“Go out and walk. That is the glory of life.”Maria Kalman
The flower fairies showed up in the woods and their timing couldn’t have been better.
Trying to cope with “all this” is a cycle of creativity, frustration, freedom, rage, delight, shock, disappointment, joy… You know this – you’re living it yourself. Every day I have to find my feet, get my bearings, and look for small joys to get from one day to the next.
Children don’t always have the forethought, or agency to shake off stress or even understand why they might feel out of sorts. Parents are so burdened right now, juggling so many things. No matter how you’re doing during the pandemic, if you’re a parent, you’re challenged like few others, and like never before.
More than ever, it is time for Nana and Pa to show up, and help our two grandkids run off energy and frustration, connect with nature, and find moments of joy in the great outdoors, abundant here in Portland.
For most of the quarantine, visits to our house and backyard was enough, and caution kept us hunkered down. Now that online school and work from home means more screen time, hiking is a priority wherever it feels safe. Fall colors came in as wet and cold loomed ahead, and by mid-October cabin-fever reached a pitch. We started our grandkid days with outdoor adventures.
I use the word “hiking” lightly. With children that usually means running, sauntering, skipping, tripping lightly, dodging here and there, moving sideways, retracing steps, off-roading, and stopping at the sight of something unexpected – a stick, a bug, tree sap, peeling tree bark, a pod of berries, a branch to climb on, a bird swooping by, a distant mountain, or a signpost with the history and geology of the area, full of pictures and heroic adventure.
We took each kid on a solo trip to Hoyt Arboretum, and each had a different approach to the walk. In common was the urge to run at a breakneck speed along winding paths, delighting in the open boundaries and fresh air, swerving only for passersby, and to put masks on.
The six year old’s route was a squiggle and zig zag, choosing paths based on whim, an intriguing view ahead, or off-road rule breaking, accompanied by the maniacal laugh of a scofflaw. The map of his walk shows his quirky desire to move headlong down a random maze of paths (some new to me even after all my years at the arboretum.) Something only a grandparent has the time for, and we’ve been thrilled to show up for that.
He has always been fascinated by nature, gardens, and dirt in general, and was happy to stop and examine the details of leaf shapes, tree sizes, the changes from green to gold and flame, and check out variations on berries and seed pods, in the tree and on the ground. Showing up meant slowing when he lingered, speeding up for the next shiny target, saying yes to getting dirty and sticky in his full-body explorations, occasionally pointing out phenomena, and answering his questions as best I could.
We had a long mesmerizing pause in the action when he noticed a tree covered in hard but still sticky sap, and got caught up pulling off the sap icicles. (It turns out hand sanitizer is great at removing tree sap and mud.) Showing up meant discussing and exploring the sap and trees’ natures, but when my interest inevitably ran out before his, I could take the time to consider breath, sky, and earth – more my speed.
The eight year old on the other hand, is an analytical and social girl who likes a plan and craves order, as her hike map illustrates. Showing up for her meant following maps and signposts, listening to a running narrative about her latest endeavors, thoughts, hopes, and watching her imaginary play as we went along (“Swallows and Amazons” is big right now). Unlike her brother, she has little interest in looking left or right, and gave a passing nod to nature’s display, perhaps to please me. A map of her thoughts might be more revealing than a map of her steps.
Her eureka moment of connection to nature happened when we found a “fairy tree” full of low sturdy branches, perfect for climbing and swinging on. Finally, nature was showing up for her with a purpose.
When we all hiked together, their interests, ideas, and fantasies melded and changed our outings. The first delight at Orenco Woods Nature Park stopped us in our tracks – the magical presence of tall looming sculptures built of willow and dogwood branches (Patrick Dougherty http://www.stickwork.net/). Faces with large eyes and jaunty hats towered overhead, casting a spell over us. The stage was set, running in and through the sculptures, then settling contentedly into the delightfully soft dirt below a stand of towering old growth Douglas Firs. She spent hours building fairy houses, making fairy dust, and he, excavating tunnels and exploring tree sap. Both excelled at flinging sticks of all sizes.
It took a grandparental nudge, but finally we set off on the meandering paths of the 42 acre park, where a great blue heron showed up for us. Breathing in swamp scent, we found more sticks, and picnicked on the grass.
It was on the next hike that we found proof of the fairies. A mysterious flower fairy has been creating natural mandalas at the nearby 32 acre Woods Park. Keeping an eye out for fairy signs, the kids tore off down the narrow paths, choosing which fork to follow based on a combination of pure impulse and sign reading.
Not only did we find the mandala, but also a fairy doorway into a tree, and messages left for the fairy suspended from branches! While the six year old was captivated by following the creek, the eight year old dreamed up a Fairy Club for the four of us, complete with a meeting place, rules, and tasks. Showing up was merely keeping up and listening.
Dickinson Park is mostly open green space bordered by a small brambly wetland forest with an understory of fallen trees, branches, rampant ivy, blackberries, and ferns. The enthusiastic six year old ducked into a hole into the wild maze of a faint trail and we followed as best we could. The air was close, the ground damp, and us three older members hesitated, ducked, and tried to avoid brushy entrapment as he ran heedlessly through, jumping over stepping stones in the creek, and rashly climbing steep banks without hesitation.
Holding back branches and snags for the nervous eight year old, we decided that this was not a Fairy Forest at all, but Witchy Woods. We made our way out to open sky and a long grassy hill, perfect for more running and less bushwhacking. Showing up was a melange of protecting and encouraging.
At Rooster Rock State Park the wide blue Columbia River rolls along between Oregon and Washington. We had miles of beach to ourselves, and while we immersed ourselves in wet sand, mud, rocks, and long stairways, I wasn’t fully prepared; not being able to swim in the cold water, and no shovels or buckets proved frustrating. Next time I’ll allow them to get wet and sandy and cold, and have the things we need to plunge into the elements and recover before the drive home. Still, the long views of the Columbia Gorge to the east and west left a feeling of having the world all to ourselves.
We stopped at Vista House, perched above the Gorge on a vertical cliff, drawing gasps from the kids. Here the views are even longer, and we could see that the wild Pacific Northwest and their beautiful home state is full of promise and potential for the next adventure. We just have to show up.
Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them. It leaves us free to think without being wholly lost in our thoughts.Rebecca Solnit