Dana Wilde and grandson Silas at the brook in Troy in 2019. Photo courtesy of Jack Wilde

Silas’s top priority when he gets to our house is to go into the woods and look for deer poop.

He jumps out of the car, “Come on, Poppop!” like what are you waiting for, and we run down the driveway, while the cat looks on calmly from the deck. Silas is only 4 and I’m only 68 so he runs faster longer than I do. We cut into the woods where the brook passes under the driveway through a 4-foot-wide culvert. If the brook is dry he runs back and forth through the culvert, carrying stones from one end to the other. If the brook is running we throw the stones in the water. He’s good about not getting us soaking wet, exactly.

The brook has obviously run through here for geologic ages because the bed is in a deep groove between slatey, hillocky, tree-covered banks. At one place a crag overlooks the stream by maybe 10 feet, a miniature cliff. We scramble up the steep slope between cedars and spruces to look down at the water bouncing along below. I always say be careful, and he always is. For a 4-year-old, he almost never loses his mind.

When the fascination of the water being so far below wears off, we search for deer poop. This is always successful because there’s a lot of it in these woods. Except in rutting season, a deer’s entire range is about 1 square mile, and the deer whose home includes our 9 acres of woods leave tracks and other spoor all over. Silas isn’t old enough yet to get the concept of a square mile, but he does understand these woods are the deer’s home. We also keep an eye out for mushrooms, spiders and toads, which really fascinate him, though they are seen more frequently in the grass than in the woods.

While I tromp, he hops, jumps, runs, trips, falls, scrambles. We claw our way up the steep slope south of the house among the birches, oaks, maples, ironwood and hemlocks. I point out the huge old pines and say things like, “This tree is more than 100 years old,” which also doesn’t mean much to him yet. But eventually he’ll piece together space and time, like his dad and every other reliable human for the last thousand generations has done.

It’s funny to think that the cat, who has his 14th birthday next week, is more mature than the human. But Brian the cat is definitely the adult, Silas is definitely the child. The child who is father to the man, as it were. Growing up is not just about collecting birthdays and getting physically bigger, and not just about accumulating facts.

The body grows, the mind grows. The intellect gets larger, stronger, more agile, starts being able to understand expressions such as “1 square mile.” The emotions grow more complex and powerful; Silas already has a startling ability to distinguish anger from sadness from happiness, even in himself. The component you might call the moral disposition, your sense of right and wrong, starts forming early too, and needs special guidance because moral feelings are even cloudier than emotions and math equations. But they’re real. Thoughts, emotions and moral feelings all color each other. If you torment a cat when it’s young, it will likely have a nasty disposition when it’s old.

When Silas and I emerge from the woods into the backyard, there’s usually a fair amount of pine pitch, moss stain, humus smudge and plain old muck on sneakers, pants, shirt, legs, hands and face to deal with. Success! One afternoon recently the face was besmeared with who knows what and there was no getting around what had to happen next. “Cleanliness is next to godliness” seems like an exaggeration, but it has a point. Health is a moral issue. His health is good for our health, and our health is good for his.

Silas adamantly was not going to have his face washed. I gently insisted it was unavoidable, for reasons he might not understand now, but would later, in some distant future unimaginable to a 4-year-old. His dad insisted, somewhat more sternly. Silas was willing to take a bath with his dinosaur toys, but wasn’t having the face washing. He hates it. I remember that same feeling. But Silas has some moral clarity that was unavailable to me at his age.

He soon saw that the face-washing had to go forward no matter what. He didn’t understand it was for his health. But he recognized it was a problem he had to reckon with. He did not throw a tantrum of screaming, hollering, refusing to relinquish his right to not have someone scrub his face.

“OK, OK, Poppop,” he said. “But you don’t do it. I do it.”

He pulled the stool to the bathroom sink, stepped up and turned on the water. I helped him adjust the hot and cold. He splashed water on his face and rubbed. I handed him the bar of soap, which he took, made foamy in his hands, then smeared on his cheeks and chin. Then splashed more water. I handed him a towel, and he wiped himself dry. Now he was free to go about his preferred business, which was take a bath.

This is the self-reliance Thoreau, one of the original libertarians, and his straight man Ralph Waldo Emerson were talking about. The necessary ingredient in freedom is responsibility. To yourself, sure, but moreover, to your family, your neighbors and your woods, meaning all of nature.

Silas, only 4 years old, figured out what needed doing, and did it on his terms. He didn’t feel pushed around because he took charge of his own responsibilities. Which is exactly what self-reliance means.

 

Dana Wilde lives in Troy. You can contact him at [email protected]. His new book “Winter: Notes and Numina from the Maine Woods” is available for pre-order from North Country Press. Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month.


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