Dear Zack or Sierra

April 12, 1995

Dear Zack or Sierra,

With my hand on your mom’s belly I felt your kick and it sent a wave of reality I had not experienced up until that point. You were really here, this is really happening.  I am your father. So let me introduce myself. We will be spending a long time together and I thought there are some things that you should know.

            The only thing I wanted from the baby shower was a Kelty baby backpack with a rain shield. On our first strolls, warblers will be heading north, splashes of colors blown by the wind. The terns and ospreys will be back with their stories from the south. The skunk cabbage and cinnamon fern will have leafed out, along with other plants, coloring the woods in every shade of green. You will not remember those first walks, but I’m certain that the beauty around us will seep into your mind and become memories and connections.

            You’ll discover that there are many places to go near our house. At Shu Swamp, I will show you how to make jewelweed seeds fly from your hands. All you have to do is squeeze the pods just a touch and out flies a seed. The fat ones work best. Just like Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin did in the Hundred Acre Wood, we will drop leaves in the stream and watch which one comes out first from under the bridge. There will be frogs to catch. The trick to catching frogs start the stalking early. You will need to crouch down and move slowly creeping closer and closer. Cup your hands and aim just a little in front of the frog so it will jump right into your hand. They are slippery so hold tight but not too tight. I will also show you salamanders. They are easier to catch but harder to find. We will roll over rotten logs and look carefully, waiting for movement. Even if it is not a salamander if it moves it is interesting.  If we do catch one I will let you hold it for a bit. When we let it go carefully place the little guy next to the log and let him crawl back under. The stream at Shu Swamp has sandy bottom that will tickle your feet.

            During visits to Grandma and Grandpa in Syracuse, we’ll go to the places where I grew up. These are the places that got me started. Almost every day on the way home from school, I walked through the Hookway Tract, a former garbage dump that has regrown into a forest. When we go there I’ll show you all the secret spots where my friends and I built forts in the summer and sled down the hills in the winter. It was here I discovered the life in a drop of water and kept track of all the birds I saw.

            As soon as you can walk a half-mile or so, we can go for day hikes along the Appalachian Trail. The mountains may only be a 1,000 feet in elevation but the rock outcrops have perfect hand and foot holds for beginner rock climbers. We will not need ropes, I will be there to catch you just in case. From the ridgetops, there are views of forests that make it easy to forget millions of people live just an hour away in New York City. We will not be alone. Last November, I saw a mink in a beaver lodge gathering leaves in its mouth. I have no idea why. On another hike, I laid on the ground face to face with a red eft that was slurping up snow fleas. Once, I saw a mother black bear with two cubs. I have heard coyotes, barred owls and a deer eating acorns. They are there for you to see as well.

By that time, I should have enough fatherhood experience to take you backpacking. Backpacking is the perfect kind of hiking because you don’t have to come be back for dinner, and when you wake up in the morning you are already there. We can start by taking weekend trips in the Catskills Mountains. There are lots of ponds swimming with newts and the edges jumping with frogs at every step. You will be an expert as at catching frogs and that skill will come in handy there. Newts are a new creature to meet. They look a lot like salamanders but you find them in the ponds dangling in the water. With hands, hats or nets you can scoop them up.

We can head up to the Adirondacks to climb all the 46 High Peaks. As you get older, we can go further. Just wait until you hear a wolf howl in Algonquin Park, Ontario, or find an undiscovered petroglyph hidden in Grand Gulch, Utah. High in Kings Canyon National Park, we can swim in the lake I named for you. Together we will unplug from everyday life and learn firsthand that we are part of something bigger than ourselves.

            Because I’m new at this, I’m not sure what other dads worry about. Do they worry about what I worry about? Probably not. Will we get to the mountains enough? Will you be interested in animals? Will you like canoeing and hiking?  Hopefully all the responsibilities and conventions of society will not get in our way. We will have to be careful that time is not stolen from us by the “shoulds.” I hope the only “shoulds” is having as few “shoulds” as possible.

Things aren’t the same as when I was a kid. There are “For Sale” signs on much of the undeveloped land around here. New houses break up the forest into smaller and smaller pieces. Will you get the chance to see the golden glow of a fox darting across the road? Nutrient overloads from sewage and fertilizer lead to algae blooms which lead to bacterial overload and oxygen depletion in Long Island Sound which leads to dead zones. Will there be striped bass for you to catch? Will you be able to swim in the sound? The questions echo in my head the angers is not just for me anymore. Will our home have enough of the nonhuman natural world to bind the connections you need for a sense of place here and anywhere else you go? That is what I worry about.

I try to edit out the fear and remember that action and hope can make a difference. The North Shore Land Alliance is buying up some of the remaining open space and creating new preserves we can explore. I think of the moose coming back to the Adirondacks and the wolves returning to the Rockies. The Montreal Protocols, banning the use of chlorofluorocarbons, has worked and the hole in the ozone layer is closing. When I walk on the old road through Shu Swamp, I remember the forest just waiting to come back right under the concrete. Human problems can be solved by human solutions. I want you to live with hope so that you will take action to help care for planet and believe that it will make a difference. What you do will matter.

            Another worry is that, in my enthusiasm will turn you off. One of the biggest regrets of my life was pushing your mother too far, too fast the first time we went backpacking. We were headed towards the Missouri Lakes in the Colorado Rockies and I did not give her enough time to adjust to the altitude. We were camped just below the continental divide, on a ridge dotted with lakes, it was stunning, and a dream come true. It was not to be, your mom got sick so instead of four days of exploring it was a slow walk to lower elevation and normal oxygen levels. If we had started slower, perhaps now she would enjoy backpacking. My intentions were good but they backfired. I don’t want to make the same mistake twice. Set your own pace and I will follow. Forgive me when on occasion my excitement gets me carried away.

            How I will handle the fact you will have other interests, other loves? What if you don’t want to do as much hiking and backpacking as I do? I can’t say I wouldn’t be a little disappointed. You should be your own person, make your own boot prints. Having a passion is a gift, I hope you will find one, enjoy it. Take the gift and run with it. No matter what, you will teach me more than I can imagine. No matter what, we will do great things together. No matter what I will love you.

            Love, Dad