What happened in the childhoods of environmentalists to make them grow up with a love for the natural world?
A University of Kentucky study revealed two common denominators: 1) As children, they spent many hours outdoors in a keenly remembered wild or semi-wild place, and 2) an adult taught them a love and respect for nature.
My father wasn’t a loving man. He worked long hours at the Army Corps of Engineers, which left him feeling angry and trapped. Like sailors reading the sky, my sisters and I learned to watch him for bad signs.
But when he was outside, everything changed. He was still awkward, but so much more a father. Outside he knew just what to say and what we would enjoy doing together.
Like the day in March with a wind like no other I had ever felt, he wrapped a sister and me up in his Army blanket and lay us giggling on the squeaky metal glider. There we lay, a double-headed cocoon, warm and safe. Against my mother’s better judgment, he wanted us to experience the wind. He stood on the porch next to us, head thrown back, smiling, his white T-shirt glowing in the green of the approaching storm.
Outdoors, things that would have driven a kind man crazy didn’t faze my father. Once, in my eagerness to be a gardener like him, I pulled up all his recently planted winter onions, every single last 50-odd of them, and laid them on the back porch, a huge clod of dirt still attached to their roots. Rather than scold me, he allotted me my own 14- by 5-foot garden where everything was allowed.
We shared a love for animals, among them an ornate box turtle that, in spite of the chain link between him and the pasture he had been free to roam only a few years before our subdivision was built, found his way into the flower garden my father had planted. Turtle was bigger around than a teacup and smaller than a dinner plate and about 15 years old, my father said, counting the concentric age rings on one of the scutes of his shell. He allowed me to paint one of Turtle’s toenails with bright pink polish, thinking it might just help us identify him again, which it did for three seasons.
Where inside my father caused me frustration and resentment, outside, he found a way even to comfort me on one of the worst days I can remember. I had seen a cottontail skin itself on our fence, trying to escape the neighbor dog. Without working legs, all it could do was lie on its side and let out a boiling-teakettle scream. I ran for my father, but before I could lead him back to the rabbit, it had stopped screaming and breathing. We touched its fur with our dirty outside hands and looked at its toe pads and pink veined ears, things living animals will not permit.
While I tried to hide my tears from him, he told me a story about jackrabbits. As a small boy, he had been thrilled to be included in the jackrabbit roundup in his hometown of Healy.
“I loved jackrabbits,” he said. His father told him to find a stick and whittle and polish it, even carve his name on it if he wanted. When the big day came, my father stood in a long line of male relatives and neighbors. Shoulder to shoulder, they combed the fields. He hadn’t realized what he’d been meant to do with his stick. In western Kansas in the 1930s, a jackrabbit became someone to blame. To my grandfather’s shame, my father spent the rest of the day hiding in a shed, his fingers in his ears.
“I just couldn’t do it,” he said.
“Do rabbits go to heaven?” I asked.
Raised Southern Baptist, he knew the doctrine: Animals didn’t have souls.
Without hesitation, he said, “I think they do.”
We buried the rabbit together in the garden where its body, he said, would make other things grow.