Hope for a Grandson

In two weeks, if not sooner, I’m having a grandson.

I’m sitting here, feet propped up on a short stack of firewood, contemplating the fire I’m going to get around to building in the wood stove and the life that my grandson may lead. A life, I hope, that’s a life worth living.

Out the window, six inches of snow lies on the ground and everything else. The deciduous bottomland forest across the Sangamon River lacks any trace of green, as the leafless trees sway in the brisk winter wind, their branches endlessly intertwined, forming infinite twisted patterns against the uniformly white overcast sky.

In Forest Bathing, Dr. Qing Li writes of fractals. “Nature creates beautiful patterns everywhere we look: in the petals of a flower, in the branches of a snowflake…these natural patterns are called fractals. Think of the way a tree grows. One trunk grows until it divides into two branches, then the two branches divide into another two, and those two divide into another two.” Dr. Li shares that Richard Taylor, professor of Physics, Psychology and Art at the University of Oregon has done “a huge amount” of research on looking at fractal patterns and finds that looking at them “can reduce stress by as much as 60 percent.”

I’d say it’s at least that.

A red squirrel came walking by softly but intentionally across the top of the snow. He sat on his haunches for a bit and looked around, thinking. Then he walked over a few feet to a seemingly random, but particular spot in the snow and proceeded to dig down with intense vigor, glancing up now and then to see who may be watching. Then he sat up, acorn in teeth and ran over to the maple tree nearby, scurried up to the lowest branch, had a seat, held his acorn in his paws and had a snack.

A few weeks ago, on a cold day, my daughter decided she wanted a chain saw lesson. Excited by this level of interest, I got my Stihl out of the basement and went down by the river. After a few safety pointers, I carefully set the choke, pulled five times til the engine sputtered, lifted the choke to halfway and – viola! – it continued to sputter. I pulled, it sputtered. And again, and again, ad infinitum. Finally, I gave up, the lesson being that chain saws sure can be delicate and temperamental things and they, like me, don’t really like cold weather anyway.

Nonetheless, suspecting what the problem was, I laid the Stihl to rest in our living room. 30 minutes later, I took it outside, pulled with the choke on til it sputtered, released the choke to halfway and VROOM! Cranked that baby right up! Proving that even chain saws need a little warmth in their lives sometimes.

We had a good lesson, with me pointing out the necessity of leather chain saw chaps, safety goggles and steel toed boots, none of which we actually had, but, as I carefully pointed out, we would have if we were chain sawing safely. We cut up several fireplace sized logs from one of our several slowly dying ash trees in our yard. I don’t usually cut down the trees themselves, preferring to leave them standing for wildlife habitat. But they graciously and periodically drop large branches that we then cut up. We stacked them neatly by the trunk of a large black walnut and called it a day. A week or so later, the river rose and took half our logs away, but that’s the way life on a river goes sometimes.

Out front, we share our bounty with the birds. On these snowy days, the feeders have more visitors than ever, including but not limited to: blue jay, flicker, tufted titmouse, cardinal, dove, dark-eyed junco, black-capped chickadee, nuthatch, wren, goldfinch, purple finch, downy woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker, and yes, even starlings.

Earlier, we smashed our fall pumpkins out in the front yard, added some corn we bought at Rural King and some apples we bought at Aldi that went bad before we got around to eating them. A few mornings back perched in bed with Carol we watched out our window over morning coffee as 7 or 8 deer came through the snow in the woods and into our yard and had quite the feast.

Kurt Vonnegut once wrote: “We are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.” I believe this is true, especially when it comes to wildlife.

As a commissioner for the Champaign County Forest Preserve District, I occasionally get updates from Executive Director Wuellner about goings on in the Forest Preserve. This past week, she notified us that she received a report that a woman running with her dog in Buffalo Trace had been harassed by coyotes.

Since we all love us some coyotes, the Forest Preserve posted a sign pointing out proper human-canine-coyote encounter etiquette. This involves standing your ground, flailing your arms and looking large. Face that coyote eye-to-eye and whatever you do, don’t turn and run. They can do 45 mph in short bursts. Can you? Just slowly back up. And also: keep your dog on its leash. They also point out that luckily, human v. coyote encounters that end badly for the human are very, very rare. Encounters that end badly for the coyote, not so much. Keep that in mind.

The moon right now, behind the overcast sky, is waxing. I find there’s something very pleasing in speaking of a “waxing moon”, meaning only that it’s getting bigger, fuller. Like my daughter – the one having our grandson, not the one who had the chainsaw lesson. My sister tells us babies are more likely to be born during a full moon, only a few days away now. We Googled this and found it to be false, but my sister still swears it’s true, at least for our family. We’ll see, I say. We’ll see.

I hope my grandson leads a life appreciating the relaxation that fractal patterns in leafless trees blowing in the winter wind can bring; a life where he enjoys watching a squirrel finding an acorn and having a snack on a low hanging maple branch. I hope he leads a life helping others get through it, whatever it is – especially when the others are wildlife. I hope it’s a life where he must consider proper etiquette for human-coyote encounters in the local Forest Preserve. I hope it’s a life in which he understands and appreciates the phases of the moon and the effect the moon has on us, whatever it is. And I hope it’s a life where he knows how to safely crank up his nice, warm chain saw and give a dying ash tree new life in a fire warming his home. A life like that, well, that’s a life worth living.

Appeared as Rivers and Roads, Mahomet Citizen, by Scott Hays January 18, 2019

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