~summer shorts~ wilderness wandering

“It lives in my imagination strongly that the black oak is pleased to be a black oak. I mean of all them, but in particular one tree that is as shapely as a flower, that I have often hugged and put my lips to. Maybe it is a hundred years old. And who knows what it dreamed of in the first springs of its life, escaping the cottontail’s teeth and everything dangerous else? Who knows when supreme patience took hold, and the wind’s wandering among its leaves was enough of motion, of travel?”

~Mary Oliver

The day is hot and lazy, and my mind wades around the meandering bend of the river I sat on the bank of with Quinn just a few days ago, gazing at the leaf boats of that singular day as they begin to drift towards the horizon of memory. Downstream around a few more bends, more memories swirl around an eddy on the edge of consciousness, and I just catch a glimpse of him with pinchable cheeks, stacking river rocks into “snowmen” to match the snowman pajama pants he wore. The size of him in my backpack on this same riverbank stands back-to-back in contrast with how he has drawn up even in height with his dad.

(still life with sippy cup, May, 2009)

His voice then was a giddy gurgling over the river rocks, while his voice now glugs into a much deeper gully. I can hear this in person in a way I cannot hear it through the screen of our pandemic parenting paradigm.

We hike all the way down the switchbacks to the river. Beside a grove of giant cedar trees, we perch on separate rocks, and do not come close enough for me to smell the top of his head, to see if his scalp still carries the scent of a pinch of cinnamon. What does reach me is the zest of the tangerine he is peeling with his large, capable hands, and this scent, too, tethers me to him briefly, remembering how I ate my pregnant body weight in clementines in my third trimester, the memory only eclipsed by the thought that I should not tell him I can smell his lunch, or he will suggest we sit farther apart.

The hands get me, they have changed so much since he grappled with stacking those stones, when the river had swallowed less rain, on a different lazy summer day over a decade ago. I think about those hands, the way they would still reach for mine on the way up to the school building in fifth grade, the way they slid over slippery gray clay making a pinch pot in second grade, the glazed surface of which now preserves the texture only a six-year-old’s fingers could produce. The necklace my Mom gave to me and I wore for my wedding shines in a silver puddle in its shallow cavity. The destiny of many a child’s pinch pot is to perfectly contain treasures as precious as themselves.

Wandering in a wilderness area together all day is unlike our hour-long video calls in all ways, but most acutely in that I am positioned beside the waterfall of his imagination like I have not been in months. The story comes spilling forth of a pod of whimsical dragons hatched out of colorful eggs, each with powerful attributes perfectly complementing those of their teammates. Once we found our first wild rose, we found many. It was in a rose bush that I found my first dragon egg, of the species Photosynthesim draconis. Once we spotted our first crayfish, we found many, and this time a water dragon was hatched. Once we found one dragon egg, we found more, as it is with many wild things for which one wasn’t even necessarily looking. All day, the tale flows in between the huge trunks of the trees we pass by, a comfortable third companion on the journey. Unlooked for, it simply appears like a rainbow where the sunlight refracts in the droplets splashing over the rapids, though the sun and the water never touch.

The last time we hiked all the way to this river, Quinn napped on my back most of the way. Before we built rock snowmen, we threw rocks in the water (splash) for a long time (the name of the activity was throw-rocks-in-the-water-splash!). At one point he looked up at me and said, “I love the water! I love the water!!!” He was just barely two, but he wove a story through the trees that day, too. “I am going to grow big and tall. And when I get older and big, I’ll drive my garbage truck and come and pick up the garbage cans and dump them into the truck!”

I told him, “When you are big and drive your garbage truck to come pick up my garbage, I will come out to watch you dump the garbage cans into the truck, and I will clap for you!” (Luckily some bff emails get hastily etched into the mud beside the riverbank for me to find again years later.)

He has grown so big and tall. The wilderness within him is green and lush as ever, also having grown, expanded in all the ways a teen’s mind does.

Our video calls are now routine, comfortably structured around a game and a book. The book helps us remember wild places, but it isn’t the same as being in one together, with dragons for company. Like the night wakings I didn’t realize I was missing until a stray one reoccurred after months of unbroken sleep, this reintroduction to the storytelling magic of his mind in unstructured moments after months apart catches me off guard. What is this pang of guilt? I had not been grieving the lack of back stage access to his imagination until I got a fresh taste. It tastes like chocolate, mostly sweetness to savor but with an edge of bitter brevity and longing for it to last.

Back near the trailhead, he finds me a butterfly, and beckons me to pause and take photos. We both know his dad is probably waiting, but we stop anyway, not ready to be done. The black-speckled orange wings flit among buttercups and daisies, our eyes dazzled by its color, adjusting to the bright sunlight out from under the old growth canopy. We smile behind our masks at each other; him at the knowledge that his mama is pleased to see butterflies, me at the idea that this could be one of the silverspot butterflies I had read about, and even just the potential of finding something uncommonly rare and endemic to this place helps me alight on the flower of this moment a bit longer, not fly off just yet to what it will feel like to ache for him again for another unknown length of time.

A day lingering among the biggest trees I can find seems a good way to study their supreme patience which I have by no means acquired, even as this wandering quenches the thirst for motion, for travel, for a day set apart from the many days with just the wilderness within to wander. I breathe a prayer on the breeze in the branches, the light on the droplets, the eddies on the edges, for a measure of that patience, that this day may be enough for me and for him of what we have been lacking. Enough of a glimpse at something rare, beautiful, endemic to this place.


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