Growing Up Wild
By Meg Harbin
Hiking provides a splendid opportunity to learn more about our children. We are gifted a chance to witness them stretch their limits and delight in new-found confidences. The piece below is a reflection on a hike my son and I took together up to Len Foote Hike Inn near Amicalola Falls in northern Georgia last Independence Day, just after his thirteenth birthday. The experience itself was a beautiful metaphor of parenting a child through coming of age, and how we all do best to learn how to lean on each other through a process of interdependence.
Eve of In(ter)dependence
I’m writing on the back of a map the guide gave us at the bottom of the mountain
It’s all I have available for contemplation–
Every journal I own stands blank, forgotten upon a bookshelf
Three hours hike and over one hundred miles drive from where we’ve settled in to rest for the night.
You’re reading quietly on the bunk above me-
A field guide for wildflowers and trees of the South East,
Not exactly the one you’ve begged for this past year, but better all the same-
Most every page now knows your fingerprints as you’ve thumbed your way through photographs of Fireweed and Daisy Flea Bane to name the flowering branches that crossed our path.
The hike was steep and rocky in patches.
At one point we found ourselves on the face of the mountain, and we welcomed the view;
Terrain dropping layers in the distance,
Fallen hardwoods harboring whole habitats for fungi-
They resembled oysters, or more like barnacles on the belly of some great ship or whale.
Soon after, you announced the time, estimated the distance, the rate of ground covered-
And I groaned with disappointment, so used to moving quickly on my walks back home, on steadier inclines, without the added weight of our possessions on my back.
“How are we doing?” you asked. “Are we doing badly?” Your voice was light-hearted; I could hear your smile.
“Well…no…” I stammered.
“Okay,” you laughed over your shoulder, “then we’re doing great!”
And I laughed, because, yes, you’re right.
We’re doing great; no need to judge ourselves by the average pace of others, lessons I’ve strived to teach you.
Now you remind me.
Flipping through the photos I took on the trek, there must be ninety shots of mushrooms, snails, slugs-
We tunneled our way through groves of Fraser Magnolia,
Air damp and heavy with scents of peppery sage, boggy flora, wild onion.
Crimson caps climbed out of craggy crevices,
Sunburst tentacles erupted from day-glow green moss-
Proof of tiny worlds within our own,
Magic beneath our feet.
And still another series of decaying trees, twisted roots, and tangled vines.
Gnarled roots snaked through upturned earth, groping for sky or air or water, perhaps each other.
I scanned for danger in every coiled curve.
We passed the knobby smooth elbow of a broken limb
Deep within the hallowed air of ceremony-
A graveyard for fallen giants.
I am entranced with the beauty in this destruction, the decomposition
Of old growth,
For new life
Janisse Ray’s words fall open beside me:
“There are places to say what’s too big
To be said in smaller places.”
We spoke these truths as we moved through the woods together-
Shortening - then lengthening - my gait to match yours,
Each of us alternately taking lead.
You know without permission it is ok to run ahead now on your own,
Discovering the trail as it unfolds,
Traveling as far as you desire,
But knowing that if too long passes without sight or sound of you,
I will break the peace of these conifers, these sassafras, these hickories.
My voice will ring out, echoing with flight of startled birds.
Afterward, we sat in Adirondacks
The earth falling away below us,
Thistle and Astrid and Eastern Hemlock
Tumbling toward the fading horizon.
You fretted over a hovering bee and folded yourself into my shoulder.
Then – my God, do you remember when-
That bee landed on your knee and crawled around?
You looked at me then,
Amazement winning over panic, with realization that sometimes
When you get close enough to touch your fear,
If you allow the whisper of its delicate insect legs to dance upon your skin,
You don’t always get stung.
And even when pain pierces your defenses, well.
Sometimes it is worth it
To know the fluttering of wings.