Lime Hollow Nature Center
Covered Bridge at the Lime Hollow Visitor Center

From My Sit Spot

by Pete Angie

Ice FloeLast night my son Odin and I sat outside in the dark of a snowy evening by a crackling fire, in lawn chairs. We'd shrouded ourselves in sleeping bags against the cold and the steady breeze that blew snowflakes sideways and slantwise out of the clouded sky. We made up a story together, each telling a part, passing the narrative back and forth like a living ember. It was a tale about a boy who finds an unexpected time-portal. There was advanced space exploration, time travel, and survival in a future world where the wilderness had overcome every human endeavor, buckling pavement, snaring telephone poles, and sending shopping malls—those modern temples—the way of Chichen Itza. The story ended, like any good adventure, with a return home. Odin took that as his cue to retire indoors, and I wandered toward my sit spot in the nearby woods, with a spotlight in hand.

The beam of light that shot forth from the device illuminated the airborne snowflakes. They were so close, and so many more than I'd noticed in the relative darkness beside the fire. It was really coming down. They reminded me of a film I'd once seen of swarms of whitish krill in the black waters of the Antarctic ocean, in the light of the photographer's waterproof searchlight. So quiet were the woods, and so enchanting and mysterious was the simple falling snow, that I felt like I could have been alone on the ocean floor watching an ancient tableau of life's beginnings. Krill are, in fact, the very stuff of life in Antarctica. The feed at night on single-celled phytoplankton, especially ice algae, and hide in deep waters during the day. Their swarms can be so large at certain times of year that they can be seen from space. About two inches long, they make up the bedrock of the Antarctic ecosystem, feeding birds, fish, and even baleen whales. Without krill the penguins and seals of Antarctica could not exist. They wouldn't have been there to feed the members of Shackleton's 1914 South Pole expedition, who lived off of the animals' meat long after their supplies were diminished.

Beset in sea ice, Shackleton's ship, the Endurance, was carried through the frozen Weddell Sea by the drifting pack for almost a year, months of that in total darkness. Finally, the ship was crushed and sank. The crew hauled their life boats and stayed afloat on ever thinning and breaking ice floes for another five months before reaching open water, and firm footing on an island. An eight hundred mile journey by a few members in a small craft, through the stormiest seas on earth, brought news of their shocking survival to the outside world. A rescue was mounted. I wonder, in the early days stuck in the ice, when a crew member had stepped away from the crowd, coal fire and chess games below deck, what did he think standing atop the tilted, creaking ship, looking out into the expanse of night and the blowing and falling snow? And months later, as that crew member tried to sleep in a canvas tent and utterly sodden sleeping bag, as ice floes sometimes fractured beneath him, forcing him to scramble out into the night or drown, how did his feelings change? Were the snow flakes ever magical, was quiet darkness ever surcease to the constant stress of survival? Being in the forest at night frees my mind to ask such questions, to wander.

My children and I play at survival in the woods behind our house, the snowy woods I gaze upon tonight. There are piles of branches out there, since parcels of the land were sold and thinned of many trees. They look like a village of little spread out huts. One day Odin and Naomi crawled into the spaces between the limbs of these piles, getting in as far as they could, and “spent the night.” “Dawn” brought hunting unseen game with sticks, and gathering imaginary food. I felt utterly at a loss to find real wild food in the winter woods. Even the abundance of summer is mostly lost on my untrained eyes. With sincere curiosity they asked questions and we talked about how people living in a forest would get by, smoking meats, and salting fish, putting up stores for the long winter. I could see them imagining it. I shared how flour can be made from the roots of cat tails, and bedding from their fluffy brown heads. We kept looking for game. Naomi made snow ball foods and stored them on a flat rock. Just behind our house we had traveled back in time, or perhaps outside of time, to another place among the bare trees, on the snow-blanketed ground. We were as far away from the world as the crew of the Endurance, in the heart of an Antarctic winter.

Out in another recent snow storm at night—for sunset comes so early—they spontaneously made a shelter by propping dead limbs against the sere stalk and branches of a pokeberry. Sheets of bark thickened the walls, and dry weeds insulated the floor. We lay supine, faces to the sky as flakes wet our cheeks and dusted our legs and torsos, pretending to sleep. We talked about the way animals curl up to keep warm. We left the shelter and I showed them how to sit leaning against a tree with their knees pulled in to their chests, conserving heat, reducing contact with the cold ground. They practiced it, and I let them know that this can help them stay alive if they are ever lost in the woods overnight. The boundary between the imaginary and the real, in this state of exploration, can be as porous as a cloud.

I don't worry too much about them getting lost, though it could happen. I worry more about their thriving in a busy, demanding world, without enough room for play. Richard Louv, in Last Child In The Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, calls time spent in nature “ essential investment in our children's health.” I worry that my children don't spend enough time outdoors; they love TV and video games. But when we do make it out there, and I put aside my own agenda—such as getting exercise, or making it to a new section of the trail—magic can happen. Even the most casual encounter with nature—sometimes especially the unplanned one—is a bold move against the ordinary, and the pressures our children face. It is a setting out for the Pole, and an act of survival.

Alexander, C. 1998. The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition. New York. Alfred A. Knopf

Louv, R. 2005. Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. New York. Workman.