My daughters aren’t very young anymore. Or maybe you wouldn’t agree. They can still tally their earth years using the original abacus — human digits. Shouldn’t one be considered young, you might contend, if in common American parlance that one is referred to as a “teenager?” OK. Conceded. From the vantage of a fully earth-cultured adult, I recognize that 13 and 16 must still be considered ages of youth.
But these finishing ages for my young ladies only foster in me a greater appreciation for that period of life when ages were still counted without taking off shoes. Adolescent youth. The fewer the digits the better. Pre-knowledge, still in the garden youth. I refer fondly here to the great “Wow!”-not-”Why?” age of puerility!
I even recall the sense of loss I experienced when my first daughter began to speak. We taught her to apply these secondhand symbols to the manifold sensations of her experience. Then, during frequent adventures into the lowland behind our house, I began to have word questions to answer. Silent but expansive communion was compressed into audible words, and then partly spoiled by communication. “Why is the sky blue?” she began to ask in a narrow, seeking way, where before was only a wide-eyed and wonder-filled gaze into the heavens that celebrated, “Wow!, the sky is BLUE!” And to honor that silent exclamation I had only to piggyback on her wonder, lifting old, green eyes in a parallel gaze that screamed silently, “Wow! It sure is!” In those pre-word or limited-vocabulary days, we quietly revered the quality of our surroundings, and I think it possible that Anna and I will never be as close as we were before stiff-arming our spiritual embrace with words.
Old pictures tell it one way, but in reality, I was the piggy-back rider when my daughters were young, hijacking their spirits to steal glimpses of the creation through youthful eyes. A 2016 January snowstorm reminded me just how different is this “teenaged” stage of youth. A snowstorm used to be one of the biggest things that could happen in our Richmond lives. Many other winters have passed here with hardly a dusting. The 12-inch blanket of white crystals laid over us this past January was an extra big snow, probably the biggest of their lives, and set the stage for a big experience. But my girls are older now, and being cultured to value knowledge over experience.
We tried sledding, but we’re too big now for tandem sledding. Taking turns is not the same, and as we stood around awkwardly between one-at-a-time runs it became obvious that the “together” part had been 95% of our prior sledding fun. Back in the house, we watched a movie by the fire, and then my young adults disappeared into their rooms to chat with friends and get to work. Their teachers had emailed assignments to make sure this rare natural event would not fully interrupt their learning. Poor kids. A snow event was better protection from forced knowledge back in my day.
With the girls in their rooms and me wandering uncomfortably through old snow day memories, the bright, white present was about to slip by without proper homage from the Turner family. But then I saw Cinna sitting expectantly by the door.
Thank goodness for dogs! Ignorant dogs. Innocent dogs. True children of the earth, and reverent garden dwellers. Always available to give an old man or woman a spiritual lift and a piggyback ride. Isn’t that why we love our dogs? Knowledge never interferes with their desire to bathe in nature’s eternal spring. To wallow in it, even. They certainly never miss a chance to play in it. I think we love our dogs mostly because we find their immature mental condition peaceful and contagious.
I call Anna and Brooke from their rooms, we pull on warm clothes, we climb on the back of Cinna the mutt, and we chase off into the lowland bounding through snow up to our chins. Wow! The air is so cold! So invigorating! It makes us run back and forth and around in wild circles until we don’t even know where we’re running anymore.
Brainfreeze! Wow! The white stuff is so bright and so tasty. We eat it until our teeth hurt. We plop down in it, rub our backs in it, stick our faces in it. Wow! We can walk on water! The creek was wet and runny last time. Cold, hard and slippery this time. Go figure! Whoops! Fell right through the hard part and back into the wet. Now it crunches. Now we crunch it under our paws. Did you see me jump all the way across? Ok, not all the way but almost. Watch this time! Wow! Do you smell that!? Do you see that!? Do you hear that!? Do you feel that!?
My daughters and I ride Cinna’s youthful spirit downstream along Rattlesnake Creek, sometimes walking on ice, sometimes balancing on rocks, laughing, playing, and revering. It has become our more mature tradition on snow days to hike the Rattlesnake through the lowlands to its confluence with the James just east of the “Huguenot Woods” section of the James River Park System. There was a time when a canine escort was optional, back when the young ladies provided all the lift. But theirs is a different youth now, more complicated, and slightly heavier in spirit.
Frowns or sadness once brought about only by fear or physical discomfort can now spawn from bad thoughts or bad ideas. On their bookshelves, “Brown Bear Brown Bear what do you see?” has been replaced by “The Catcher in the Rye,” “The Lord of the Flies,” and “Hamlet.” They gain spiritually dangerous knowledge, sometimes, and knowledge that leads to that worst of all human conditions — anxiety. That overcast of uncertainty, that anxiety, brought on by knowledge, begins to intercept the bright experiential sunshine of earlier youth. This is no mere conjecture. I assure you I’ve seen it first hand and studied it closely, and concluded from evidence that the first great loss of innocence comes long before the biological transformation of puberty. My own children were first unsettled during their adolescence, partly evicted from the garden when we began feeding them fruit from the tree of knowledge.
Today Cinna leads us back in. 95% of our laughter relates to our youthful escort and the uninhibited way she bounds down the creek. 95% of our wonder is related to what she shows us in our surroundings. 95% of our playfulness is in imitation of her, and 95% of our contentment is the result of hijacking her spirit, and looking through innocent eyes into a snow-covered garden of immense beauty. Our dog brings us together, and on a snow day, together is 95% of the fun. And so I say again, thank goodness for dogs!
As we move across Riverside Drive and into the narrow “Huguenot Woods” section of the park system, we begin to hear a strange, soft sound. Wow! Odd for me at my age to hear an unfamiliar sound. Like rain on a tin roof? Na. Not gravelly enough. Like light rain on open water? Nope. Not the same consistency. Like river rapids? Almost, but not urgent, white and fuzzy enough. It’s a scratchy, slightly variable, and sandy hiss that we hear. Strange and without compare. Subtle and distant, but also everywhere at once, softly filling the air. Intrigued, we press ahead to where our creek joins the piedmont’s major tributary.
At the mouth of Rattlesnake Creek we find the surface of the James scaled with small plates of ice, all moving gently eastward. There is only a slight gradient here, and at normal water levels, the flow is almost imperceptible. Today the mottled skin allows us to clearly see the river’s slow crawl. The scratchy hissing noise has grown louder, but only when we follow Cinna close to the frozen edges do we discover its source. Those floating scales are making tiny scratching sounds as they scrape along the frozen edge. Individual scrapes are barely audible, but in concert with millions of other tiny scrapes the sound grows to become a subtle but pervasive hiss.
The untravelled Huguenot Bridge is silent. The woods are silent. But on the first day of the 2016 snowstorm, the James River hisses strangely as it crawls its way through a frozen landscape on its way to downtown Richmond. A sound like no other. Wow!
Back in the house, exhausted Cinna does her post-adventure dead animal impersonation — long and flat prostration. The girls go back into their rooms to gain knowledge. I sit in the armchair by the fire, my head filled with thoughts of gardens, snakes, and bad fruit. And then, because I’m hopelessly human, the thoughts become words.