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The Walk
By David H. Albert
 
On September 11, 2002, or so, reported The New York Times (September 19, 2002), a memorial was planned in Jersey City, New Jersey, to commemorate the events of September 11 the previous year. As a highlight of a truly fitting tribute to those who had died, at the unveiling of a memorial the organizers planned a release of 80 doves that would soar majestically into the sky against the backdrop of the altered Lower Manhattan skyline.

Only problem was that, when the birds were released, some slammed into the plate-glass windows of the surrounding office buildings. Others plunged directly into the Hudson River. Still others careened into a stunned crowd that, in swatting them away, left the area a confusion of feathers. One perched atop the hardhat of a construction worker who had helped clear Ground Zero. Most bobbed in bewilderment across the stage, never spreading their wings at all.

Seems that finding all the homing pigeons in New Jersey already booked up for the day, the organizers -- likely all college graduates and products of the area's public and private schools -- went to a Newark poultry market and bought 80 squab, birds that probably had never spent significant time outside their cages.

"These pigeons were supposed to fly," insisted Guy Catrillo, a chief organizer of the 9/11 Memorial Committee. "But," he added philosophically, "without a doubt, it beats what could have happened to them. They were soup birds. I like the idea that I helped these squab get a second chance."

The program continued awkwardly, despite the birds. "A lot of people were upset because they didn't want them sitting on their heads," said Nuria Almeida, who had come to attend the ceremony with a friend.

The fate of many of the birds is unknown, though some were taken to area animal hospitals. "I saw one today who lives by a hotdog cart," noted Mr. Catrillo several days later, "and I tried to catch him. But he flew away. Pigeons are natural survivors."

(So, I would only have added: Products of public and private schools similar to those attended by the organizers are we.)

* * * * *

In the evenings, I take my older daughter (age 14) for a walk in the local wooded park by the inlet. I think a hundred years ago they would have called this a "constitutional," though I have yet to find much that is overtly political about it. In reality, it is she who takes me for the walk. If I were to go myself, I wouldn't see much. Oh, there would be trees enough and plants enough, and an occasional mushroom colony on a fallen log, but truly I wouldn't see much. I might spy a robin or two, and in the undergrowth, I'd see movement suggesting a brown-breasted, leaf-wiggling wren (I know enough to know that wrens are to be found down low); and, high above, I might see movement suggestive of the green-bellied, leaf-wiggling warbler; but not much else. The park is like a closed book to me, or one printed in a wholly foreign language.

But when I let her lead, as if by magic an entire world appears. Barn owl adults eye us from low perches attached to great tree trunks, triangulated by three robins, all pointing directly at the moppish hulks. The owl juveniles announce themselves noisily from branches hanging directly over the trail. Juncos are alarmed. Oh, that's what that racket is.

Aliyah walks straight down the path, reaches out her right hand without breaking stride, and pops a moonglow orange berry into her mouth.

"Salmonberry," she says. "Sweet, but with an aftertaste."

I try one, too. Thimbleberries to the left, she points out, unripe.

"When ripened, they'll be like raspberries, but the birds will get them first. But try the huckleberries. The birds don't go for them as much. The bushes won't hold their weight, and the berries are perfectly round and difficult for bird beaks to hold."

Trilliums sit by our feet, and false lilies-of-the-valley, I am informed.

"Where are the true ones?" I ask.

"Not within a couple of hundred miles," she says, "except in some people's gardens."

She reaches down and plucks a few green leafy things and starts to chew. "Miner's lettuce," she notes, "Better when young." She hands me a piece. I wonder whether she does this when I'm not around.

I'm looking at a carved, rustic-looking, wooden sign placed maybe 15 inches or so from the ground. "Red elderberry, Sambucus racemosa," it reads. I don't see any berries, just more low-lying, unnamed, shrubby green things.

"Look up!" she laughs.

There, right in front of my nose, not five feet away, are sprays of little red berries reaching upwards.

"Can't eat 'em. Elderberries need to be cooked, or they can be poisonous. But they can be quite medicinal."

I remember a song I once heard about elderberry wine. Never drank any though.

I have been scratched by a bushy thing.

"Watch out for the stinging nettles," she warns.

"A little late," I mutter under my breath.

"There are four antidotes," she giggles, "And you're practically stepping on one of them!"

I look down, and there is a six-inch long slug just in front of my right toe. I bend down to inspect.

"Mud, bracken fern, elderberry leaves, and slugs. You can rub mud on the scratches, and it will cool them. The fern and the elderberry you make into a poultice."

"What do you do with the slugs, grind them up?"

"No! It's the slug slime. You rub it on and it acts as an anaesthetic."

"Doesn't sound very appealing."

"A friend of mine licked one once, and she said it numbed her tongue totally."

That sounded even less appealing. Do rural kids lick slugs to get high? I wouldn't put it past them.

"You can boil the nettles and make tea," she says, "Brings down fever."

We move on. Snails waltz across the path in front of us, as only snails can.

"You know, after a rain, the robins leave the woods and come down to our neighborhood. That's when you see so many of them. Worms are easier picking on a wet, newly mowed lawn."

And then we hear a high-pitched "Screeeeeeech!" And out over the water there is an eagle!

"Not an eagle, Dad, a red-tailed hawk."

"Oh," I stand corrected.

"You know the sound of the solitary eagle you hear at the end of television shows or in commercials? Well, the sound of the eagle is not an eagle. Eagles don't make a screeching sound at all. It's a tape of a red-tailed hawk combined with film of an eagle. The TV people do that, you know."

I have been duly chastened.

And so on and so forth. Walk after walk. On some evenings when she's occupied with music practices or some such, I've taken to driving to the park by myself and walking up the road to the footpath. Seashells fall from the sky. I look up, and there are two gulls overhead. And then I realize the shells are not being aimed at me.

Or are they?

Try as I might, I am a stranger here. I want to get it. But I'd be lying if I said I did. I am like a French Angora rabbit, bred for a thousand generations indoors. No instincts.

And no real knowledge, either. Oh, I've gotten a little better with the bird names. I've progressed beyond "pigeon, pigeon, pigeon, pigeon, and pigeon," and one day I'll join the Cornell Ornithological Laboratory's Project PigeonWatch (http://birds.cornell. edu/ppow) to count the number of each of the 28 colorations. Sadly, my storehouse has gotten larger as my eyesight begins to weaken.

But it hasn't really helped much, the naming thing. How do slugs spend their nights and days? When do they sleep? Where do crows go to die? Do plants feel the movement of the planet, or the waxing and waning of the moon?

This is my earth, right? So why is it that when I walk here, a place that could never be mistaken for wilderness, I feel I don't belong?

And would it make a difference if I, and the tens of millions of people just like me, felt differently? And what, exactly, would that feel like?

How do I go about finding out?

* * * * *

Want your kid to turn out as weird as mine? (Not! No two kids are ever really alike.) In Washington State we are blessed with a unique institution, the Wilderness Awareness School in Duvall (www.wildernessawarenessschool.org). Founded originally as a high school nature club through the careful nurturance of its founder Jon Young and a host of native elders, including Tony Ten Fingers of the Oglala Lakota People, Gilbert Walking Bull of the Sioux-Lakota, and Chief Jake Swamp of the Iroquois Confederacy, the Wilderness Awareness School offers a full range of programs to children (from ages 8 and up) and adults. The programs are designed to equip individuals with a full set of skills, knowledge, and attitudinal shifts that can be practiced anywhere, from the wilds to the city. These include: Bird language and awareness; naturalist skills; bioregional identity; journaling; ecology and stewardship ethics; wilderness and living skills; hazard identification; natural history; ethnobotany; cultural anthropology and American Indian lore; hands-on research skills; and mentoring. There are full, year-round, residential programs (in both Washington and Vermont) in which college credits can be earned; weeklong mentoring workshops; wolf-tracking expeditions for teens in Idaho (Aliyah went on one, and didn't open a book for a whole week, which for her must have been a world record!), weekend seminars on bird language, and a range of other choices.

But your child or you don't have to travel. The School offers an extraordinary program called Kamana to help either of you tune in. Get to shake hands with your world and learn its language! Looking for an integrated homeschool curriculum - reading, writing, biology, botany, history, poetry, and social studies all rolled into one? Have one of those kids who can't sit still at the kitchen table but will spend hours exploring the mud puddle? Kamana melds the techniques of modern field ecology with the skills of a native scout. The program takes from one to four years to complete, requires no special equipment other than eyes and ears (and maybe some other sensory organs you never knew you - or your child -- had). You could even do it in…Jersey City! At the end of the program, you can count on a walk in the park never being just another walk in the park. And that could make all the difference.
David H. Albert, who is enjoying his second chance, is the author of And the Skylark Sings with Me: Adventures in Homeschooling and Community-Based Education (New Society Publishers), and of three new books - Homeschooling and the Voyage of Self-Discovery: A Journey of Original Seeking (Common Courage Press, 2003) and The Healing Heart~Families: Storytelling to Encourage Caring and Healthy Families and The Healing Heart~Communities: Storytelling to Build Strong and Healthy Communities (New Society Publishers, 2003). He lives in Olympia, Washington, with his wife, Ellen, and two daughters, Aliyah (15) and Meera (12). He invites your comments, and is available for workshops and speaking engagements in your community - write him at shantinik@earthlink.net or check out his website at www.skylarksings.com