I’ll never forget the day I was walking near our home in Virginia and observed a gaggle of Canada geese foraging in the grass. I stopped and couldn’t believe what I saw. There, in the midst of those gray geese was an old, lame white duck. One of its legs was oddly deformed, and yet it obviously had been adopted as an integral member of that flock, as I witnessed when I took a step closer and the geese gathered around the duck, protecting it. I watched in awe, thinking about how much mankind could learn from nature, if only we took the time.
That poignant phenomenon caused me to reflect upon special times during my childhood when my dad took my sisters and me on long autumn walks through the same woods he’d explored when he grew up on my grandmother’s farm in Mississippi. I’d inevitably snag the back of my jacket on the rusty barbed-wire fence that separated the woods from the pasture, and call, “Help, Daddy! I’m stuck.” He’d rescue me from the old fence’s snare and hold the wire high enough for us to climb through ... and into the peaceful world of nature.
Shuffling through red, golden-yellow and apricot leaves, we would smell the moldy odor of the earth as we followed him. He’d show us foxes’ dens and squirrels’ nests and tell us which animals belonged to the countless tracks we encountered. As we walked, he also taught us that if we were ever lost, we could look at the sun during different times of the day to determine directions.
Once he pointed to a leafy ball nestled high in a tree, and said, “That’s mistletoe. It couldn’t live without some of the water and food it gets from that tree.” As I stared at the parasite so vibrant and green, it seemed ironic that its existence depended on those scraggly limbs, which, on that late autumn day, appeared devoid of life.
Those walks in the woods also provided plenty of laughs. I remember the time our dad found a persimmon tree, pulled the enticing orange fruit off, and offered it to us. I took a bite and spat it out, my face contorted from the most bitter taste I had ever experienced in my life. Daddy burst out laughing, reminding us that appearances could often be deceiving.
Occasionally, we would see buzzards circling over some unfortunate creature below, or we’d stop to study the fascinating patterns on empty turtle shells, both reminding us of the inevitable cycle of life. But after having witnessed calves being born on our farm, we knew there was a balance in nature, and that for every life that ended, there was another one that began.
My favorite time during our walks in the woods was when we would stop to rest at the end of the day. We’d find an old, familiar fallen tree and would climb up on its trunk and sit there with Daddy, looking and listening. Late-afternoon sunrays would slant through the branches and set the woods aglow. Shadows would grow longer as the sun made its journey westward. We’d hear squirrels scurrying through fallen leaves and turn to see them clinging to the trunks of trees as they circled their way back up to the safety of their nests. And we would hear the hush of wind gently rustling through the woods, as if it were whispering Robert Browning’s, “God’s in his heaven — All’s right with the world.”
Just before sunset, we would climb back through the barbed-wire fence, leaving that peaceful world behind. As we made our way back across the fields, we’d watch the crimson sun gradually slip below the horizon and would often be met with the wonderful smell of hickory smoke curling from a distant farmhouse’s chimney. It would remind us of the coziness waiting to embrace us in our grandmother’s house just ahead.
On those autumn nights as we would sit around my grandmother’s kitchen table enjoying toast and her delicious homemade vegetable soup, my sisters and I would share with her all that we had seen and learned on our walks. She’d glance at my father and smile knowingly, as if she were reliving the same excitement he had shared with her years before, after his own expeditions through the woods.
Little did we realize then that those walks would become special memories and life lessons that would always remain with us, not only because of what our father had taught us, but also because of the closeness we felt with him during those unforgettable times we spent discovering nature’s gifts.
As anyone who has experienced life on a farm can attest, there are few experiences in life that can match the sense of awe provided by the world of nature, such as observing that tattered old duck being protected by a flock of geese or sitting in the woods on that fallen tree with my father and sisters, surrounded by autumn’s pageantry. Discovering nature’s treasures together provided us with inner peace and security ... and bonds that transcended anything money could buy.
Although Cathey Frei now writes from her home overlooking the woods in northern Virginia, those walks through the woods on her grandmother’s farm in northwest Mississippi are among her fondest childhood memories.