I enjoyed a wonderful parenting moment this weekend. My son Finn and I took advantage of a sunny February afternoon to hike in the woods and spend some time together after a busy work week. We drove to a nearby state-owned conservation land and began our trek at a lesser-frequented section of trail that is bestowed with interesting bedrock formations, stone walls, a relic truck body, and a sugarbush strung with sap collection lines. In other words, an area ripe for exploration by a four-year old, his dad, and their eager dog!
A snow storm two days prior had coated the forest with an inch or two of wet snow that was juxtaposed by temperatures nearing 50 degrees. We hiked with snowboots and light jackets and reveled in the warm sunshine on our cheeks. The first hour found us winding on and off the marked trail, climbing onto rock outcrops, and throwing snowballs for the dog to chase. We walked to the edge of a pond, marveled at the snow-covered beaver lodges, and turned back to retrace our footsteps to the car once the dog had a well deserved pondside drink.
I’ve noticed an interesting behavior with my son. In the presence of my wife, he often defers to her especially when faced with some sort of challenge. I suppose it is his instinct to turn to his mother for nurturing, which she instinctively provides. This is all good stuff, but I (perhaps too dogmatically at times) would like to see him at least attempt to struggle with challenges. Perhaps it is my fatherly instinct to prepare my son for the rigours of life. Anyway, when he and I are alone, on this hike for example, he is much more willing to take on a challenge. He walked nearly the entire 2 or 3 miles and only once asked to be carried over a particularly steep and slippery bit of trail. He never once complained about wet gloves or tiredness, and maintained his youthful inquisitiveness and sense of exploration throughout the hike. Without his safety net, he was far more willing to take risks.
The highlight of the walk occurred minutes from reaching the car when I pointed out a standing dead birch tree that was colonized with mushrooms. I asked Finn if he knew what the mushrooms were doing on the tree. “They’re eating the tree,” he correctly replied, recalling lessons from earlier hikes. (Such are the burdens of having a father with a degrees in biology and environmental science...no hike is safe from an impromptu science lesson). He then inquired why the mushrooms were eating the tree. I explained how all living beings, plants and animals alike, eventually die and the mushrooms eat dead things to return them to the soil. He chewed on this for a few seconds then astutely stated, “So mushrooms make the tree into little pieces of soil so that new trees can grow. And then those trees die and become new trees!” And within this 30-second bit of dialogue, my son intuitively grasped one of the fundamental cycles of life. We walked a few yards past the dead birch and he turned and quietly studied it for quite a bit longer as the revelation resonated in his brain.
As a parent of young children, my biggest hope is that I can at least instill a sense of wonderment, respect, and awareness of the natural world. After yesterday’s hike with Finn, I think I’m on the right track.