Ephemeral Paths

(Field of thistle)

This past weekend my family and I hiked through the local game lands.  The dogs relish exploring off-lead and I enjoy watching my daughter explore the new sights, sounds and smells.  My daughter wanted to hike through the field in the middle of the woods.  Every year someone allows the field to be planted; sometimes corn, sometimes hay, sometimes fallow.  This weekend we watched twenty three gold finches flitting among the thistle.

A few years ago my wife gave me the book “Travels in the Greater Yellowstone” by Jack Turner.  Turner’s writing changed the way I view life.  Turner defines ‘paths’ and ‘trails’ differently.  Without looking for the exact definition, I vaguely remember ‘trails’ have meaning: they allow a traveler to get from point A to point B in a straight forward manner.  ‘Paths’ are fickle; they do not get travelers from point A to point B in the most efficient way, but might veer off the trail to allow the traveler a glimpse of a vista.  Paths lend meaning to the trail.  Trails grow and become more permanent; paths are ephemeral.

Never had I considered the impermanent nature of footpaths in the woods until my wife and I were hiking a familiar path used as a short cut between two longer trails.  A mountain biker materialized out of a section of woods where we had no knowledge of any paths.  We investigated the area that birthed the bicyclist and discovered tramped down plants, but no defined path.  Following the trampled plants we discovered the beginning of a forest path.

That forest path now forms a more permanent fixture in the woods; local trail maps feature this footpath and disused forest floor is replacing a section of the now-unused shortcut path.

Life reflects this transitory nature of paths.  The transition of a baby being carried by mom to a two-and-a-half year old running through the field of thistle serves to magnify this ephemeral nature.  Three years ago, sunflowers filled the field as my then-pregnant wife and I hiked with just our dogs.  This weekend my daughter pointed to tiger swallowtails and meadow fritillary butterflies.  I can’t help but wonder where we will be in three years?

Maybe it is too much to jump from woodland paths to the nature of life, but I don’t think so (neither did Robert Frost).  I try to appreciate and celebrate the small changes; caterpillars to butterflies, sunflowers to thistles.

If life is a trail then the small changes are the paths that encourage us to slow down and enjoy what we have.

Try #2 (really, it’s still book #1): The Bunny Rabbit Show! by Sandra Boynton

In my first attempt to provide some mental fertilizer for you, I started to write a description of Wendell Berry’s “The Unsettling of America”.  The book is excellent, but my write up got stuck in the mental version of quicksand.  Wendell Berry will wait for another day.

Today, I’ve got the board-book “The Bunny Rabbit Show!” by Sandra Boynton.  Awesome book for little kids, the mental equivalent of a pumpkin whoopee pie for adults.  Boynton has been writing kid’s books since the mid 1970’s, and she has written prolifically.

Boynton writes about hippos, bunnies, cows, barnyards, dogs, pajamas and even singing pigs; this specific book is about…dancing and singing bunny rabbits.  The sing-song writing style makes the book enjoyable for child and parent each time its read.  The book practically asks to be sung.  At times, my daughter will almost dance along as I read the book aloud.

“The Bunny Rabbit Show!” is one of my favorites because I get to act like a kid again.  Belting out atonal tunes with my semi-nasaly voice elicits the occasional growl from the dogs and peals of laughter from my daughter (probably eye rolls from my wife).  At first I was embarrassed to sing a book to my daughter and really only read in a stilted manner.  After reading a few books, I understood that my daughter doesn’t care (or know) if I’m a good singer, she just enjoys the time we spend reading/singing.  In addition, if I have fun reading, my daughter has fun listening and learns that dad is a fun guy.

Beyond just singing the book to my daughter, I have enjoyed watching as she now discerns aspects of the book she couldn’t in the past.  For instance, when she was 18mos, she just enjoyed the tuneless tune that I sung, but now, at two and a half, she picks out the ‘bunny rabbits’ that aren’t (chicken, duck, and pig).

The cacophony produced by reading this book causes only the most properly trained singers to cringe.