Tracking Down Bambi



Not long ago, my daughter earned herself some cartoon time: She hiked to the local aspen grove all by herself, a couple of miles or so, stepping stones and all, which meant that Daddy Mule got to stroll the raspberry trail smooth and easy—not a single pound of the 40+ I usually lug around for at least a portion of any given hike. So, on the way home, we stopped at the video store for a bag of complimentary popcorn and — no princesses this time — a copy of “Bambi.”

We’ve all seen it. Cute bunnies. Cute skunks. Cute birds. Cute deer. The whole gang of them “twitterpating” just off camera when the sap starts rising each spring. And even if you haven’t seen it, the movie is so iconic that everybody knows that Bambi’s momma gets shot by a hunter — presumably anyway, as we only hear the gunshot and never see mother doe again — and that there’s a raging forest fire somewhere in the mix. And the rest is easy to imagine: forests, meadows, waterfalls and mountains right out of an Albert Bierstadt painting — real purty scenery actually, all of it hand painted and easy on the eyes.

Kids everywhere (or at least those kids with access to first world technology and lazy parents who occasionally resort to the electric screen babysitter so they can do some quick twitterpating in the other room) probably assume that the high drama they’re watching is unfolding within whatever mountains are nearest to them, be they the Sierras, the Rockies, the Appalachians or the Alps, or maybe just the nearest hills or bit of woods behind the tract homes. What kid doesn’t dream about a bit of wild nature somewhere close by?

Hollywood can crank out the special effects, but they are HORRIBLE at accurately portraying proper seasons or setting, especially in movies where it actually matters, such as westerns, road trips or anything set in the great outdoors. Saguaro cactus in Nevada. The Tetons of New Mexico. Covered wagons rolling through Monument Valley, Nebraska. Kevin Costner skinning a buffalo in the shadow of the mountains towering above Dodge City, Kansas. A montage of farm life — plowing, planting, irrigating and harvesting — unfolding entirely in the month of May. Such errors are the rule, not the exception, and rare is the movie that even bothers to take geography or basic biology into account.

Surprisingly, “Bambi,” a 70-year-old cartoon, is more accurate in many of these respects than the average trillion-dollar blockbuster, a rarity that allows us the chance to do a bit of scientific research. Where are those mountains? Where does Bambi actually live? By closely examining the cartoon’s geology, flora and fauna, we can determine just where the world’s most-famous deer made his claim to fame.

The original story, written in Austria in 1923, featured a roe deer, a species native to Europe and Asia Minor. In the movie, Bambi is a white-tailed deer, originally found only in the Western Hemisphere, although they have been introduced into Europe, which means Bambi could possibly browse the grasses of the Alps or Scandinavia. But the movie was made in 1942 — wartime — so even though Mr. Disney didn’t care for Jews, patriotism and practical capitalism surely dictated that old Walt didn’t make a movie about an adorable little ungulate from, say, the German or Italian Alps, the occupied French Alps, the Communist Urals or Siberian boreal forest — ditto for the flanks of Mt. Fuji. Bambi is certainly an American, or possibly a Canadian, deer.

Most of the story is set in the woods, and forest scenes reveal much about Bambi’s natural habitat. Large swaths of the forest are evergreen in nature, and the predominance of towering conifers rules out hardwood forests in the Ozarks and most of the Appalachians. These trees are big, but not mammoth in girth like coastal redwoods or the Douglas firs of the northwest, which points to forests farther east — most likely the Rockies or maybe the high plateaus of Arizona or Utah (unlikely — those aren’t big enough to be Ponderosa pines either), perhaps even the northern Appalachians. One could argue that the trees are small because Bambi roams a secondary-growth forest in Northern California or the Cascades, but the fact that there are plenty of tall dead snags in the canopy, as well as a complete lack of logging roads or clear-cuts shows us that this forest and its (relatively) humble conifers is most likely an unlogged forest featuring trees of medium girth, which sounds an awful lot like your average chunk of Rocky Mountain old growth.

I’m a Colorado boy at heart, so my first thought was that Bambi hailed from the Centennial State, for the dark green forest is a dead ringer for some of my favorite groves of Engelmann spruce and sub-alpine fir. But the utter lack of mountain bikers and trail runners points elsewhere. Somewhere with bigger wilderness and fewer people: Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, maybe even Alaska. Bambi hails from the Northern Rockies!

One problem with that hypothesis: Bambi is “Prince of the Forest.” Assuming the King of the Forest is some kind of large predator, then the Prince of western forests would be a large herbivore — an elk, or a moose or even a caribou, but certainly not a measly deer. And speaking of predators, there are none. No wolves. No bears. No mountain lions. Not even a bobcat or a coyote or even a fox. Bambi occupies a food chain devoid of top-level carnivores, which probably accounts for the outrageously long (spring, summer and fall) deer-hunting season.

At a glance, the missing predators rule out a home for Bambi out West, but things might not be as they seem. Mountain lions roam everywhere west of the high plains, including the suburbs, but how many of us have been lucky enough to see one? Not me. And wolves? I’ve backpacked a few times in prime (reintroduced) wolf habitat, both north and south, but, sadly, saw no sign of the creatures. My hometown in Colorado is chock full of wildlife now — bears in the Pizza Hut dumpsters, coyotes on the golf course, foxes denning under the garage — but, during my childhood (thanks to the nearly extinct ranchers who shot or trapped anything that moved), a coyote or fox sighting was a remarkable event, and bears were completely unheard of. Could it be that Bambi might live in a gentler patch of the Rockies — the Little Belts, the Salt Range or the Cochetopa Hills — circa 1940 or so, and the predators are just being elusive and avoiding redneck rifles?

Perhaps, were it not for some GIGANTIC oak trees. Not scrub oaks mind you, but majestic oaks with sprawling canopies and holes in the trunks where grumpy talking owls nest. As far as I know, the only Western state with oaks like that is California, one of just a handful of states with no white-tailed deer, which definitely pushes Bambi farther east. Plus the mountains aren’t actually that big: the only panorama in the movie reveals rolling green mountains with nary an acre of tundra, more like the “old” mountains back east. Not to mention the fireflies, technically found nowhere west of the tall-grass prairie.

So where does Bambi live? Mellow, rolling mountains. Some hardwoods and large oaks, but mostly tall conifers that aren’t too big. Plenty of deer and possums, but no elk or big predators. April rain showers instead of heavy late-season, pass-closing snow. Blossoming fruit trees in spring rather than mud and thawing dog shit. I hate to admit it, but bad-ass Bambi, Prince of the Forest, is an easterner who watched over a remote chunk of the Adirondacks or northern Vermont.

Pagan Page Turners

Elsie reading

Like most of you, my wife and I are avid readers, and we’re doing our best to instill our daughter with an appreciation of books, poems and most anything else printed on a page (other than magazines with Hannah Montana or equivalent on the cover — that battle is still a few years away). So far, it seems to be working, as she’s always eager to visit the library or bookstore, and our half-hour of bedtime stories has become a nightly ritual that the whole crew looks forward to.

This is good for all of us, for a number of reasons. First, story-time provides mom and/or dad a chance to bond with their daughter in a quiet and intimate, occasionally even meditative, setting. No matter how crazy the day, or how absent (physically or otherwise) the parents have been, all of us can count on some quality family time at the end of the day.

Second, study after study shows that the most important indicator of academic success — more than quality of teachers or income level or anything else — is whether or not children are read to by their parents. To be sure, good grades and strong literacy don’t always translate into a high standard of living — check out “Wheel Well for a Pillow” or a hundred other essays right here on the Mountain Gazette website for example — but they do allow one the ability to indulge slacker/freedom-loving tendencies and make vows of poverty based on a full assessment of life’s possibilities rather than the limited options of television brain or straight-up illiterate ignorance.

Finally, these bookish moments give us a chance to instill our daughter with values that we — Pagan Parents — feel that she will benefit from throughout her life. If that sounds preachy, well, it probably is, as millions of religious-fundamentalist parents around the world saturate their kids with (what I think is) sometimes hateful nonsense for the very same reason, but that’s what loving parents are hard wired to do: Raise their kids to become the best people that they can be, and no two families or cultures are ever going to agree on the details of that monumental task.

That said, most of the books that we read to our daughter have little to do with “values” and everything to do with cuteness, or fun, or knowledge, or maybe just the blessing of being swept away by some good storytelling. To be sure, almost any kid book is going to have some kind of moral in there somewhere, even if it’s something as basic as being sure to brush your teeth or occasionally sending a letter to brighten Grandma’s day, but not many of them pack the kind of POWERFUL PUNCH that teaches kids about the big lessons — life, death, love and connection to Earth — in a beautiful and interesting manner. Such books can be found in New Age or local bookstores in remnant hippy towns, or at the gift shop at ye olde national park, but few of today’s best-selling or award-winning children’s books explore our relationship to natural systems in a meaningful way. A recent study that explored over 8,000 images contained in 70 years worth of award-winning children’s books (the revered Caldecott Medal, to be specific) revealed a marked decline in books that include images of nature. I’m not talking about overtly “green” books that try to instill knowledge about recycling or warn about species extinction either, but books that simply contain depictions of natural settings or even animals, wild or otherwise, within them.

Well, so, big deal? Kids can always get their dose of nature from actually going outside and playing, correct? I think we can all agree that building forts and climbing trees is more important than reading books about nature, but the problem is that kids are actually spending much less time outside than ever before. Overall, they spend more time engaging “electronic media” (primarily video games, the internet and television) than any other activity other than sleeping, and, increasingly, their recreational activities take place in an indoor setting (ballet lessons and gymnastics, for example). When they are outside, they aren’t swimming in the river or catching frogs so much as participating in organized (read: supervised) activities in manicured settings (soccer in the park, ski lessons at the resort).

To be sure, any physical activity is better than none, so I’m not knocking soccer or gymnastics, but the lack of hands-on time exploring actual pockets of nature, coupled with the urbanization of our culture in general (currently 80% of Americans live in an urban setting, compared to 50% in 1920) and a sharp decrease in popular children’s books featuring natural settings impacts more than just individual children. Over time, it leads collective lack of appreciation for the natural world, and a cultural disconnect from the creatures, habitats, ecosystems and natural cycles that keep us alive. Even worse, as society disengages from direct encounters with Ma Nature, our subsequent ignorance of it can spur feelings of fear — fear of the coyotes or mountain lions in the bits of forest at the edge of town (where kids used to build forts), fear of the homeless people who may be lurking in the creekside willows (where kids used to fish), fear of wildfires, or killer bees, or spider bites, or bacteria — all of which boils down to fear of the unknown. This dread isn’t likely to create kids who grow up to become conservation voters, let alone monkey-wrenchers or civil-disobedients, and may in fact do the exact opposite, as people who see nothing but dark omens in the woods or spooky swamps are surely more likely to cheer when they are bulldozed or drained to make way for a tidy tract-home subdivision.

The array of ecological problems facing our world have not been caused by a lack of panoramic landscape paintings in our children’s books, but one way to help stave off complete ecological collapse is to raise children in a manner that nurtures their natural love for all things wild and free, and one way to do so is to expose them to books that plant seeds of Earthly awareness in their impressionable young minds. To this end, I’ve compiled a list of ten books every Pagan Parent would enjoy borrowing from the library or purchasing for their midget eco-warrior’s bookshelf.

Keep in mind that my daughter is not quite five years old, so this particular list reflects parental read-alouds to very young children, although older kids can certainly read them on their own. They are generally chock full of illustrations, many of them quite exceptional in beauty and execution, and none of them should take more than 10 minutes for a read-aloud before bed; we average about four of these sorts of books during our half-hour of bedtime stories.

There’s surely an entirely separate list of books suitable for older kids that we haven’t come across yet, and I hope that other parents or nostalgic adults will fill me in on some worthwhile reads for elementary and middle school kids. Also, this list comes straight off of our own bookshelf or that of our friends or the Taos Public Library, and is not meant to serve as an official list of the best dirtbag/tree hugger children’s books or anything like that; it is simply a reflection of our own reading journey. There are surely hundreds of other good ones I’ve missed, so please feel free to share your own suggestions in the comment section below.

In no particular order:

“The Lorax,” by Dr. Seuss (1971)

The granddaddy of them all, and, fortunately, the one nature book just about every kid in America is familiar with. Dr. Seuss books often depict fantasy worlds rather than the real one (although, if you’ve ever wandered around Joshua Tree on a moonlit night under the influence of, well, never mind …), and the Lorax is no exception, but at the same time, beneath the surreal nature of the flora and fauna, this book is a concise summary of two centuries of ecocide in the name of making a buck, a.k.a. the Industrial Revolution, and a searing critique of the rise of multinational corporations like, say, Monsanto, Boise-Cascade and Exxon-Mobil, all of which have no qualms about devouring entire ecosystems in one fell swoop and leaving behind wrecked landscapes and ghost towns.

You all know the story, but here it is anyway: Old-growth Truffula forests provide habitat for a diverse array of mammals, fish and avian life. A pioneer-like fellow, the Once-ler arrives (Seuss’ version of the fur trapper, miner and mule or sodbuster) in his wagon and chops down a Truffula tree, which he turns into a thneed — a useless product that folks back in civilization decide they simply must  have. Before long, he’s built up a thneed empire that thrives due to mechanical advances that lead to wholesale clear-cutting of the seemingly endless expanse of Truffula trees that support the entire operation. There’s byproducts of course — toxic sludge, smog and habitat loss — but those externalities are borne by the wildlife such as the starving Barbaloots and the choking Swomee-Swans, who, faced with extinction, migrate out of the area, never to be seen again. But that’s all right. It’s a boom! Business must grow! Biggering, biggering, BIGGERING THE MONEY!

Biggering, that is, until the resource is gone and the market collapses, leaving behind a wasteland of stumps and shuttered Truffula smelters and thneeed sweatshops so common in boom-and-bust economies dependent on a single, non-renewable natural resource. Could be mill towns in Oregon. Could be open-pit copper mines in Arizona. Could be the dead dry farming towns on the High Plains. Or drought-stricken ski towns in the year 2040. Or Eastern civilization in general, grinding to a halt … the survivors wandering the Grickle Grass wastelands, wondering what went wrong.

UNLESS. And that’s the kicker. UNLESS. A glimmer of hope. UNLESS we decide to change our ways and heed the Lorax. Quit trashing the planet for 1001 varieties of discount thneeds.  Plant some seeds in the scorched Earth, some seeds of hope. This book hit me like a punch in the gut at age five or so. May it continue to punch kids in the gut for years to come.

“Mother Earth and her Children,” by Sibylle Von Olfers.
Illustrated by Seiglinde Schoen Smith (1906).

If the potential for ecological apocalypse prophesized by the Lorax seems a little heavy right before bed, then follow it up with this little gem — a simple celebration of the seasons. Written in Germany in1906, this poem follows the rounds of the Earth Children who awaken beneath the Earth (the story was originally entitled “Something About Root Children”) toward the end of winter and go straight to work readying things for the spring thaw. They sew flower petals, paint beetles and ladybugs and tidy things up under the watchful eye of Mother Earth (the quintessential old woman sipping tea and doing some needlepoint) before climbing out and into the spring sun … a parade of life emerging from the soil. They hang out with ants and bees, skip among the flowers and have a frolicking good time until autumn comes with a blast of cold wind and forces them to return to the Earth for a long winter’s nap.

A swell story, obviously timeless, but it’s the artwork in this one that really makes the book special, for the illustrations are actually close-up photographs of an elaborate quilt created by a mother grieving over the death of her son. In her sadness, she remembered this tale from her German childhood, and created a quilt that told the story using elaborately embroidered images from the original storybook. The result — the entire quilt is displayed at the end of the book — is an amazingly intricate hand-sewn depiction of the passage of the four seasons.

“First Snow in the Woods,” by Carl Sams and Jean Stoick (2007)

The cover of this books says it’s a “photographic fantasy,” but I only agree with the “photographic” part, as the story itself is a mostly realistic depiction of a young fawn’s experience of his first snowstorm. The story starts in late summer: bird songs, dragonflies, hummingbirds and the like, and moves into autumn and the first frost of the year, as seen through the eyes of the nameless fawn. There are big changes afoot, and all the animals are either leaving or prepping for some event the fawn can’t wrap his head around. Meanwhile, mother doe says nothing and just keeps munching acorns and keeping an eye on the fawn and the weather. One night, the Great Gray Owl swoops into the neighborhood and announces “creatures of the forest prepare! The first winter storm is here.” And so it was, and although our little fawn had been nervous about whatever it was that was coming, it turns out that he was, without knowing it, already preparing for winter (by growing a thick coat and loading up on nuts) and that his ma knew just where to go when the storm got rough.

Entertaining, at least if you have any interest in this sort of thing (and kids automatically do), and informational too, as it reveals the transition from fall to winter quite well, but this story really stands out for three reasons. First, this book consists entirely of photographs, and they are well rendered beauties that capture the essence of this particular place (somewhere in Michigan) perfectly: the northern lights; dew on a dragonfly’s wing; goldenrod glowing in the sunrise light; a family of deer in the snow. Second, that essence of place is shown in a nuanced way that reveals subtle aspects of the season (such as the first frost silencing the dragonflies) as well as lesser-known creatures that don’t always make it into the storybooks, like chickadees and woodchucks. Finally, the fact that the fawn is watching all of this unfold — watching and learning — is a lesson that’s sure to stick with your little Pagan and make him or her look at things a little more closely during your next foray into the woods.

“Sky Tree,” by Thomas Locker (1995)

Edward Abbey once said something to the effect that if you sat out on a slab of rimrock for a year, just sat there and soaked it all up — blistering sun, blizzards, starlight, floods, gentle rains, everything in between — you would become a god. I happen to agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment, which means, by that measure at least, that we’re surrounded by all sorts of living creatures who have undergone that trial hundreds of times in their lives.

I’m talking about trees of course, those berooted and patient watchmen of the forest, the desert, the just about every ecosystem other than sand dunes or the truly tremendous grasslands of the world. It seems like a boring life, just standing there and watching the world unfold, but as this deceptively simple book explains, the life of a tree is quite adventurous. The book consists of 14 paintings of a non-specific deciduous tree growing on a knoll next to a river. Each painting captures an aspect of the four seasons and is accompanied by a sentence or two that tells a quick story about what is happening. It starts with summer — full green glory, then eases into a late summer storm, the changing leaves and the first frost, right on through winter and spring and back to summer. Birds pass through, stars sparkle through the branches. You get the idea.

The cover of the book says “seeing science through art,” and I suppose observing the seasons via the life of a single tree is actually quite scientific, but in reality it’s just that: Reality, and one that kids everywhere used to know without having to read about it in a book. Nevertheless, it is a beautiful book that tells a story that any kid will enjoy.

“The Little House,” by Virginia Lee Burton (1942)

In 1979, the cartoonist R. Crumb created a series of drawings called “A Short History of America,” consisting of 12 panels that began with an idyllic chunk of forest and meadow in Anywhere USA and ended with that same spot after it had been transformed into one of 10 billion possible roadside strips laden with mini-malls, fast food and all the rest. In between were panels showing each step along the way … roads, railroads, powerlines, and the last big tree unceremoniously giving way to a convenience store.

“The Little House” is basically a kids’ version of Crumb’s masterpiece of a cartoon, and is a masterpiece of its own. The book starts with — you guessed it — a little house on a farm way out in the country. The sun and moon pass over again and again. The seasons change. The kids grow up. And the lights of the distant city get a little bit brighter. One day the steam shovels arrive and force an arrow-straight road through the rolling hills and right past the house. Suddenly, there are cars and people rushing by, then houses being built all around as the farm get developed, followed by tenements, railroads, subways, skyscrapers, freeways … and the poor little house is abandoned and surrounded by the industrial age and all its trappings, unable to see the stars or even tell what time of year it is.

Fortunately, there’s a happy ending, as the great-great-granddaughter of the fellow who built the house recognizes it from a photo and decides to purchase it. After all, it’s a well-built house that simply needs a little love and some fresh air. So they halt traffic and haul it out of the nameless city and out into the country once again.

A Hollywood ending perhaps, since we all know that today’s farmland is tomorrow’s exurbs, or just as bad, today’s crystal methville, but kids need to know that there are some places left to escape to. Best of all, the tale is blatantly anti-development, but in an understated way. The house just sits there and watches the nightmare of 20th century industrialization and sprawl unfold (quite visionary actually, since it was written in 1942), never getting depressed or pissed about it all — just confused and a little sad. Meanwhile, readers do get melancholy, perhaps even a bit angry, for we know full well that something about this tale just isn’t right, and we breathe a collective sigh of relief when the house ends up back in the country again.

“Frog and Toad All Year,” by Arnold Lobel (1976)

I picked this one at random because ALL four of the “Frog and Toad” books should be added to your child’s bookshelf immediately. Frog and Toad are two pals who hang out and sometimes have adventures. None of the books takes place completely in nature — they sometimes sit inside and sip tea and tell scary stories or clean up a messy house for example — but in the end they are amphibians, so much of their life unfolds out of doors, and they have plenty of fun. They swim in rivers, plant gardens, go sledding, seek solitude on islands, climb mountains and generally live the kind of life any kid born before 1975 took for granted.

The outdoor adventures are good, but the “Frog and Toad” books use these adventures to teach important lessons in a very nuanced and non-preachy way. Sledding takes courage. Gardening involves patience. Lost buttons on the trail can reveal deeply rooted anger issues. Swimming in a silly bathing suit can cause others to laugh at you … but don’t let the snake/dragonfly/turtle/bird bastards get you down. And always remember that spring really is right around the corner.

“The Giving Tree,” by Shel Silverstein (1964)

You probably all know this short and simple tale, but if you haven’t, then STOP READING THIS RIGHT NOW and go find yourself a copy, as I don’t want to spoil it for you. For the rest of you, here’s a synopsis: A kid grows up in the protective and loving shade of a large apple tree. He climbs it, talks to it and eats its fruit, and the kid and the tree form a special bond not unlike that of a child and parent. As the boy ages, he visits the tree less and less, but the tree is infinitely patient and is always glad to see him, even if he comes with his girlfriend to carve their initials in the tree’s bark. As the boy becomes a man, he rarely visits at all, and one day he arrives and tells the tree he needs to cut her down to use the wood to build a boat. The tree obliges and gives up all but her stump so the boy can sail off. Years later, the boy returns as an old and weary man. The tree is glad to see him but says she has nothing left to offer. The man says he just needs a place to rest, so he sits on the stump, just him and the tree once again.

Like the Lorax, my ma read “The Giving Tree” to me at age five and it hit me in the gut in a similar way. Bam. We harm the Earth and its creatures and take and take and take. Bam. But there is a love that’s bigger than our selfishness and meanness, a love that transcends our pettiness and short sightedness. Bam. The One True Love. The unconditional love of our actual mother AND Mother Earth that gives all and keeps giving, no matter what we do to her, all because she knows that eventually we’ll come around and realize that The Love is the only thing that really matters. If Kahlil Gibran’s “The Prophet” is a concise summary of the best impulses of the world’s religions, than “The Giving Tree” is a perfect distillation of “The Prophet.” Read it and weep.

“Two Little Gardeners,” by Margaret Wise Brown.
Illustrated by Gertrude Elliot (1951)

Remember the “Little Golden Books” and the tell-tale golden shimmer along their spines? Well, back before Barbie and the Disney Princesses foisted themselves upon the publisher, these books were reliably good tales featuring a variety of characters exploring various aspects of 1940s and 1950s America. Pokey Little Puppies breaking out of the yard to see what they can see. Toy tugboats sailing down mighty rivers to the sea. Little Red Cabooses saving the train. Little Postmen delivering cards to grandma. If these books were a little bit white bread (and white skinned), well, they were more a sign of the times than anything, and while the stories may not be multicultural, they are worthwhile, and millions of Americans hold these tales and their images close to their hearts.

Although I didn’t own it as a kid, one of my favorite Little Golden Books these days is “Two Little Gardeners.” Nothing fancy: Spring arrives and a boy and girl haul their tools out of the shed and plant a garden. From there, the book just tells the story of the garden. Roots fattening up beneath the soil. Squash flowers blooming. Worms turning the soil. They weed it, water it, chase away the bunnies and eventually harvest it. They have a big feast and then can the rest, or store it in the root cellar. In the end, they sit in rocking chairs by the fire and sing a song about gardening. Who could ask for more?

“On the Day You Were Born,” by Debra Frasier (1991)

The title sums this one up nicely, as this book tells the kiddos what was happening on Earth and beyond on the day they were born. Not in a “on-this-day-in-history” way, but in a cosmically poetic yet scientific way that lets the little one on your lap know that he or she is part of something truly grand. It starts on the eve of the birth, when the good news is passed from the birds to the whales, to the salmon and all around the Earth, then the sun, moon and stars all move into just the right place to welcome the newborn to the new reality. Indeed, everything welcomes each of us into the world. Gravity promises to keep us from floating away. Waves wash the beaches clean for our footprints. Forests make the oxygen we’ll need. Clouds welcome us with rain.

As with our existence here in these bodies of ours, all the natural processes in this story — photosynthesis, animal migrations, solar flares — might well be meaningless and subject to no laws other than those dictated by physics and chemistry … we’re all islands of existential loneliness floating through space on a ball of rock with no rhyme or reason sort of thing. And that’s fine. I spend at least half my waking hours thinking that’s the way it is, not that it matters what I think.

But at the same time, the fact that we can imagine something different makes that something different possible. And that’s what’s great about this book: It offers up a deeply spiritual view of human life on Earth without ever sounding preachy or hokey. On the day you were born, the sun was fusing atoms deep in its core because that’s what atoms do when subjected to such intense gravitational pull, and the energy produced by that process took the form of heat and light. Or, maybe, the sun really did send out those waves of energy just to light your days as you make your way through life. On the day you were born, the moon was reflecting the light of the sun off its lifeless gray surface as it orbited the Earth because it happened to be in the path of the sun’s rays. Or, maybe, the moon really did promise to grace your windowsill each month with a full and bright face simply because it thinks you are special.

Of course, you’re not special. You’re just the latest manifestation of hominids with opposable thumbs, and you’ll soon be nothing but dust. The same goes for your children, who will figure that out for themselves soon enough. But, until then, read them as many books like this as you possibly can … because, well, a little magic and hope never hurt anybody.

“Books for Young Explorers,” by the National Geographic Society (1972-1982)

When I was a kid, these hardcover books used to arrive in the mail four at a time every few months, and believe me it was an exciting time. These high-quality, full-color nuggets delved into many aspects of the natural world and offered up a kid-friendly version of the same well researched information and amazing photographs you’d find in the magazine itself, minus the naked boobs and starving children.

With titles like these, you know you’re in for some hot Earth-loving action: “Animals That Build Their Homes”; “Life in Ponds and Streams”; “Animals of the High Mountains”; “Explore a Spooky Swamp”; “A Day in the Woods”; “Let’s Go to the Moon”; and the epic “Creepy Crawly Things.” Good stuff. Unfortunately, the last reprint of any of these books occurred in 1995, so they’re no longer available from the publisher. Fortunately for me, my own set of books were boxed up and stored away in my grandparents’ attic where I stumbled upon them just in time to read to my own daughter, who loves them all, including the creepy crawly ones. Fortunately for you, most of these books can be purchased used from the usual online suspects, just be sure you’re getting the actual “Books for Young Explorers,” by National Geographic and not something else. If you’re looking for a way to supplement your family’s nature outings with some good nature reads, then I highly recommend any or all of these books.

That’s it for now. Hope some of you check these out. Please feel free to post your own suggestions below, and happy reading.



Family Yurt Trip

Despite our love for the Rocky Mountains, neither my wife nor I are big fans of winter. We like it up to a point, somewhere around the 5th of January, but after that we start the countdown to the spring thaw and all the good things that arrive with it: gardening, hiking, easy camping and warmth.

Which is fine, or would be, if winter actually ended in January, but the Rockies aren’t known for short and easy winters, and even here in sunny Taos, New Mexico, not far from where the Southern Rockies disappear for good beneath the high desert sagebrush of the Galisteo Basin, the snowy season sticks around in one form or another at least until the official first day of spring, and much longer in the High Country. This means that we are forced, with increasing reluctance as the years go by, to partake in a bit of cross-country skiing or snowshoeing, lest we spend the entire season overindulging in breakfast burritos and books and find ourselves flabby come hiking-boot time.

So, when some friends with a child the same age as ours suggested we spend a long weekend together in a yurt in the South San Juan Mountains, we were game: winter camping without the agonies of winter camping sounded like a blast, and the experience would provide the impetus necessary for us to rise from our asses and engage King Winter on some very agreeable terms. We met up for a potluck dinner, pored over maps and reserved the yurt for two nights. That was around Thanksgiving, and we planned the trip for mid-March, assuming that the odds of sunny weather would be fairly good by then and that the snow pack would be plenty deep and well settled. I also assumed — no, knew deep within my heart — that I would have plenty of time, nearly four months in fact, to spend weekends on skis and snowshoes so that I’d be ready for the big yurt adventure and all that it entailed, namely: dragging a sled laden with gear, supplies and my daughter through the frozen tundra, or at least up a snowbound Forest Service road.

Two weeks later, I dusted off my skinny skis and hit the hills for the first time, hell bent on whipping my rapidly atrophying March-to-November loving body into shape. I stuffed my backpack with 40 pounds of rocks and water jugs designed to mimic the weight of my daughter, strapped it onto my winter-stiff back and powered my way around the outer loop of the local X-country trail, sweating and glad to be alive amongst the Ponderosa pines and fully intending on doing it again in a few days. Christmas came and went, and the New Year, and January, and February, and suddenly the much-anticipated trip was upon us, and while the withering La Niña drought had actually allowed me to ride my mountain bike a few times, I had completely blown off my well-intended winter exercise regimen and was feeling pretty lazy.

Nevertheless, the day arrived, and the deposit was nonrefundable, so we carefully gathered our gear, double, triple, quadruple checked the weather, and caravanned the 90 miles to the trailhead, where we unloaded the car and attempted, for the very first time, to properly secure our child and gear onto the sled. It took nearly an hour to get everything packed and stacked correctly, and when we were finally ready, the wind was blowing kinda chilly and, despite their numerous layers of clothes and snowsuits, the girls — not quite four years old — were already a little cold. I snickered inwardly at my fellow dad’s silly sled, a lame metal saucer that was sure to slide uncontrollably in unexpected directions, then balanced my daughter into my own sleek sled in a cute little chair lashed behind a large backpack full of foodstuffs and camping gear. I hitched a towrope to some mysterious and never-before-utilized nylon loops on the backpack I was wearing and set off up the mountain.

Twenty feet later, the sled tipped over and my daughter tumbled helplessly sideways into the snow. I was proud of this sled — a purple plastic Walmart wonder I had bolted firmly atop my old Simms “Search” snowboard with our best wedding present of all (a industrial-grade cordless drill) — and was slightly dismayed at how quickly it had tipped. I righted my daughter, shifted her position ever so slightly, and blasted ahead, only to immediately feel some resistance from the rope, which turned out to be the sled tipped over and my daughter lying in the snow once more. Three times turned out not to be the charm, so as the rest of the gang watched impatiently, including my buddy with his stable, well balanced and seemingly dependable saucer in tow, I strapped my backpack (lower center of gravity) to the sled, dusted the snow off my daughter and placed her securely in her rickshaw-style carrier on my back, and away we went, across the glimmering white meadow and up the switchbacks of the trail.

On paper — which is to say on a map viewed while drinking beer around a kitchen table in a warm house — the trek to the yurt had looked relatively easy. It was less than five miles in, a distance all of us had snowshoed many times before, occasionally in blizzard or other questionable/psychedelic conditions, and we had chosen the yurt with the least elevation gain, this being a family-style trip and all. Perhaps it was the sedentary winter, or the combination of kid on my back/sled behind me, or just the fact that I’m getting older and slower, but, for whatever reason, the initial climb out of the meadow was grueling beyond all expectation, and by the time I caught up with the rest of the crew, I was huffing and puffing.

Fortunately, that first mile was the hardest part, and the remaining miles appeared to involve minimal contour lines on the map. The “trail” was actually a Forest Service road made even wider than normal by the passage of snowmobiles (some of them effortlessly towing huge U-haul sized sleds probably chock full of steaks and coolers of beer) headed into the hills for some redneck revelry. You would think this might make for easy sailing, this wide and well-packed road, but it didn’t. To be sure, it was easier than breaking trail in fresh powder, especially considering the load I was dragging along, but instead of smoothing the road out, a winter’s worth of snow machines had created endless ripples and icy ruts that kept flipping my pathetic sled on its side.

We trudged ahead, pausing every few minutes for me to flip the sled back to its proper position, and always thinking we were farther along than we were, ready for the next bend to bring us to a landmark or junction that actually turned out to be around another half dozen or so bends. We stopped for a lunch break and to give the kids a chance to pee. Sounds easy, but it wasn’t. They are girls — no easy access — which meant peeling off the snowsuits and layers of long underwear, pushing them as far down their legs as possible, then holding the little ladies upright/leaning them back just enough to avoid tinkling on the important bundle of clothes around their ankles, but not enough to dip their pink behinds in the snow — the whole process made even more challenging and insufferable (for the little girls) by the wind that was blowing off the ridge and whooshing through the woods and between their exposed legs.

We had planned on a leisurely lunch break, but, despite the fact that the adults were hot and sweaty, as soon as we stopped moving, we caught a chill, and this was doubly so for the kids, neither of whom had moved very much at all since we’d started the trek, and both of whom had just been forced to bare their asses to the malicious pinch of Jack Frost. So we aborted the planned luncheon, saddled up and made for the yurt.

The worst of the contour lines were indeed behind us, and the last couple of miles appeared to be mere gentle undulations as we made our way around the side of a hill, but since we were now somewhere north of 10,000 feet above sea level, every step I took required more effort than I had expected, and the slightest of climbs — especially the long and gradual pulls that made up this section of the trail — taxed my body and sapped my energy. Despite the rosy weather forecast, it was now overcast, and the kid on my back began to whine with understandable and righteous indignation about the cold, particularly in the limbs and digits that dangled almost motionless from the backpack in which she sat, making them easy targets for frostbite or at least some serious discomfort.

We paused to assess the situation: kids cold but not quite crying; sky gray and wind blowing but not snowing; closer to the yurt than the vehicles. WHEN IN DOUBT, GO HIGHER. That motto has always made sense to me, and it’s provided me with some of the most memorable experiences of my life, not to mention getting me out of many potential backcountry binds as “higher” usually amounts to a view big enough to figure out exactly where you are and how to get to where you need to be.

But does it apply when there are helpless children involved? On one hand, our concern seemed silly: there’s plenty of daylight left, we’re only a few miles from the cars, it ain’t snowing, and we’re trekking on a ROAD. Indeed, just a few years ago, I would have been embarrassed to be seen wasting my time on this kind of logged-over, snowmobile-laden, civilized sort of trail — a place for tourists from St. Louis rather than Rocky Mountain locals with ample adventures under our belts — and I certainly wouldn’t have questioned my ability to finish the journey. But on the other hand, there was a lot at stake: two little girls with little bodies that could get dangerously cold in short order, and who were still too small and clumsy to navigate the trail on foot and create some body warmth of their own. Of course, barring some complete and unknowable disaster, nobody was going to die, and, in a pinch, there would probably be more snowmobiles passing by before nightfall, but did it make sense to keep going?

We decided that it did, at least this time around, so we mushed along, sure that we were almost there. And we were, more or less. One last punishingly long incline, one final blue diamond nailed to a spruce tree, and we left the road and carefully made our way down a steep stretch of actual narrow snowshoe/ski trail and there it was: The Yurt, sitting stolid and quiet, radiating the promise of shelter and burden-free loafing.

We unpacked and settled in, then completed the handful of chores necessary for our comfort: fetch the (already-split) firewood and chop a bit of kindling; start a fire in the stove and haul in some buckets of snow to melt for drinking water; hang up the clothes to dry; uncork a bottle of wine. Meanwhile, the girls, suddenly freed from the clutches of their rickshaws, forgot all about their cold toes and began bouncing around like rubber balls and exploring every conceivable nook and cranny in the surprisingly small but sufficiently comfortable yurt. Especially exciting were the bunk beds, something neither girl had seen before, which meant that each wooden ladder had to be climbed over and over again, and each bed carefully jumped upon, all to the tune of creaking cast iron stove doors, a crackling fire and the joyous sound of non-stop giggles.

If the jaunt to the yurt had been a woeful tale of physical exertion and the perils of prolonged (almost) middle-aged inactivity followed by a sudden burst of athleticism, then the next 40 or so hours were pleasantly relaxing, or at least decidedly lacking in effort beyond trips to the outhouse or the woodpile. The dads did manage a mellow snowshoe down the hill to check out the creek and some remnant groves of old-growth spruce, and the moms each went on a short solo ski and did some yoga, but for the most part, we all just sat on the porch in the mountain sunshine and swapped stories, or lounged around the yurt and played cards, sifted through the newspaper stack in the wood box for an unsolved crossword puzzle, or made up silly songs to sing to our girls.

As with the tame trail that had brought us here — a trail I would have avoided at all costs at one point in my life — a day-and-a-half of sitting around doing nothing would have seemed horrible to me just a few years ago. In 2006, I’d have been chomping at the bit to get out and explore the area, and would have probably spent an entire day making my way up to the ridgeline for some hard-earned views of the San Juan Mountains, or, had I been forced to stay in the yurt, would have brooded grumpily over the fact that I was cooped up rather than churning out endorphins as I trekked through the woods and figured out the lay of the land.

But this wasn’t 2006, it was 2011, and that five-year span had brought massive transformation to nearly every aspect of my life. Part-time work and plenty of highway and trail mileage, for both my wife and myself, had been utterly derailed by the trinity of marriage, an unexpected honeymoon-prompted pregnancy and a bouncing baby girl, plus the sudden need to work full time, while simultaneously jumping through the hoops necessary to earn a teaching license and the real-world job that such professional licensure implies. Without warning, and long before I could wrap my head around the implications of it all, a life of abundant spare time and completely acceptable procrastination gave way to full-time employment and a busy routine that demand I pencil in rest and recreation, and even plain old exercise, in small, precious doses whenever I could.

It’s a life I’ve always dreaded — a life I didn’t think I wanted and feared I wouldn’t be good at, but, surprise surprise, now that I’m completely mired in the responsibilities and limitations of fatherhood, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Perhaps if I was a younger parent, I might feel resentment over the lost youth and lack of partying and adventure, or, like the twenty-something-year-old parents of so many of my students, would simply put my kid on the back burner while I continued to do what I wanted. Fortunately, I was fated to live out some serious slacker years before I was thrust into the dual role of provider and dad, which means that I was able to work out a few of my issues and visit some interesting places along the way, and now, most of the time anyway, I’m old enough to be aware of what really matters — my family — but still young enough, for a little while longer, to be able to strap a 40-pound child to my back and drag a sled laden with princess underwear, coloring books and other vital supplies over the river and through the woods for a little family adventure.

Looking back on that second day, our only full day at the yurt, I guess it wasn’t all just lounging around. We did manage to do a little sledding, the one thing my Rube Goldberg snowboard contraption excelled at, and we followed a few game trails through the woods, had some snowball fights and made a family of snowpeople: snowman, snowmom and a snowy little girl — the whole lot of them peering longingly at the mountains but plenty happy with the sunny glade that they would call home for the rest of their short lives.

That night, as we hunkered down in the yurt and feasted on s’mores by the light of the Coleman lanterns, the moon rose full and bright as can be from behind the crest of the Brazos Mountains. Our girls, wired on chocolate and marshmallows, ran to the window in the door and began to howl like the wild little wolves that they are. A few minutes later, a fox trotted across the moonlit meadow just outside the yurt, pausing long enough for the girls to step quietly out onto the porch in their pajamas to say hello.

Going to Hell in an Easter Basket

Pagan Parenting Going to Hell in an Easter Basket



Part One: frolicking, fertility, fecundity

When I was growing up, I always felt a bit sorry for the Jehovah’s Witness kids I went to school with. It may have been this way only in my small town, but the ones I knew were kind of odd — booger eaters, hillbillyesqe, either painfully shy and sullen or bouncing off the walls — and this oddness was amplified by the fact that they’d be the only ones in the class sitting during the Pledge of Allegiance, ignoring birthday cake or refusing to cobble together a cookbook for Mother’s Day.

I’m not sure about where the eccentricities came from, but the lack of overt patriotism and holiday cheer was due to the fact that their religion — one of ten billion sects of Christianity/Judaism/Islam that insists it knows something nobody else does — thinks that God, a.k.a. “Jehovah”, does not like sharing his heavenly stage or the attentions of his chosen people with governments, as represented by the Pledge of Allegiance, or false idols, as symbolized by everything from the Tooth Fairy to the Easter Bunny and beyond. Indeed, to a devout Jah Witness, the very existence of these holidays is proof that the devil himself runs the show here on Earth right now, for all of them, Christmas included — Christmas especially — are nothing less than the spiritually toxic remnant of ancient pagan rituals, a.k.a. DEVIL WORSHIP.

It’s easy to laugh at all this, for it sounds as farfetched and paranoid as terrorists hiding behind the couch or back-to-back La Niña winters, but believe it or not, those Jehovah’s Witnesses aren’t just crying wolf. Although most of us aren’t consciously aware of it, our calendar — one of the pillars of any civilization — is a litany of pagan rulers and deities, as most of the months and all seven of the days of the week take their names from icons of olde: July and August named for Roman Emperors; March named for Mars, the Roman god of war; Monday is the Moon’s Day; Thursday is Thor’s Day, the Nordic god of war and thunder; Saturday is Saturn’s day, the Roman god of agriculture and civilization, and on and on, right up to Sunday, a traditional day of Christian worship that falls on the day dedicated to the Sun, that heavenly ball of fire usually personified as The Father or some variation thereof, a myth that predates the Bible story by uncountable centuries.

So it should come as no surprise that a calendar as demonic as ours is riddled with heathen celebrations, many of them rooted in pre-Christian fertility or sacrificial rituals originally designed/evolved to ensure The People did their part to keep the cosmic dramas — rain, sunshine, planting and harvest — rolling along smoothly. We may not sacrifice goats or virgins anymore, but, like it or not, and notice it or not, we collectively continue these ancient traditions everytime we string up the xmas lights, send the kids out on the town dressed as zombies or consult the groundhog to see what the second half of winter has in store for us.

All of which is, of course, fantastic, especially if you’re a Pagan Parent, for every holiday offers up a double punch of fun: the holy day itself and all its symbolic and joyous trappings, accompanied by the unique time of year in which it occurs — a perfect chance to teach the kiddos about our connection to this swell planet we live on via the pageant of the seasons as seen through the prism of celebrations big and small.

With that in mind, let us examine the next few months worth of traditional American holidays big and small: five bang-up heathen jam sessions parading as innocuous Hallmark holidays, their origins and deeper meanings hidden in plain sight and intuitively understood by anyone willing to spend some time out of doors.


As a new year begins, denizens of the northern hemisphere — birthplace of the Eurocentric culture most of us adhere to here in the USA — are duking it out with Old Man Winter. The darkest time has passed and the days are gradually getting longer, but the snow continues to pile up and the vast majority of North Americans lacking palm trees in their yards (Gore-Tex-clad Mountain Gazette readers notwithstanding) are sick of winter and all that it entails: ice storms, snow shoveling, windshield scraping and/or day after day of melancholy gray skies. How much longer will this dreary cold rain and snow last? On February 2nd, roughly the halfway point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox, we arise, stoke the woodstove/crank up the thermostat and watch with bated breath as a furry rodent awakens briefly from hibernation and crawls out of his hole to check the weather. If he sees his shadow, then winter is going to last at least six more weeks, but, if he doesn’t, then we might be in for an early thaw, and sweet release from the cruel grip of Jack Frost.

It’s Groundhog Day of course, immortalized in the truly epic movie of the same name — a perfect Buddhist primer if there ever was one. At a glance, it seems like a silly holiday with no purpose other than to distract us from the roof that needs shoveled off and the frozen pipes that are bursting, but the holiday is quite old and is at least partially rooted in the ancient Celtic celebration of Imbolc, a celebration of the lengthening days and — at least at the lower elevations, where the holiday originated — the fact that winter is showing the first faint signs of fading. Fires were lit in the hearth, buttery foods were eaten and the weather was watched closely, for this was the day when the old hag Cailleach, the Queen of Winter, gathered her firewood for the rest of her season. If she planned on a long winter, the day would be bright and sunny, so she could easily find and carry the wood, but, if the day was dark and stormy, folks knew that she had blown off the search for firewood and decided to stay in bed, which meant that winter would be over soon.

Originally, in Ireland and Scotland anyway, the day was dedicated to the deity Brigid, or Bride — virgin goddess of the hearth fire, livestock, renewal and abundance, among other things — who was revered by poets, blacksmiths, midwives and beer brewers. In some traditions, she was the younger version of the old wood-gathering crone of winter, or was actually held prisoner by the hag during the dark months, an Irish echo of the Greek tale of Persephone and her annual six-month exile in the underworld. Her sacred day of Imbolc was later Christianized as Candlemas — a celebration of the Virgin Mary and a time to bless the candles — and she herself was canonized as St. Brigid (known as the “Bride of Christ”), a saint who, as it happens, gave away her family’s store of butter to the poor when she was a girl, founded a school of metal work and miraculously changed water into ale, deeds that echo those of her previous heathen incarnation.

If you’re a Pagan Parent, then stuff the kids in their snowsuits, strap on the snowshoes and head outside in search of animal tracks or other signs of life. Check for cracks in the ice of Old Man/Old Hag Winter. Are the icicles dripping? Birds chirping? Anything crawling out of its den or slithering out a hole in the ground? While you’re wandering, gather some (depending on your locale) dried grasses, willow branches, broken spruce twigs or last year’s dead flowers — woody strips of some kind a foot or so long. When you’re done, head inside for some hot milk chocolate (hot buttered rum or home brew for the parents) then kindle a fire in the woodstove (or light some candles), break out the craft box and use the goods you gathered to make a small cross — wheel of fire actually — to your liking. Hang it on your front porch or near the oven or hearth for protection or just as a reminder that winter will be over soon.


Valentine was a Christian saint cruelly martyred for refusing to renounce his faith in Jesus and convert to Roman paganism. He was clubbed and beaten, and, when that didn’t work, was finally beheaded, and today we celebrate this horrific torture and state-sponsored murder by scheduling the biggest date night of the year with our sweetheart, complete with candy, sweet nothings and a romantic comedy starring Meg Ryan.

Which — except for the having to watch Meg Ryan/horrific torture connection — makes no sense at all. More likely, our modern day Valentine’s extravaganza is rooted in Lupercalia, an older Roman holiday celebrating the founding of Rome by Romulus and Remus (two feral baby boys suckled by a she-wolf) that took place each year from February 13th to the 15th  and involved the sacrifice of a goat (fertility) and a dog (purification). The goat hide was then cut into strips and soaked with the blood, after which priests dressed as wolves would prowl the city and whip the (often) naked female citizenry with the bloody straps in hopes that they would be blessed with fertility. Towards the end of the shindig, the unmarried women of the village would put their names in an urn, the bachelors would draw a name, and the two would be coupled for the rest of the holiday, and perhaps for the next year, or longer if they chose to marry.

Sometime around the 5th century AD, Pope Gelasius I created a holy day for St. Valentine and scheduled it to fall during Lupercalia, probably in hopes that it might shift the Romans’ attention toward the Holy Trinity and end their lingering fascination with the pagan holiday and its unholy trappings: blood, sex, wolves and whips. Despite the Pope’s efforts, and an outright ban on so-called “lottery” couplings, the spirit of Lupercalia lingered for centuries in folk tales and low-key celebrations and was eventually resurrected centuries later by the writings of Chaucer and Shakespeare, both of whom focused on the more romantic elements of the day. Soon, folks were composing their own romantic verse, or eventually, paying others to do it for them, and, by 1800, Valentines cards were popular enough to require that they be mechanically printed in factories.

During the daylight hours, Pagan Parents might want to stick with the modern-day version of the holiday by baking cookies, trading candy hearts and making handmade Valentine cards for family and friends. Later on, after the kids are asleep and the romantic comedy is rolling the credits, Mom and Dad can raid the kids’ chocolate stash, crack open a bottle of blood-red wine and come up with their own creative way to celebrate the day — perhaps even involving licorice whips and the wolf suit hidden in the back of the closet.


1980, second grade, and David Hartford is being chased around the classroom by a trio of girls dressed head to toe in green. David’s wearing no green, so the girls are doing their best to pinch him. They corner him, no escape, but, at the last second, he pulls up his pant leg and there they are: emerald stripes on the tube socks.

That’s one of the few vivid St. Patrick’s Day memories I have, probably because, like any good Swedish-American, I’ve spent many a hazy March 17th drinking too much beer and stuffing myself on corned beef and cabbage in celebration of something vaguely Irish … the invention of Guinness stout? Gold at the end of a midget’s rainbow? The best most of us can come up with is something about Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland, which is actually code for Christianizing the natives and (spiritually) exterminating the pagans and their beliefs, as actual snakes never have existed in Ireland, at least not since the end of the Pleistocene. So puking up green beer after hitting on chicks with “Kiss me, I’m Irish” pins is nothing less than a sacred ritual honoring the efforts of Christian missionaries circa A.D. 500.

Sounds like something any good monotheist should be able to rally around: destruction of the heathens and the spread of the Good News, even if it was in the form of Catholicism. But like Valentine’s Day — a Catholic Saint Day scheduled by the early church to supplant a preexisting pagan ceremony — St. Patrick’s holy day was draped over a Roman fertility holiday: according to legend, St. Patrick died on March 17th, which, according to historical fact, also marks the date of the annual pre-Jesus Roman festival of Liberalia honoring Liber Pater (“Free Father”), an Etruscan god of fertility and vegetation, especially the grape and the wine that is made from it. On this day, devotees would drink copiously and march through the countryside carrying a huge phallus, which would later be crowned with a vagina-like wreath of flowers, the whole shebang intended to bring fertility to the land and protection to the crops, many which would already be planted and growing well in the temperate Mediterranean climate.

As the Roman Empire spread throughout Europe, holidays like Lupercalia took root in the farthest-flung reaches of the empire, albeit in forms tailored to local conditions and preexisting beliefs and rituals — a common occurrence religious scholars refer to as “syncretism.” Viewed through the stereoscopic lenses of changing seasons and the vital importance of agriculture, St. Patrick’s Day is likely a remnant of a holiday commemorating the end of winter (the Equinox falls a few days later) and the return of spring, this time for good, as well as the beginning of planting season. Viewed through the ancient worldview of sympathetic magic — that a person can effect a change by imitating it — the wearing of green was a way to honor the changing season as well as to help the process along, particularly in the chillier and grayer areas of the sprawling empire, such as Brittania and Gaul.

But, what about the corned beef and cabbage? The leprechauns and the drunkenness? The corned beef and cabbage reflects the realities of the late, late winter season: down to the dregs of food stash, with nothing left to eat but last year’s salted (“corned”) meat and a few cabbages and potatoes beginning to rot in the root cellar. The leprechauns are probably relics of the once-widespread belief in a variety of faerie folk who once held — in uniquely place-specific forms — spiritual sway across all of Europe and beyond. In this case, they’re foul-mouthed cobblers known for hoarding treasure and occasionally getting drunk and causing trouble. Which brings us to the drunkenness, which may stem from the fact that Liberalia was a holiday especially popular with the Roman plebeians — working-class stiffs and other riffraff — and evolved (some might say devolved) into a drunken festival of free speech and self-expression, as well as the breaking of social and sexual boundaries, and what better way to fuel that sort of revelry than getting wasted?

Pagan Parents can take this one easy. Encourage the kids to dress in green in celebration of the coming of spring, and point out the buds starting to pop out on neighborhood trees, or, if you’re in the High Country, the sphagnum moss hanging from the spruce and fir trees, all of which signify the fact that life holds fast even during the long winter. Feasting on corned beef and cabbage is a good idea as well, especially if you point out the fact that both are traditionally eaten at the end of winter, and that we should be grateful for the abundance of foods now available to us, as well as the fact that spring is finally here. Then, as on Valentine’s Day, once the kids are asleep, Mom and Dad can celebrate the phallus/vagina/fertility motif however they see fit.


Easter is ostensibly a Christian holiday celebrating the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ after his death by crucifixion, a story everybody who hasn’t been raised in the most-inaccessible corners of the Amazon jungle or on another planet knows by heart. Due to the fact that Jesus was a Hebrew — folks who relied on a lunar calendar rather than one tied to the sun — and his crucifixion took place during Passover, a Jewish holiday, Easter (the earliest and holiest of all Christian holidays) originally shifted around according to the cycles of the moon, and does to this day, although no longer in conjunction with Passover. For a western Christian, Easter is a joyous occasion filled with prayer, sunrise church services, sacraments and feasting, a medley that brings more of the (sometimes lapsed) faithful into the fold, at least for this one day, than any other Christian holiday, including Christmas. Suffering, death, rebirth … the ultimate and permanent new beginning for those who believe in redemption and forgiveness via this miraculous moment in human history; a moment that happened ONE TIME ONLY and will not be repeated.

But, really, the resurrection occurs every year. It’s called SPRING — Easter falls on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the Spring Equinox — a time when the smothering white blanket of winter gives way to green shoots and pink blossoms. Robins arrive from down south. Warm chinook winds blow down from the High Country. The snow in the yard finally melts, revealing the first blades of grass and many months worth of frozen dogshit now on the thaw. By now, most everybody has a bit of cabin fever and is ready to go outside, maybe don a nice pretty dress or your Sunday best, carry a basket and search out the colored eggs that a magical bunny rabbit has hidden beneath last year’s dead grasses.

Eggs and bunnies have little to do with the story of Jesus and everything to do with the changing season. The very name of the holiday comes from the Old English “Eostre,” a long-lost Germanic goddess of dawn, springtime, and, of course, fertility. Eggs are a global symbol of fertility as well, for obvious reasons, and while Christians may have adapted the motif to symbolize the rebirth of their savior, the custom of coloring eggs to honor the Spring Equinox was practiced at least 2,500 years ago in places as far flung as China, India and Persia. The egg hunt itself resembles a search for the first flowers blooming here and there in the damp earth — think crocuses and daffodils in your front yard, or pasque flowers and glacial lilies in the mountains — while the bunny and her ability to give birth to as many as 130 precious fuzzy babies per year is a powerful symbol of procreation and regeneration: just say the words “hump like bunnies” and see what comes to mind.

If you’re a Pagan Parent, this one is a piece of cake: go with the flow. Attend a sunrise Easter ceremony if you wish, or just get up early enough to watch the sunrise and hide the eggs before the kids wake up. Feed the youngsters some chocolate bunnies for breakfast, then send them out in search of the hidden eggs (outside if possible — rarely possible during my own frozen mountain childhood), then take a drive and point out the newborn calves in the meadows and the baby chicks in the window at the feed store, or better, take a hike and watch for early-season wildflowers and new plant shoots down by the creek. Finally, return home for a feast, for, as with St. Patrick’s Day, the traditional Easter dinner offers a chance to discuss the seasonal aspects of the food on the table, i.e., this spring’s freshly slaughtered lamb, or last autumn’s cured ham, not to mention the eggs themselves, which, in the days before factory farms and 24-hour forced lighting, were hard to come by in the winter but were laid and gathered in earnest as the days began to lengthen and warm.


Assuming you don’t live above timberline, by the time the month of May rolls around, the crusty snow banks and/or April showers have morphed into a proliferation of flowers and greenery, and signs of life are everywhere: creeks flowing freely, birds nesting, cottonwoods leafing out along the rivers and beautiful Yoga Milfs strolling the sidewalks in short dresses and sandals.

The first day of May is also the holiday known as May Day, which was coopted by commies a century ago and twisted into a celebration of workers across the world — an admirable goal, but one that has little to do with the original intent of the day, which was, of course, a celebration of all things sexy, nubile and full of life and lust, for, by now, Spring has sprung in earnest and the sap is rising, or as my Uncle Dragon used to say: “Hooray, hooray for the first of May, the outdoor fucking starts today!”

So, unless you’re a dedicated International Workers of the World activist, chances are that you associate May Day with springtime and flowers, and for good reason, for the holiday is based upon a number of ancient holidays that fell on the same day, including the ancient Roman celebration of Floralia, a festival dedicated to Flora, goddess of flowers, and Beltane, a Celtic/Irish/Scottish festival celebrating the hope inherent in full-blown spring. Bonfires were lit and livestock were driven through the flames in ritual purification before being shepherded out of the village pastures and into the fresh grass of surrounding hills and mountains. Sometimes naked folks jumped over the fires as well, or danced around the tall, stiff May Pole in celebration of the recurring spring themes of fertility and new beginnings.

As we’ve seen, all the spring holidays unabashedly celebrate aspects of fertility and the sexuality necessary to bring it about. Beltane was the last of these festivals, a big party celebrating the literal and metaphorical flowering of life, and it tended to be the most important, as well as the most brazenly sexual, complete with frolicking that would bring a smile to the face of wise Uncle Dragon: young women would spend the night in the woods to be visited by young men, and, in the morning, both would return to the village with twigs in their hair and garlands of flowers around their heads, the whole thing a reflection of  the larger union of the powers (cosmic penis, heavenly vagina) necessary to keep life going.

Pagan parents can take the family on an outing in the woods for picnicking and gathering flowers for the hearth and home, decorating and dancing around a May Pole in the yard (lop the branches off of last year’s Christmas tree and save the trunk), and, of course, kindling a raging evening bonfire and inviting over friends and family for a celebration of springtime and fire jumping — clothing optional once the kids are in bed.


Maybe it’s due to our agricultural heritage, or our penchant for  meat/potatoes/alcohol-centric feasts, or perhaps we’re just a horny nation, but whatever the reason, it seems as that Americans are particularly enthralled by these late-winter and early-spring celebrations and their associated foods and rituals: five good ones in just four months, making the February-’til-May stretch of our calendar the most-heathenish of the year. Much of Europe and even Canada celebrate ancient summer holidays, but our forebears in the Lower 48 must have been too busy with their hot-season chores (such as clearing the land of primordial forest and red-skinned pagans) to bother with mirth, for, while summer offers a handful of purely secular holidays — Father’s Day, Flag Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day — our Earth-bound shindigs fall away after May Day and don’t return for another six months. But that next one is a doozy: Halloween, perhaps the most paganesqe of all our modern holidays, and an easy one for Pagan Parents.

Until then, remember that the Jehovah’s Witness folks are correct: our holidays lean toward the demonic end of the spectrum, or if you prefer, they stem from traditions that predate our current dominant religion and its insistence on One God and a strict good/evil duality by centuries, if not millennia. None of which matters much in the grand scheme of things, for humans have been creatively marking the passage of time/plugging into the Big Picture for tens of thousands of years, and will continue to do so long after our current civilization collapses and we’re forced to return to our roots as hunters, gatherers and subsistence farmers. Besides, it’s not the particulars of the celebrations that matter so much as the fact that we’re paying attention to the cycles of life upon which all of us are utterly dependent.

Die, Bambi, Die

The loss of innocence If you’ve raised a young child, then you know that cuteness comes with the territory.  Indeed, parenthood is nothing if not an endless parade of cuteness — not just the child and his or her succession of outfits, facial expressions and silly “hurry-up grab the camera” inducing moments either, but every single accoutrement as well, from fuzzy feet pajamas and bunny rabbit toothbrushes to sequined hiking boots and little rocking chairs with butterflies painted on them. The list goes on and on due to the fact that Mommies and Daddies worthy of the title naturally want to surround their kids with an aura of love, innocence and safety, and cuteness is the easiest way to create just such a vibe — after all, other than hugs and kisses, nothing says “everything is going to be alright forever and ever” like, say, princesses on the curtains and unicorns on the pillowcases.

This is all well and good, except for one thing: things aren’t going to be alright forever and ever, and no amount of puppies or singing frogs (or dollars or real estate holdings) can change that fact. We can think all the positive thoughts we want, eat all the organic food we can afford, manifest goodness in every possible way and focus on the glass half full until the sacred cows come home, but none of these acts is going to do away with the cold hard fact that some portion of our existence is suffering, and that this suffering (pain, disease, loneliness) only ends when we die, an inevitable event so potentially horrible (car crash, tumor, snake bite) that we suffer even more just thinking about it, and do everything in our power (sex, drugs, rock and roll) to ward off the inevitable, or at least to keep our mind on other things.

Twenty years ago or thereabouts, my tie-dyed and slightly smelly bebackpacked self was traipsing through the City of Angels when I came upon a school playground full of kids. They were doing kid stuff. Sliding. Swinging. Sandbox. Terrorizing each other. I watched from afar as a girl, about eight years old, was brought to tears by the incessant teasing, dare I say bullying, of her classmates. Right then and there, I decided life was just too hard to bear and that I was never going to bring a child into such a world, and, at least partially due to feelings associated with this event (but mostly due to an extended period of self-absorbed navel gazing), I waited an extra long time to do so.

Of course, I believed in a lot of things at age 19 or 20 that seem laughable now — conspiracy theories, changing the world by getting stoned, forsaking underwear — and fortunately that solemn vow gave way to marriage vows and a subsequent little blonde bundle of joy that changed my life forever and for the better. But I still remember that moment on the playground, and want to do whatever I can to shield my daughter from ANYTHING and EVERYTHING that might cause her to experience pain and suffering.

At its core, that’s what all the cuteness is about: creating an island of innocence in the midst of a dangerous world so that our kids can avoid having to experience, or even become aware of, the darker side of existence. Daddy might be reading Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian” before bed and watching “Apocalypse Now”  for the 78th time when nobody’s around, but he wants his daughter to live in a Never Never Land, where the horrors depicted in such stories never rear their ugly heads. All parents hope against hope that the smell of puppies might overpower the stench of burnt flesh in warzones. That picture books of baby dolphins will blot out starvation and disease. That frilly ballerina outfits and little pink cowgirl boots will prevent our children, for just a little while longer, from having to learn about racism, child molesters, serial killers, ecological collapse, extinction, genocide.

According to the Legend of Wikipedia, the Buddha was the son of a king, and his father, in an effort to keep him happy, hid him away in the palace and surrounded him with everything he could ever need or desire, while at the same time shielding him from religious teachings as well as the realities of human suffering. Like all kids everywhere, the little Buddha surely had moments of sadness and confusion: nasty tropical bug bites, skinned knees and the occasional wormy mango. Painful moments, but not existentially so — just a quick glimpse of the little facts of life, a momentary tearful breakdown, and, we can assume, eventual consoling in the loving arms of Dad or nursemaid (Mom had died in childbirth). Of course, the illusion couldn’t last, and one day the Buddha caught a glimpse of an old man and was informed by a servant that all people grew old, including himself. He started sneaking out of the palace and saw what it was all about: sickness, death, decay. He was changed forever, for he now knew that all the palatial beauty and wealth (read: cuteness) was a fraud,and spent the rest of his life trying to find some sort of solution to the whole mess. Young Mr. Buddha had an epiphany that shattered his childish view of the world and set off a chain of events — assuming there is a kernal of truth to the story — that affects humans thousands of years later.

Similar myths and legends are part of the foundation of civilization, and represent any number of awakenings we wish humanity had never had to experience, often involving a golden age now lost forever (or at least until some great battle occurs, or some great redeemer shows up to make it right again, or a devil’s bargain is struck). Pandora opening the box full of evil. Balder the Good killed by a dart of mistletoe. Naïve Persephone snatched away from flowery fields and raped by Hades in the underworld. Luke Skywalker glimpsing the charred remains of his protective Aunt and Uncle on Tatooine. And, of course, Adam and Eve lounging around the Garden until they glimpsed the BIG PICTURE and were cast out, suddenly ashamed of their nakedness and forced to toil for their survival.

Our house is hardly a garden of eden (daddy sometimes comes home grumpy after wrestling ADHD kids all day), or a land of perpetual spring blossoms (he cuts some mega burrito farts too), but we do our best to weed out what darkness we can. We peruse library books before bringing them home, and have chosen not to have any television channels in our house, opting for DVDs and the internet — two mediums which (for now) allow us to filter out violence, disturbing images and the barrage of gotta-own-this-right-now toy commercials or gotta-gobble-this-garbage-down-for-breakfast kiddie food ads. Despite these precautions, reality lurks around every corner, and darkness recentlydescended upon our house via a kind gesture by a family member and two seemingly safe vehicles of cuteness: Disney cartoons and the Hallmark Channel.

It all started with a visit to my hometown in Colorado, where one of my mountain-man cousins showered us with some elk and deer meat, all wrapped up in butcher paper and labeled: ground meat, round steak, chuck steak. Our daughter witnessed the conversation and the packing of the meat on ice for the car ride home, but said nothing. A few days later, we were back at home for a lazy Daddy Day Care day — sardines for lunch, for me and the four-year-old, followed by a couple rounds of Snow White whilst I mopped, napped and, uh, blogged. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, one of the hallmarks of Snow White is the fact that it pretty much set the standard for animal cuteness: birds, mice, deer, squirrels and more — all helping around the house whilst partaking in singalongs and just being unbearably adorable. Elsie loved it, especially the singing, and before my extended moment of lapsed parenting was over, she had watched it an undisclosed (to Mom) number of times … enough to be able to name all seven Dwarves and sing most of the “Silly Song.” Most importantly, she saw animals being exceptionally cute over and over again.

The final catalyst for the big, unwanted epiphany was nothing less than that innocence destroyer known as “Little House on the Prairie” —not the old teevee show, but a relatively new four-hour Hallmark Channel (I think) miniseries faithfully based upon the first book of the same name by Laura Ingalls Wilder, in which the family leaves overcrowded, hunted-out Wisconsin for a new start in Kansas, where they squat on Indian land and  await the inevitable march of cavalry and government agents who will clear out the Osage Injuns, survey the land and most certainly honor the family’s illegal homestead claim to the 160 acres (spoiler alert: they don’t, and the family is forced to move on). The movie was actually pretty good, and dealt with some complex issues in a very nuanced and balanced way. That’s what Mom and Dad (called “Ma” and “Pa” for the next couple weeks) saw; our daughter zeroed in on a series of adventures and misadventures involving two little girls and a menagerie of non-singing animals of all kinds: dogs, horses, cows, wolves, bears, mountain lions and deer. One harrowing scene involved a pack of wolves trying to run down Pa and Laura as they galloped towards home. Being the good environmentalists that we are, my wife and I did our best to explain that all creatures have to eat, that the wolves were just hungry, that wolves used to sometimes eat people but don’t do so anymore, and that there aren’t many wolves left and we have to protect them.

There were Indians in the movie as well, dressed in the finery of the times (1850 or thereabouts) and looking quite fierce with their war paint, animal hides and weapons. At one point, when the heathen tribes were starting to raise hell about the squatters encroaching on their no-doubt treaty-given lands and had begun to menace the settlers with threats of violence, our daughter asked us why the Indian had a gun. Hoping to steer away from the ugly truth — that the Indian was thinking about shooting the whole family, little girls and all — we told her that the fellow needed the gun for hunting animals like deer and elk. She asked what hunting was and we told her: hunting is when people take the lives of animals so they can eat.

She was quiet for a moment. Five, ten seconds. Then she burst into tears. A waterfall of tears and howls. “BUT I DON’T WANT THE DEER TO DIE! I DON’T WANT THE ANIMALS TO DIE!”

Mommy and Daddy momentarily stunned. Pause the video. Gather up some kind of caring response, an answer to this dilemma. Daddy blurts out: “Honey, all animals need to eat, and some of them, like wolves, eat other animals.You eat animals too … hot dogs, hamburger, turkey. We even have some deer meat in the freezer.”

Wrong answer. Totally, completely, utterly wrong answer. She begins howling: “BUT I DON’T WANT THE DEER TO DIE! I WANT TO PROTECT THE DEER! BRING THE DEER BACK TO LIFE!” Inconsolable. Howling. Shaking with anger, sadness, despair. “TAKE THE DEER OUT OF THE FREEZER! I WANT TO PROTECT THE DEER. I WANT TO BRING THE DEER BACK TO LIFE!”

Despite the fact that she had watched us pack up the meat when my cousin gave it to us a few days earlier, I realize she just might be picturing an actual unbutchered deer in our freezer, frozen stiff, hooves pushing up against the bags of frozen corn and blueberries, antlers stuck in the ice tray, just waiting for one of us to open the door, take him out and shoo him out into the driveway so he can thaw out and run back into the woods.

I also realize that this is no mere tantrum. This is not about missing a nap, or not getting a toy at the toystore, or feeling a little bit sicky or cranky, or bonking her head on the door jamb, this is her very first true glimpse of the nature of reality: LIFE FEEDS ON LIFE. Cute little animals die and we store them in our freezer and cook them and eat them. The first step towards the inevitable YOU ARE UTTERLY ALONE IN AN UNCARING UNIVERSE AND WILL EVENTUALLY DIE.

The sobbing and pleas for animal mercy lasted about 15 minutes. She eventually calmed down enough for us to wash her face with a cool washcloth and carry her into her bedroom, where the conversation continued. We sat down on her bed and tried one more time to gently explain that some of her favorite foods are made of animals, and that’s why we say a blessing each night to thank the earth and the animals for giving us food to eat. She wanted nothing to do with any of it. No more chicken legs. No more chicken soup. No hot dogs. No meatballs. Nothing made from animals ever again. We told her she didn’t have to eat animals if she didn’t want to, then we read her a couple of stories and she crashed out, utterly exhausted from the whole ordeal.

I was a vegetarian for most of the 1990s and a bit beyond, not for my health either but for reasons similar to those that had brought my daughter to tears: the sheer amount of industrial-scale murder and suffering  required to allow for civilization-scale carnivorism seemed unnecessary, especially since there were other options. Before that, I had been the sensitive kid who watched in horror as just about every other kid I knew gleefully threw rocks at birds or put firecrackers in toads’ mouths, and when I shot my first bird (a robin) with my new BB gun and saw the death stare in its tiny wounded eyes, I (temporarily) gave the gun back to my mom, crying as I told her I didn’t want it anymore. Eventually I became a teenager, and got a real gun, and like normal redneck offspring, I was soon blasting away at small wildlife for no good reason, but something about it never felt quite right. Suddenly, everything had come full circle, and it seemed to me as if our daughter had grasped some bigger picture about the world, had felt, if just for a few moments, the pain and suffering of all animals everywhere, and her little-girl vow not to eat them anymore seemed profound. I couldn’t shake the feeling that maybe she was onto something, that adulthood had made me callous, had killed the compassion I once automatically felt for other living creatures. Maybe I should be heeding her advice. Maybe our household should jettison the meat and go vegetarian once again.

It didn’t take me long to figure out that my rekindled feelings of guilt and compassion had little to do with the suffering of animals and everything to do with the fact that my daughter had been forced to wrestle with an undeniable aspect of reality that made her sad, which in turn made me sad and desperate to do something to “fix” a problem as old as the hills, or, more precisely, as old as the ancestors of the bacteria living under rocks in those hills. Despite all the very legitimate reasons for giving up meat, I was unlikely to ever do so again — indeed, I’d subsist solely on baby bunny stew and kitten burritos for the rest of my life if it meant that my Little Angel wouldn’t have to wrestle with those existential moments of awareness that pull the happy rug right out from under her growing feet. I simply wanted to take her pain away, wanted to turn back the clock an hour or two to that time when she didn’t know that it was kill or be killed, wanted to fly away to that Great Toystore In The Sky where the lion snuggles with the lamb, swords become ploughshares and everything is as cute and cuddly as it can possibly be.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the passionate animal lover moved on, and within a few days she was once again enjoying chicken legs and roasting (all natural) skewered hot dogs over the last summer campfire, seemingly oblivious to just what she was chomping on. Like her Dad and his regret over the cold blooded BB-gun bird slaughter, she had gotten over her initial compassion and sadness and decided it wasn’t as bad as it seemed. Just to make sure, I cautiously mentioned the animal origins of the food she was enjoying and she said she was okay with it, so I reminded her that it’s important for us to thank the Animals for letting us eat them and left it at that.

But as usual, Ma and Pa can’t leave it at that, not easily anyway, for here was yet another glimpse of the future: death of innocence by a thousand little cuts, and an ever-growing, ever-widening expressway straight to the hellishly long list of painful awarenesses and trials by errors our precious daughter will have to undergo before long: that glimspe of her first homeless person; the death of a friend or relative or pet; the pain of her first broken heart. Nothing we can do about any of it of course, for as the Buddha says, “shit happens,” and anybody lucky enough to grow into adulthood, including our daughter, will figure this out for themselves, but for now at least, we’ll try to cushion the fall by surrounding her with as much furry fuzzy cuteness as possible.






A Tale of Two Freebox Towns

Our corner of the world was parched. The normally reliable monsoon was late. Carson National Forest was flat out closed to all activities due to stage-3 fire restrictions. Just upwind, the largest wildfire in state history was burning uncontrollably in the Jemez Mountains — 300-foot flames were dangerously close to the nation’s largest nuclear laboratory and its 30,000 barrels of “low and medium level” nuclear waste — and we were wondering about what may or may not be floating around in the thick gray smoke we were inhaling. Plus, the weekend happened to be my 39th birthday, my daughter’s 4th and America’s 235th, reasons enough for an impromptu trip. We packed up the family wagon and headed for Colorado in search of cooler weather, fresher air and a taste of the good life in the town of Telluride.

My family and I reside in Taos, New Mexico, right at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the southernmost spur of the Rocky Mountains proper. There’s a ski area and lots of tourists. Telluride is nestled at the head of a glacial valley in the San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado, a few miles up valley from where the Rockies give way to the mesas and canyons of the Colorado Plateau. It also has a ski area and tourists. Both towns have municipal bus systems named after historic regional train lines — the Chile Line and the Galloping Goose. Both have a rich and iconic history emblematic of the great and ever-unfolding tale of the American West, as revealed by their architecture and stellar local museums. Both are epic locales where one can spend a few years working menial jobs and indulging in all the rafting, climbing, skiing, mountain biking and backpacking you might care to partake in. Finally, both towns have a FREEBOX.

In case you haven’t had the pleasure of digging through one, a Freebox is just that: a box full of donated items free for the taking, primarily clothing but other things as well, running the gamut from books and kitchenware to couches and sporting goods. America’s first official Freebox opened for non-business in Berkeley, California in 1969, at the very height of flower power, and the fact that both Taos and Telluride have one epitomizes the way each has been influenced by the hopes of that time: sharing, recycling, generosity and a host of similar hippy-dippy ideals.

Common ground to be sure, but the Freeboxes themselves are very different, and each Freebox is a symbolic microcosm of the town itself — perfect reflections of the unique towns in which they exist.


Due to geographical restraints — mountains, mine tailings and designated open space — Telluride is hemmed in on all sides. There is no room for sprawl, so the buildings are tall and packed fairly tightly together in an orderly way, and the streets themselves are smoothly paved and platted out on the classic American grid system. Land is always at a premium — an empty lot might sell for a couple million bucks — so the tiny million-dollar homes are in tiptop shape and all the yards are well tended.

The Freebox reflects this reality perfectly: it sits right downtown, was handcrafted with care, and takes up little space. It’s within walking distance of everywhere else in town, which allows for a spur-of-the-moment perusal, and the organization and lack of clutter makes for easy browsing. If you’re looking for books, check the bookshelf. If you want men’s clothes, look in the men’s box. If you want shoes, then browse the shoe rack. Everything is in its proper place, and dedicated volunteers run it well.

Taos has plenty of room to grow, and was busily doing so right up until the current recession took hold, spreading rapidly outward and across the rolling sagebrush llano. The historic downtown area is fairly dense, but plenty of empty lots are available, and beyond the edge of town, there are acres upon acres of jackrabbit habitat just begging to be bulldozed into another “green” subdivision or slumlord trailer park. The streets are full of potholes and vaguely follow the contours of high ground and rivers; there is certainly no grid or naming pattern to speak of.

So it goes with the Freebox: out in the warehouse district far from downtown, disorganized, and fairly large. In all actuality, there is no “box,” for, like some of the local digs, the Taos Freebox is more akin to an old shack on the back of a dirt lot, and both the shack and the lot are littered with piles of clothes, appliances and furniture sprawling willy-nilly onto the sidewalk and parking area.


Telluride has an abundance of postcard scenery. Nab a 20-dollar spot in the town campground. After setting up shop, grab a coffee at a local beanery, sit on the patio and take in the view: waterfalls, aspen groves, cliffs and towering jagged mountains on three sides, all close enough to touch it seems. Indeed, order a burrito to go and start hiking up one of the many well-marked and well-maintained trails at the edge of town. By the time you reach some stellar alpine tundra, that burrito will still be warm. Notice the families riding bicycles down Main Street, and even young kids riding all by themselves. There will also be purebred dogs — poodles and Labs (the official ski-town dog) — being walked by beautiful folks who spend a lot of time outdoors.

When you’re done with your coffee or your hike, stroll around the corner to the Freebox (right across from a real estate office) for some easy pickings: a brand-new pair of Carhartts, leather jackets, barely used hiking boots, brand-name dresses and sweaters, silk shirts. Like the scenery, the Freebox treasures are pretty and easy to see. Just drop by, skim the brand name cream right off the top and go on your merry way. And don’t worry about the weather, because everything is covered by an awning providing shade from the mountain sun and shelter from the rain and snow.

Taos has better coffee, if you can find it hidden in the jumbled mess of stucco and fast food outlets after scrounging for free camping out on BLM land, but the view from the patio is quite different: cement trucks grinding gears, battered low riders blasting hip hop and some burned-over hills in the distance. The burritos are better too, so be sure to get one, but don’t bother trying to hike from town: by the time you scramble up the rutted-out, unmarked (signs instantly knocked down or shotgunned into unreadability) ATV-mangled foothills trails to the first scenic ridgeline, your water bottles will be empty and you’ll have to turn around. You won’t see any kids cruising town on bikes due to the fact that some drunk driver (perhaps even a drunk cement truck driver) would run them down in broad daylight, and the only purebred dogs you’ll see will be pit bulls being walked by scary looking dudes with tattoos on their shaved heads.

Hitch a ride to the Freebox (next to the battered women’s shelter) and see what you find. It ain’t pretty: razor wire, chain-link fencing and garbage, plus entire families huddled in rusted cars and peering through cracked windshields, ready and waiting for that mythical pickup truck load of castoffs to arrive. Go through the gate and start exploring. If you want books, then start digging. If you want women’s clothes, then start digging. If you want shoes, then start digging. Expect to get sweaty and sunburned, and if a summer monsoon rain rolls in, then grab what you want and get out — soon the whole thing will be a giant mildewy mound of soggy polyester and forlorn broken toys.


From a parent’s perspective, Telluride is like Disneyland: safe, clean and full of fun things for the family to do. For starters, there’s the aforementioned bicycling and hiking right from town, including a lush river trail perfect for strollers and chock full of wildflowers and birds. There’s also the free gondola that offers huge and easy views of this corner of the world, including a glimpse of Utah’s La Sal Mountains far to the west, and when we’re in town, our daughter asks (and gets) to ride it multiple times each day. The town park is well maintained and full of families swimming in the pool, tubing in the river, climbing upon an expansive wooden castle or fishing in the kiddy pond. Many of the adults are responsibly and legally drinking alcohol right in the park while playing riotous games of kickball, a fact that seems to cause no problems. Even the public library is an experience, and the children’s library is flat-out dreamy: a two-story clubhouse, rows of working computers with plenty of interactive reading games, a huge selection of books right at kiddo eye level, dozens of children’s magazines and an engaging story time every other day.

Telluride’s Freebox is as child friendly as the town. There’s a “children’s” section chock full of pint-sized Chacos, frilly French (as in made in France) dresses, designer sweaters and overalls, North Face kids’ gear and plenty of great story books — including, miraculously, two wildlife pop-up books that some parent had painstakingly patched up with scotch tape. There’s even a beautiful mosaic on the wall next to the Freebox, created by local students and funded by local businesses, which lends the place an aura of community and respectability.

Taos isn’t quite so family friendly. As I mentioned, bicycling can be deadly. Beer cans and liquor bottles litter every roadside, and there’s not a single stretch of public trail anywhere in town. There is a town park and it’s got some stately shady cottonwoods in it, but there’s gang graffiti scratched or “tagged” on every flat surface, and the stinky pit toilets are a bit too close to the playground, if you know what I’m saying. Plus, the town maintenance crews don’t seem to make the park a priority: some thoughtful soul spray-painted “EAT PUSSY” and “JESUS FUCKS” on a very visible wall right next to the kids’ baseball fields not long ago, and it took the town months to cover it up. And don’t even try to crack open a can of beer in the park — it’s illegal, and for good reason, since alcohol consumption at a little league game would likely lead to a stabbing or shooting. The public library? Well, let’s just say that the children’s library is tiny, the reading games nonexistent, the staff desultory and the weekly story hour boring due to the fact that some well-meaning but stuffy volunteer reads in the most monotone voice imaginable.

Likewise, the Taos Freebox is about as kid friendly as a dogfight. There are plenty of kid items to be sure, but they’re almost always broken or missing important pieces, and few needy mothers have the time or energy to dig through the clothing, especially when a town ordinance requires that kids be left in the car — seems a two-year-old darted out into the road last year and was promptly crushed and dragged (hit and run) beneath a muscle car driven by a coked up construction worker — hence the no-kids rule, as well as the impromptu shrine set up in the parking area. That heartbreaking shrine symbolizes our completely dysfunctional local society: a little girl gets run down by a drugged up high school dropout while a poverty-stricken single mother tries to score some free clothing for her family.

No kids on bikes because it’s too dangerous. Gangs, drugs and drunk driving galore. Failing public schools. Grinding poverty. Corrupt local governance that brushes problems under the rug. High cost of living yet poor public services … Taos is a horrible place to raise children, and as much as we love it here, the facts of life in this town often lead to thoughts about packing up and fleeing to some sort of magical land where the streets are safe and a kid can still be a kid. Indeed, every time we visit Telluride (or Colorado in general), usually during the peak of summer wildflowers and tundra greenery, we decide that’s exactly what we’re going to do. We look into art galleries for my wife, teaching positions for myself, schooling for our daughter, and by the time we’re packing up to head back to Taos, it’s with every intention of returning to the Centennial State, this time for good.

But it never happens. We get back home, settle into our lives, and gradually remember what brought us here in the first place: elbow room, four easy seasons, conversation about things other than skiing and a unique mix of cultures and people of all ages, incomes and backgrounds. Unlike Telluride, where the early hippies won their culture war and pushed out the locals (only to be pushed out themselves a couple decades later), Taos hippies who stuck it out in the face of violent hostility were forced to become part of the existing community. The freaks didn’t stand a chance of winning in Taos, but they never left either, and their tenacity and ideals shape the place to this day. Artists visit the destitute trailer parks so immigrant children can work on a painting project. Rock climbers take at-risk youth out to the local crags. Organic farmers invite school kids out to the land to learn where their food comes from. Midwives keep the birthing process affordable and real. Nothing comes easy in Taos, but folks here rise to the occasion and do their humble bit to make the place just a little bit better, a little bit brighter.

Telluride is idyllic, but, like the local Indians, who were shipped off to Utah, the working class and social problems have been pushed down to Norwood, or all the way to Montrose. If you can afford to raise a family in Telluride, then you don’t have much to worry about, for like the town itself, you’re clean, white and at least moderately well off — certainly able to occasionally pass on some material wealth to the Freebox. Taos is dark, dirty and all mixed up, and most of its citizens struggle to make ends meet, but, like its Freebox, it offers plenty of hidden gems that reveal themselves to those willing to stick it out long enough to see beyond the proverbial dirty laundry. Hidden meadows along unnamed creeks. Cowboys that still herd cows. Chats at the trailhead with John Nichols. That first invitation to a feast on the Pueblo. A handmade fiesta dress as a gift for your daughter. Misfits living in yurts, teepees, school buses and caves — things you’d be hard pressed to find in a high-fallutin’ Colorado ski town.

All this, plus the sunsets. No matter where in Colorado we’re departing from, by the time we make the final turn east towards the Sangre De Cristo Range, the mountains are turning their namesake color, the sagebrush is glowing buttery gold, and I’ll be damned if there isn’t ALWAYS a rainbow or flashy lightning storm hovering right above our adopted home town. At that moment, life in the Land of Enchantment seems downright glorious, and my wife and I know we picked the right place to put down some roots.

Far From Home

It’s summertime, and since I’m a schoolteacher (sucking on the public teat whilst lazing away the sunshine months), and since my father-in-law likes to play nice and make up for decades of being a huge jerk to his kids, we board an annual airplane and head out of our high desert homeland toward a variation on a beach-front time-share hotel somewhere on the Atlantic Ocean.

This time it’s the Florida panhandle, the “Redneck Riviera,” near the nexus of Alabama, Georgia and the Sunshine State. As we descend, the window seat (perhaps my favorite part of these trips) reveals humidity in the form of huge towers of cumulus clouds and industrial progress in the form of a checkerboard swath of pine plantations — long straight rows of identically tall slash pines (this whole part of the state owned by the St. Joe paper pulp company) suddenly giving way to a brand-new airport hacked out of the monoculture tree farm like some kind of Amazonian outpost.

My brother-in-law, a packaging engineer from southern Indiana, picks us up and wheels us toward a distant row of monolithic boxes — a dozen miles of towering hotels lined up along the Gulf of Mexico, backed by stucco minimalls and lowbrow tourist trappings galore: shark feedings twice daily, novelty condoms, topless/oyster bars, backwater alligator tours and the like. We pull into our weeklong digs at the “Hidden Dunes Hotel,” where the formerly rolling white sand dunes are, indeed, hidden beneath the 10-story hotel and its parking lots, gift shops and swimming pool(s). A dune buggy roars up and a well-tanned shirtless fellow with a mullet and a huge round belly (a recurring theme) tells us we can’t park there, so we shuffle the car, grab our luggage and head to our top-story condo. We greet our relatives, then don our unused-since-last-August swimsuits and make a beeline down to the beach.


The first few days were blissful. My wife, my daughter and I on the white-sand beach (quartz grains washed down from ancestral Appalachians “hundreds” of years ago, says the brochure, so as not to upset the Creationists among us), lazing and playing together in the surf. Our daughter is amazed by every shell she picks up. She giggles when the fish nibble on her ankles. She giggles even more when bigger fish nibble on the middle-age moles on Daddy’s back. She marvels at the starfish mommy picks up. She screams in delight when Daddy picks up a plate-sized crab and recieves a power pinch strong enough to draw blood. She chases after sandpipers and kicks up sand. She has no interest in the swimming pool and its array of floatie toys, and prefers to be in the ocean, which makes me a proud pagan parent.

It’s blazing hot: 96 degrees and Gulf Coast humid (hot enough for an official “heat warning”), but it’s no problem, since every outdoor moment is spent in pleasantly warm yet cooling ocean waters as our little drama queen narrates in real time:


Pummeled by waves. Sand in ears. Seaweed in bathing suit. Algae in hair. Tiny seashells in buttcrack. Gasping for air, she turns and faces the sea …


Pummeled by waves. More sand in ears. More seaweed in bathing suit. More algae in hair. More tiny seashells in buttcrack. A blank look on her face, she gets back on her feet shakes off the sea foam, and turns towards the surf …


Pummeled by waves. Additional sand in ears. Additional seaweed in bathing suit. Increased algae in hair. A collection of tiny seashells in buttcrack. She recovers, stands, turns again towards the sea, as if to mock Posiedon himself, and tells me “let’s go out a little bit further.”

Again, and again, and again, until, despite the level-50 sunscreen, Mommy and Daddy are sunburned and resort to outright bribery (popsicle) to coax the golden-haired mermaid out of the Gulf of Mexico and up to the frigidly cool condo, where we pluck algae from her locks (there will be no brushing of hair until we return to New Mexico), shake the seaweed from her ballerina swimsuit, and rinse the tiny hermit crabs from her buttcrack. We leave the sand in her ears.

After dinner, we do it all over again, then take moonlit strolls along the low-tide line in search of nocturnal creatures. My wife and I stroll hand in hand, marveling at the swell combination of ocean, parenthood and marriage, a powerful trio enjoyed by the power trio of our stable nuclear family: Mom, Dad, daughter.


During the blazing afternoons, while my daughter naps and the rest of the relatives shop or watch teevee, I sip beer on the porch and enjoy the bird’s-eye ocean panorama. The basic elements of the scenery — sky, sand and water — stay the same, but exist in constant flux, and every glance offers an entirely new and different view. The ocean surface ripples and undulates, and the color of the water changes throughout the day. Waves build up, crest and crash upon the shore, each one displaying its final hurrah in a similar yet unique fashion. The shore itself is constantly on the move as currents move entire stretches of beach from one place to another in a single afternoon, creating pools and sandbars that come and go every few hours. The tides rise and fall with the changing moon. Schools of fish and accompanying flocks of pelicans arrive and move on. The dolphins parade past and vanish. Beer cans and broken plastic buckets and shovels wash up on the shore, spend a few hours in the sun, and are swept away by the next high tide.

Change at the ocean is perpetual and apparent, and every so often, on every stretch of coastline along the Gulf of Mexico, this dynamism is punctuated by the destructive force of a major hurricane — the storm of storms, and a great transformer of huge swaths of terrestrial and even sea-floor landscapes. Indeed, as chance would have it, evidence of one of the greatest changers in the history of the planet exists beneath the sea a few hundred miles south of my high-falluting top-story view: Chicxulub Crater, site of the meteor impact 65 million years ago that knocked the dinosaurs out of existence and extinguished the vast majority of all life in North America. I sip my cheap beer with lime in it and ponder that monster tidal wave of the ages, the ultimate agent of change.

I am fortunate enough to live in a land of expansive views, some of the best in America, I think, but with the exception of the shifting light and the movements of animals, my high-desert/mountain landscape remains essentially static throughout the days. Unless you’ve ingested something psychoactive, the sweep of sagebrush doesn’t undulate. The layers of rock in the canyon walls are always in the same place. Change exists of course, everywhere and always, but actual physical changes to the land where I live occur at a pace so slow as to escape a casual daily glance, and the only major destructive forces consist of forest fires and the occasional small mudslide or flash flood, none of which transforms the landscape in a major way. Mountains, even burned-over mountains, stay where they are. Things in my high-desert homeland are amazingly beautiful but forseeable, and the visible scenery is reliable.

And so it is with our daughter. Like the piñon pines that dot our foothills, she’s always growing, but that growth happens in small increments and cannot be detected from day to day. Like our seasons, our daughter is changing every day, but the changes tend to be gradual and occur according to an established timeline: solid food at six months, crawling at eight months, walking at one year, and on and on until she graduates from high school. When our power trio, the Elsie Clayton Experience, is at home together, our lives follow an enjoyable routine and the days blur together in general harmony. Storms come and go, fires occasionally flare up, but our household remains solid as a mountain, and we are able to build our life upon a bedrock of loving parental control.

But everything changes during a vacation, particularly one involving the extended family, for during these times our daughter is more akin to a fluctuating ocean, and we are forced to watch helplessly as she transforms right before our eyes.


In theory, being surrounded by one’s extended family is a good thing. In cultures around the globe, children are raised not just by their nuclear family but by grandparents, inlaws, aunts and uncles. Oftentimes, these relatives are responsible for some aspect of the child’s spiritual well-being, and they will take a child for a month, a season, a year, to teach them a skill or set of stories. We are newcomers to a town where folks tend to have deep roots going back many centuries, and I sometimes find myself envious of coworkers or friends who have a wide support network of family ready to help out with childcare or the last-minute baking of a birthday cake, not to mention big ticket items like births, weddings and funerals, and I often lament the fact that my daughter won’t grow up riding bikes with her cousins or walking over to her grandmother’s house for tea (something I know my mother would enjoy as well).

But, at the same time, such extended families usually exist within a shared homeland that provides a level of comfort and familiarity everyone involved can draw strength from. In addition, cultures — including small-town America — with deep roots and small families tend to have similar backgrounds and (roughly speaking) shared values, morals and heritage that bind the whole thing together and underlie important aspects of the life cycle, such as, say, how best to raise a child. Unfortunately, when you throw an extended family together in a beachfront condominium, none of the above apply, and it doesn’t take long for things to unravel.

It starts small: Grandpa stocks the fridge with dozens of small bottles of artificially orange-colored corn-syrupy “juice beverage,” the cousins drink it, and our daughter wants one too. We give her apple juice instead, but, one day, it’s all gone, so we relent and she drinks the fake kool aid — after all, we tell ourselves, we’re on vacation. During the dog-day afternoons, between bouts at the beach, the kids hunker down in air-conditioned splendor and watch cartoon after cartoon on a mammoth-screen television turned up way too loud. Our daughter wants to partake in this as well — all of her cousins are doing it — so we tell the kids they have to mute the commercials (which the other adults think is absolutely absurd) and hope for the best. A few hours of Sponge Bob, and her eyes glaze over, and, when we try to get her attention to tell her it’s nap time ,she pays absolutely no attention to us,…,just stares at the big screen, unable or unwilling to acknowledge the fact that Mom and Dad are speaking to her. Indeed, by the third day of the trip, with or without the television, we seem to have faded into the background, our voices and commands mere white noise, the verbal equivalent of the cheesy sailboat paintings on the walls, quite easy to ignore.

It grows: after days of niceties, the close quarters reveal decades old cracks in the family foundation. After angrily complaining that we hadn’t said grace in a meaningful way, Grandpa starts picking on a nine-year-old girl for eating too much, tells her she’s getting fat, and my wife, who had to deal with that during her own childhood, brusquely tells her (rather obese) father to leave the girl alone. Our daughter hears that and starts telling me she can’t finish her dinner because she’s fat. Another cousin, a highly strung seven-year-old boy, flips out when he catches a glance of our daughter changing out of her swimming suit and begins screaming “yucky, she’s naked, yucky.” Other adults suggested that I be sure to close the bedroom door next time so the whole family doesn’t have to see that. Our daughter hears this and tells me she can’t be naked anymore, despite the fact that she spends much of her day naked, or half-naked, or changing in and out of different princess oufits in the middle of our living room at home, all without one iota of shame.

Finally, there’s the shitty food. Most of the time, I’m a When-In-Rome kind of guy: a healthy eater who isn’t afraid to occasionally indulge in whatever the rest of my crew of the moment is eating, be it snails, Taco Bell, menudo or Little Debbie bars. Even at the peak of my vegetarian years, when the sound of sizzling meat made me gag, I went to a hockey game with my favorite mountain redneck cousin and somehow managed to wolf down a bratwurst. Likewise, we feed our daughter plenty of organic fruits and veggies, and she’s never yet had a bite of fast food, but we’re not Nazis about it, and now and then she gets a sip of soda pop, or a donut or industrial egg breakfast.

But after a few days with my Midwestern in-laws, my wife and I realized that we simply couldn’t go with the flow, for while Grandpa was kind enough to buy us all plane tickets (the 6 a.m. departure time somewhat mitigating this kind gesture) and spring for the condo, he refused to spend an extra penny on groceries, or let us borrow his car to try to seek out (likely unavailable) healthy options somewhere in town, which meant that the fridge and cupboard was stocked with the cheapest possible foodstuffs, all of it sporting a “GREAT VALUE” logo. The bread was white. The bacon smelled rancid. The coffee was pale AND decaf. The lettuce was iceberg and brown. The hot dogs dyed red. Eventually I hit the simmering hot streets and managed to round up some survival food — Quaker oats, natural peanut butter, apples and oranges, some decent rye bread — but by then my wife and I weren’t feeling so well, and our daughter was both constipated and moody as hell.


In retrospect, the slumber party probably wasn’t the best idea, but Elsie rarely gets to see her cousins, so we relent and let the three girls (aged three, nine and 12) sleep three to a bed in the next room over, where they (probably jacked up on the “juice beverage”) jump on the bed and giggle away the wee hours of the night. The next morning, she’s grumpy and defiant, and wants nothing to do with her parents. She shakes off our hands when we try to walk together down to the beach, then, due to the fact that her girly girl cousins don’t like the muck and sand of the ocean, decides that the ocean isn’t any fun and tells us she wants to go to the swimming pool, where she demands water wings and proceeds to swim and play games with everyone in the family except us … “No, not you Daddy, I want to swim to my Grandpa.” By day five, she’s traipsing down to the pool with her uncles, checking out the gift shops with her aunts and chewing her first-ever bubble gum, courtesy of a cousin, and we don’t see her for hours at a time.

As parents, our child’s growing independence is a mixed blessing. When she finally weans herself from the boob, her momma breaks out in tears of sadness, even as she welcomes the return of her body. When she’s fully potty trained, daddy gets wistful over the fact that he’ll never change another shitty diaper, even though he couldn’t wait for the day to arrive. Every milestone is celebrated and lamented, for each of them embodies, for the parents, a degree of helplessness in the form of “letting go” and accepting the fact that their child is marching toward adulthood and, ultimately, a complete separation from Mom and Dad. “They grow up so fast” is the ultimate cliche, and every parent will hear it (and say it) a billion times, but they’ll concur with the sentiment: the magical moments slip away, and every one of your child’s celebrated steps toward independence feels like a knife in the heart.

Those painful feelings are hard enough when our daughter’s evolving along on the preordained milestone path I mentioned above. They’re extra painful when the budding independence is thrown in your face in the form of a horribly hateful tantrum that erupts when you’re calmly and lovingly trying to sing her to sleep. Seems she had a different vision of how the night should unfold: another slumber party. So when things didn’t transpire like she planned, all hell broke loose, and I was treated to an amazing display of my daughter’s budding vocabulary, as well as level of furious, if temporary, hate-filled diatribe directed right at me …



Sheer drama, while pounding on the walls and door: “I WANT A HAMMER TO BREAK DOWN THIS DOOR!”

Hitting, kicking, screaming and, finally, as loud as her pure little almost-four-year-old lungs could yell, the ultimate twist of the knife: “I DON’T LOVE YOU ANYMORE!”

Ouch. But I must maintain my composure. Don’t laugh at the absurdity of it all. Don’t cry at the jab. Most of all, remain calm and don’t match her anger with anger of my own — let my heart break a little bit, take a deep breath, then pick her up in my arms and hold her securely in my lap, chest to chest. This increases the fury momentarily, but I continue to breathe deeply and encourage her to do the same. Breathe in. Breathe out. Just like the waves crashing on the beach, a visual she can relate to. Breathe in. Breathe out. Just like the waves.

The fists stop flying. The screams subside. The wrathful Kraken of a few moments ago sobs a few more times, puts her head on my shoulder, and soon falls asleep in my arms.


On the last day of the trip, while the rest of the family drove to an outlet mall, the three of us took a ferry to a nearby undeveloped island and did some exploring. It was a small taste of wild Florida, a glimpse of what this part of the world must have been like a couple hundred years ago: long, empty beaches devoid of umbrellas, jet skis and the smell of cologne; tall white sand dunes anchored in place by native oats and grasses, and groves of native longleaf pines shading sawgrassy bogs. We strolled down the beach, picking shells and chasing the crabs, grateful for this last day together. A gap in the dunes appeared. We passed through it and into another world: a huge wiregrass meadow, surrounded by palmetto palms and tall pines, and echoing with the croaking of frogs and the songs of thousands of birds. We sat and listened. No roar of air conditioning. No family dramas. Not even the sound of crashing waves. Nothing but us and the frogs and the birds. A small bird landed in a nearby shrub and sang its trilling song. “Redwinged blackbird,” my daughter said.

It was the highlight of my trip.


It would be nice to just end it there and pretend like everything was healed by our family foray on the island, but it wasn’t. For weeks, our daughter, not yet even four years old, continued to tell us she was fat, and that she shouldn’t be naked. On the plane ride home, she blamed a boy on the plane for stealing her toy and trying to hit her, something a cousin had (falsely) accused her of doing numerous times in the condo. And it took quite awhile for her to start eating veggies again.

This trip was a taste of what’s to come: LOSING CONTROL AND LETTING GO. Try as we may, Mom and Dad will never be able to shield our daughter from the tsunami of outside influences. Friends, teachers, relatives, movies, music, books … all of these things will shape her in ways we cannot even imagine, and, before we know it, she’ll be making ALL of her own decisions based upon what she thinks is right, and we certainly won’t always agree or even understand where she’s coming from. Today, it’s Grandpa making her cognizant of the fact that “fat” is bad, or a cousin teaching her that lying is acceptable. Tomorrow, it’s a minister telling her that her natural urges are sinful, or a girlfriend offering up that first cigarette.

But that’s the way it goes. We can provide her with a stable and healthy home. We can support her interests and encourage her to follow her heart. We can do our best to model good behavior in our own lives and actions. We can try to steer her toward positive influences. But nothing we do can keep her from the fact that suffering and confusion are facts of life, and in the end, all we can do is love her and hope for the best.

A Primer

“In the beginning, years ago, I think I said too much. I spoke with an encyclopedic knowledge of the names of plants or the names of birds passing through in season. Gradually I came to say less. After a while the only words I spoke, beyond answering a question…were to elucidate single objects.”
Barry Lopez, “Children in the Woods”

At this point in my life, 400 days from turning 40, I’m not a big believer in religion or any unseen world. Except when I’m hanging out with my daughter, a three-year-old ball of golden-haired fire. Sometimes, she ALMOST makes me want to believe in some sort of Supreme Being — but not for the reasons you might think. Not because she’s a little angel. Not because I think all babies are miracles. Nothing like that. She makes me want to believe in a bearded man in heaven because such faith would allow me to say “BECAUSE GOD MADE IT THAT WAY” whenever the questioning gets too tough for me to answer

It’s the quintessential “why-is-the-sky-blue?” sort of thing. The mind of a child trying to make sense of the world around her, accompanied by the half-baked, half-assed, half-educated brain of a parent trying to explain things without resorting to fairy tales (yet maintaining some semblance of magic), and doing his or her best to impart some scientific truthiness so the little girl with the wondering eyes can learn a thing or two.

Example: It’s spring and the trees are budding, and any kid who’s not glued to the teevee knows that this is special and worth noticing, worth checking out. She asks about the furry catkins on the aspen alongside the trail. She knows it’s an aspen because the bark is white, easy enough, but she’s never seen a catkin, so I pluck one and show it to her. Soft, fuzzy, obviously like a caterpillar, which she points out to me. I explain that this will become seeds for the trees, and that the wind will blow the seeds away, and some of them will sprout and make new trees. Easy enough … there’s tomato starters in the kitchen window, so she knows the sprouting seeds drill. But WHY are there seeds? Well, so there can be baby trees. WHY are there baby trees? So they can grow into big trees. WHY? So they can make more baby trees. Pause and ponder. WHY are there trees? Because the trees give us shade, and oxygen to breathe (grossly human-centered answer, I know, I know). WHY? Because they use the sunlight to make food, then breathe out oxygen for us. WHY? Because they evolved that way? Pause and ponder. WHY? Because billions of years ago, in some primordial swamp, a zap of lightning (or sunlight, or hot water, depending on which version I’m spinning) turned some molecules into some building blocks of life, and they randomly figured out that the sun was a good way to make food.

And on and on, backwards through time … the formation of the planets, supernovas, eventually to the Big Bang. And when you go back that far, you basically end up with one of two ultimate answers:

1) “Because a former Universe quit expanding and began contracting until that entire Universe was just a tiny little dot, then it exploded and made a new one.”

This is good, and some astronomers think this is how things may have unfolded this time around, but has one problem — it turns the discussion into a circular story with no prospect of an end, or a beginning, and offers no final answer to the question, inviting another round of WHY. Which is okay, for a while, but 45 minutes later, I’ve come dangerously close to resorting to:


Neatly wrapped, all-encompassing answer that requires no further discussion and could halt the inquisition issuing forth from the kid strapped to my back … but alas, as in life — unable to bite the mythical bait — so in daddyhood: I just can’t bring myself to utter those utterly final words. The final word, so to speak. So when the chatterbox just won’t stop, I simply tell her I DON’T KNOW.

Which is fine. She’ll figure out soon enough that mommy and daddy are plodding blindly through life, as clueless as anyone with regards to where the WHY chain begins or ends. Fine, that is, unless you’re fond of the Good Book. The one that begins at the BEGINNING of it all and ends with the END. According to that one, Jesus himself says that I’m headed for the fire due to the fact that I’m keeping a little child from the Lord, one of just a handful of utterly unforgivable sins.

Don’t get me wrong, for while I may actively prevent my daughter from indulging in things like crazy colored sugar cereals, Mcmeat products or Sunday School, I’m more than willing to allow for a book or two of Bible stories on her shelf, right alongside pint-sized tomes about Greek goddesses, Nordic heroes, Tibetan monks, ballerina princesses, baby animals and a swell little biography of Georgia O’Keefe. Like it or not, Biblical tales are part of our collective consciousness, part of our culture, and many of them are good stories: a tribe of wanderers trying to figure out how to function in a rough-and-tumble desert chock full of lions, serpents, flash floods and drought … not so different than New Mexico really. Heck, they even ride camels and camp in tents, both of which my daughter has done, so she can relate.

Good stuff, at least at the kiddo level. Useful parables about building your house on a rock instead of the sand, or how humble folks with good intentions can conquer seemingly insurmountable adversity. And there’s no genocide in the children’s stories. No smiting. No massacres. No hellfire or eternal damnation. Best of all, at least in our books, NO GODDAMN DEVIL.

The Devil came into my life via a kid in the trailer court I grew up in. A poor kid with a permanent flaking skin condition and a single drunk mom who drove smack dab over my puppy while driving us to school one morning. The kind of kid who gets sent to the store to fetch mom another pack of Salems. He told me about the Devil, probably on the same day he showed me the porno mag he found in his ma’s bedroom, or the long day he held me hostage with a can of bug spray, and it freaked me out. This was more than just a bump in the night. Suddenly there was evil in my world, an actual EVIL BEING who was bent on harming me, who was always trying to trick me into doing things that would send me to HELL (such as gazing at my first porno mag).

Which is why I bite my (forked) tongue and don’t resort to “BECAUSE GOD MADE IT THAT WAY” when the questions get tough — because the notion of god leads one to religion, and religion, at least in this one nation under god, invariably, if temporarily, leads you to the Bible and the folks who thump it, who can’t wait to tell you all about the devil so they can scare you into joining their club. And I don’t want my daughter to have to wrestle with that sort of thing. Not yet. That can happen later, when she goes to college (on a full scholarship), smokes pot for the first (and only) time and wrestles with the problem of evil in Philosophy 101. She already knows the world can be a bad place. All kids knows this, no matter how loved or how stable a home life they might have. Diaper rash burns. Bigger kids take your toys. Daddy gets grumpy. Mama’s boobs aren’t forever. Ants bite. Bees sting. You don’t always get ice cream. All life is suffering, and the dark is scary enough as it is without worrying about whether THE DEVIL might be hiding in it.

So fiddlesticks on the devil, and more importantly, on the hysterical fear of him. A fear that ripped human culture from the womb of the earth and plopped it into the hands of a jealous and angry god. A fear that leveled the sacred groves of Europe. A fear that led to the wholesale slaughter of midwives, herbalists and storytellers who dared stray from accepted religious dogma. A fear that spread across continents and oceans like a disease, seeking out and destroying any perceived threat to the spiritual status quo found in rat- and cathedral-infested Rome, London or Madrid.

Questioning the status quo is a good thing, and as long as my daughter is going through this stage of incessant, root-level questioning of everything around her, I’m going to answer to the best of my ability. I know she’s soaking it up because out of the blue she’ll blurt out things like (while eating green beans) “I’m a T-Rex, and I’m eating stegosaurus legs”, or (while getting slathered in sunscreen) “the sun is a star, and stars are big balls of fire,” or (while hiking) “those trees died and they’re turning back into soil.” From the mouths of babes: biology, astronomy, paleontology, the knowledge that dispels irrational fear of the dark, the mysterious, the unknown.

This is all well and good, but at the same time, I gotta make sure that my personal aversion to Judeo-Christian-Islamic triumvirate doesn’t cause me to turn my daughter’s world into a dreary “just the facts” sort of place, shorn of mystery and enchantment. Our fear of the Devil and his brother Jehovah may have caused us to deny our Earth Momma, but our soulless scientific rationalism has taken that denial and ran with it — strapped it to the top of a Hummer and hit the gas, crammed it into an oil tanker and headed straight for a hidden reef — filling a gaping spiritual void by plundering any vestige of goodness left untrammeled by the Good News and transforming it into cold, hard, rational profits: herbs into energy drinks, old growth into plywood, genetic code into an industrial plaything. I don’t want my daughter to have to wrestle with all that either. Not yet. That can happen later, when she goes to college, smokes pot (for just the second and only other time) and decides that her economics class is a load of horseshit that just doesn’t jibe with the “Leaves of Grass” she’s reading in poetry class.

Which brings me back to catkins, and questions, and attempted answers. Edward Abbey once wrote: “The Earth needs no defense, only more defenders.” I would also suggest, with all due respect for the Lorax (who speaks for the trees) and well-intended parents everywhere, that the Earth needs no spokespeople, only more people willing to listen to what it’s saying. Answer questions? Yes, of course, always. Point out the vultures circling overhead? Sure, and you can even mention the fact that they eat dead things if you want. But watch out for: “This furry catkin … pregnant with possibility, an unbroken chain of evolving life force, a goddamn scientific miracle right in the palm of your hand sweetheart, just let me count the ways.”

No. No, no, no. JUST SHUT UP Daddy, and listen. Let the planet speak for itself; try to see the world through the eyes of a child, like the child you THINK you’re teaching. She’s already paying more attention that you are. Leave the mental geology book on the shelf and allow the “single objects” to gradually reveal themselves and their connection to every other single object, the whole infinitely bigger than the sum of its parts (and each part infinite in its own right).

This might entail a trip to the wilderness to witness firsthand the roar and spray of a hidden waterfall, or trout jumping in a shimmering mountain lake (we’re hoping for our first backpacking trip this summer), but it could just as easily mean watching the magpie strut along the cinderblock wall, or flipping over rocks together in the back yard to see what kind of creepy crawlies exist, well, right in your own back yard. It’s a lot more fun than a trip to church, a lot more interesting than a list of facts, and easy as mud pie: just step outside, hand in hand with your little girl or boy, and see what happens.