow to a saunter. Lowry stops at one point and looks up at the sky for long moments.
"What are you doing?" I ask.
"Listening to the leaves," she says. And she’s right: just above the louder sound of the rushing creek, the drying leaves of the riverside cottonwoods are rattling slightly, and sounding different, dryer—autumnal already. She’s four! It pleases me deeply, so much so that I don’t even say anything, other than offering some mild concurrence.
Farther down the road she stops again and announces, "It smells good here." She’s talking about the scent of the creekside bog orchids, which are intensely fragrant—almost overpoweringly so, like cheap perfume—and both girls walk out into the orchids to smell them better. Lowry tells us that they "smell better than the shampoo with the silver cap."
They run for a short distance, with me trailing right behind them, for safety—giving them their freedom, yet guarding them in lion country—and they stop yet again. And when I ask what they’re doing this time, Low says quietly, as if from dreamland, "Listening to water."
They’re both just standing there, staring at a glade below in the dimming light, mesmerized, it seems, by the very fabric of the landscape, the interlocking of all those different species and sizes of trees: I realize with a wonderful bittersweetness that I really don’t have a clue as to what either of them is thinking or feeling, only that they are fully suspended in the business of being children—that they are in a place where I want them to be, and yet where I cannot go. Though even as I am thinking this, and thinking about how totally oblivious they are in the moment to my adult presence, Low turns her gaze from the mountains and tells me she thinks I’m standing too close to the edge of the road, and the steep slope leading down to the river.
"Don’t slide down there," she says, taking my hand. "I don’t want to lose you."
We resume our journey. Not too far from where we’ve parked, we encounter a dead garter snake in the road, tire-struck, but intact. The girls are fascinated, of course, both by their instinctual, archetypal fear of snakes, and by the archetype of death, and they examine the snake, the specimen, like little scientists, stirring it gently with a stick—it still looks alive—and Lowry sprinkles a little dust on its head, as if in some pagan ritual.
We pass on, then, though she’s quiet all the way to the truck, and when I ask her what the matter is some fifteen minutes later, she says, "It makes me sad when things die."
What do I know about girls, or anything? Would not a little boy—a boy such as myself, perhaps—have wound the dead snake around his wrist to wear as a bracelet, an amulet, or tossed it on his sister?
All I can do, often, is watch, and listen. So often it feels as if I’m treading behind them, observing, listening and learning other rhythms, rather than being out in front, as if breaking trail for them, the way I had always assumed it would be, being a parent.
Again and again, watching the girls watch this landscape—or anything else, for that matter—helps me see that thing more fully, and in new ways, whether down on my hands and knees at ground level or staring off at the horizon.
There’s still time for me to learn some of what they see and know and feel. It’s not too late. I can still learn, or relearn, some, if not all, of what they seem to know intuitively about our engagement with time. When to walk, when to run, when to rest, when to dream. When to be tender—more often than not—and, by extension, when and what not to be.
I want to believe that my bitterness and cynicism, and my fears for the environment and the coming world, fade when in their company; that such worries leach away, as if back into the soil of the landscape itself, where they might even be absorbed by the rattling cottonwoods and the scented orchids. It is probably not that way at all. But some days, after a time spent in the woods with the girls, that is how it feels. And I rarely come away from such days without feeling that I have learned something, even if I’m not sure what it is, and that although time certainly has not ceased or even paused, at least it has not accelerated in that awful way it can do sometimes, time slipping out from beneath you as if you’ve lost your footing on ice or some other slick surface.
I guess it’s better to be aware of the briskness of its passage than not, after all. It’s going to go fast, either way. But if you’re aware of its brevity, then at least you’ll be aware too of the eddies and slow stretches.
But my friends who stopped and visited the other evening when we were picking berries were right: it’s going to go real fast, either way. The best I can do is try and keep up.
Rick Bass is the author of eighteen books, including a novel, Where the Sea Used to Be and Caribou Rising: Defending the Porcupine Herd, Gwich-'in Culture, and the Artic National Wildlife Refuge (Sierra Club Books). He lives in northwest Montana's Yaak Valley, where there is still not a single acre of designated wilderness.
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