by Denny Olson
I didn’t know it at the time, but I had a very lucky childhood. Actually, like most testosterone-riddled boys, I’m probably lucky to have survived it. I grew up in a tiny Minnesota town, about two blocks from what turned out to be the state’s first “wild and scenic” river. North on Main Street to the last corner, there was a path, a portal, to another world, and from another age. Nine thousand years earlier, the glacial melt-water from what turned out to be Lake Superior had carved a canyon deep into hard, semi-metamorphosed orange sandstone, fluting the canyon walls with nooks, crannies and caves. They were magical to the eye, and to a little boy’s spirit. Next to my town, a proverbial stone’s throw, a short-lived, building-stone quarry had been blasted into the canyon walls at the end of the nineteenth century.
Sixty years after the quarry’s closing, and localized economic crash, the river canyon and the fossil quarry were being assimilated by vegetation and curious boys. The hundred-fifty foot sheer quarry walls, slick with springs and moss, were the scene of many dares and daredevil exploits – some of which my Mom did not know about until decades later. Upriver, there were clear springs full of edible cresses, Gaudi-esque fluted sandstone walls, with names of hundreds of rock formations invented by us, describing the geography of our childhood. There was a large ice-crack cave, full of Little Brown Myotis bats, and the scene of many expeditions to prove the existence of new rooms and treasures far back though some secret passage. We never found it. Old names, grandfathers and grandmothers of my cohorts, were etched into the rock at the far end, proof that the quest had been going on for many decades.
Our favorite “fort”, as we always called our hideouts, had a rock floor and roof overhead, and was perched far above the lower canyon. It was only accessible by climbing a tree, and was nearly invisible from below. From here we watched deer, porcupines, beavers, foxes and once, a bear, explore and forage near the river. A small nook with a constant water drip at the far corner served as our refrigerator, proof to us that our house was just about perfect.
There were breaks in our explorations as we were distracted by other important play, but we always returned. The place had too much hold on us. We floated rafts made from logs down the river, hacked away brush and constructed elaborate toboggan runs in the winter, and generally played Huck Finn and Nessmuk year-round.
Thirty-six years later I visited the site of our most elaborate toboggan run. The old roadbed had again grown in with brush and small trees. In one of the larger trees I found my own hatchet, rusted and long forgotten, stuck in a tree exactly where I had put it decades ago. The tree trunk had grown around the hatchet to the point where it was almost swallowed. I imagined that the tree wanted a souvenir for its own historical record of the adventures of exploring boys. This was further proof that the place was truly, and eternally, ours. By that time, I had refined that notion to include that I also belonged to the place, and the tree, it seemed. The reciprocal nature of that relationship had enriched my life far beyond what I knew at the time.
There is zero doubt in my mind that this place was, and is, the reason for my degrees in biology and a life profession of nature education. I was, and am today, completely and hopelessly, bonded to nature. Whenever I visit woods, mountains, lakes and rivers, and can be alone there, I feel safe, content, happy, alert, and an overwhelming sense of belonging.
And, who does not belong to the place from which we rose, and to where we shall return? This, I think, points to a very ancient, subconscious genetic understanding that nature – where we have spent ninety-nine percent of our pre-historical time as a species – is our true home. The peopled, indoor, urban world we have created is only a small fraction of the story of us.
To children, the value of outdoor experiences in natural surroundings is an immeasurable resource – one capable of saving the world — one changed life at a time. That’s why I’m “Audubon”, and Audubon is me.