The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Fire Towers and Fiddleheads June 6, 2011

Yesterday was such a bright and busy day that Elihu requested we have a ‘do nothing’ day today. And so we did. Not to say that nothing was done. I made meals, washed dishes, caught up on laundry, got the chickens out, put them back in, cleaned up the mess the raccoons had made of our platform bird feeder, collected eggs, cleaned up a hand-me-down gas grill (which is unfortunately trash despite my best efforts) and made a moth habitat in our gecko’s old terrarium. And all this without getting out of my pajamas (did manage to don an apron). Day is done, and I’m ready for bed. So there! It’s good to live off the road…

Yesterday Elihu, a classmate of his and I visited a local wilderness preserve in honor of the local hero: the Karner Blue Butterfly. It’s not doing so well these days (I believe it’s endangered) and lives primarily on a local blue lupine flower which is currently in bloom. A neighboring town created a day-long celebration around the week in which the little creatures could be seen flitting about the preserve. There were fun things to do for the kids – and there were lots of kids about. They were provided with nets to scoop up critters from the lake which they then could deposit into plastic bins for all to see and identify. The big boys ventured down the wooded slopes to the creek which was home to minnows, the preferred catch. As I sat in the sunshine feeling very good about the expanse of water before me (I love water, I crave it, I miss lake Michigan dearly) the boys chased after crayfish and snails. There was no hurrying this day along. I sat for over an hour. Young mothers with tiny babies and elderly couples wearing sun visors and too many clothes for the hot day shared the bench with me as I sat. I felt so blessed to be agenda-free on such an exquisite day.

After another hour holding snakes and admiring a small collection of injured and rehabbed birds of prey we then headed off through the woods and up the side of a good-sized hill to see the newly restored fire tower. We’d planned on going to the top. I didn’t think much of it, it didn’t look very challenging. I’d hoped to rush in and to the top without time in which to reconsider. We were stopped, however, and made to join a list of folks waiting for the privilege of climbing the ten open flights of stairs to the top. Elihu’s classmate said he wasn’t going with us. I lobbied in favor of doing it; I explained that if he didn’t, he might never remember this day – it would just be another summer afternoon of many – yet should he choose to climb the tower with us he would not only be very proud of himself, but this day would forever stand out in his memory. He didn’t consider my argument for even a second, but instead asked if he could return to the lake. I released him from the challenge, and soon he was gone.

Elihu and I were undaunted by our half hour wait, and were excited and ready when our turn came. Yet by the third flight of the wire mesh stairs it became evident to us that this would be a little more challenging than we’d thought. I was surprised that my low-vision kid, who can’t see images just twenty feet away from him was becoming nervous as we moved farther away from the ground. We both talked to ourselves encouragingly. Such things as ‘we can do this, it’s safe, people have done this all day’, and ‘imagine the guys who had to make this silly thing’. If it weren’t for the mom ahead of us (whose own kids and husband bailed by the second landing) I’m not sure we would have made it. Elihu and I cited an expression used by an old-timer friend of the family now many years gone. The old farmer would express the sensation of being up too high as inspiring ‘asshole pucker’. We’d cleaned the saying up a bit by making it into ‘pucker factor’. That factor was definitely palpable here. ! But by keeping our focus on the connection our feet and hands made with the metal as we pushed on, and by saving our consideration of the great altitude for the top, we finally made it.

Atop the tower was a small room, about 8×8, with of course, a hole in the floor through which we entered. The hole offered dizzying evidence of how far down the ground actually was. A 70-something fellow stood to welcome us, not that his demeanor made us feel so welcome at all. His face showed something more like scorn, fixed in an unamused scowl. To lighten the mood, and because he was there for us, really, I asked his name. ‘Larry’ he said. A pause. He wasn’t giving us any more. That distraction over, I finally looked about to enjoy the reward. It was stunning. We were now quite far above the tall treetops of the forest and could see the Adirondacks stretched out to the north and the Green Mountains of Vermont to our east. Larry even helped me to locate a landmark, the cell tower on our road, so that I might further appreciate where we stood in the lay of the land. I savored the cool, high-up breeze. It felt rare and free, unstopped by the hot goings-on of dirt, houses and asphalt. The air alone was worth the climb. Aware of the line of folks waiting below (although to stick my head out and actually look down upon the people waiting was not something I could quite bring myself to do) we wrapped things up and began our descent. I went first, and behind me Elihu was stopped at the prospect of making the first frightening steps back down. I was touched as Larry spoke to him as a father, gently telling him where to place his hands on the railing and offering tender encouragement. It revealed to me in that tiny moment so much about the man. Larry’d had a long day up there in that tiny box, and as unamused with giggling tourists as he might have been, in the end he was a very kind man. I thanked him in my heart as Elihu plucked up his courage and followed me down.

Once down, I shelled out $5 for a cloth patch of the fire tower so that Elihu might put it on his school backpack as a show of pride and accomplishment. He also received a little card from the fellow signing folks in that showed him to have ‘climbed the Cornell Hill Fire Tower’. So there.

We retrieved Elihu’s friend and hopped into the car to visit the butterfly preserve which was about a mile down the road. It was an open expanse of rolling hills with sandy trails and stands of blue lupine flowers. A few tall oak trees stood here and there giving the scene a dream-like feel. The little insects, while not ubiquitous, were to be seen flitting about through the stands of lupine and across the sandy path. Elihu’s friend and I tried our best to point them out to him, but without the benefit of color vision they are hard to spot. They are also less than an inch across, and would not cooperate by staying still long enough for us to pin down their location. I decided after a hot and dusty half hour that we would head back. Elihu began to cry, to sob. ‘I’m not leaving until I see a butterfly! This is why I came here in the first place!’ His pal kindly put an arm around him and tried to console him. ‘It’s Ok buddy, we’ll find you a butterfly, ok?’ That was an especially sweet thing to do, for this kid is a rough and tumble, dirt bike riding sort of kid – rather the polar opposite of Elihu. I have a snapshot of that moment in my mind’s eye. Inspired by the show of support I got on board too and declared that we would send out our request to the universe – and to the little critters – that we wanted to see one, we expected to see one, we had no harmful motives. And a magical thing happened.

I told us all to quiet ourselves, stop where we were, send out these thoughts and wait for just moment. As we squatted down on the sandy path, a little blue creature flitted over to us. I extended my hand, and she (makes it lovelier to call her that, don’t you think?) landed on it. She stayed. Elihu saw her. She was an exquisite pale blue with pink iridescence. The outside of her wings which were much more difficult to see as she flew were now plainly visible as she closed them for us. Astonishing how beautiful. I was surprised that she was so finely detailed, so subtly colored, so perfectly adorned. For whom? For what purpose? Surely for the purpose of beauty alone. ‘Can I hold her?’ Elihu’s friend asked. I touched my hand to his, and the little creature walked onto his hand. Finally, Elihu put his hand out, and the butterfly continued her walk onto his finger. My son could not resist; he cupped his other hand over her and brought her close to his eyes to see. I wonder how much he can see as his glasses are dark and red… I know he can’t see color, but he can see detail. He must see the tiny designs, mustn’t he? It seems that there is so much deeper a fascination of nature for this child, perhaps not in spite of, but perhaps because of his limited ability to see it as we do. This was a thrilling end to our day. Elihu lifted the creature to the air, and she departed. We three stood there, each one of us realizing how magical this had been. A perfect time to end our afternoon and head home. Thank you, little butterfly.

That night I made a tasty dinner of perfectly-prepared sirloin steak with fiddleheads for our vegetable. It is times like this that make me so grateful to have this young person alongside me in my life. I told him that these were picked right here in our area, and that they were considered delicacies in other parts of the country. While they were $20 a pound in Arizona, they were a fraction of that here, and they were fresh! My story wasn’t necessary to sell the vegetable; he is excited by anything of nature and the prospect of munching on these perfect curls of baby ferns was enough. They were asparagus-like and yet not, of the woods and green tasting with a slight crunch, luckily I’d prepared them pretty well. This was a simple meal, a perfect meal. (My kid has no desire for carbs in his meals – past and rice never get more than one bite. I sure don’t need ’em, so I rarely prepare any.) Dinner finished, sunburn stinging on our shoulders and the chickens safely in their coops, we got ready for bed.

A day of sunshine, butterflies, fire towers and fiddleheads. Another good one.

 

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