A new baseball bat? A fishing reel? A dog? How about his own room instead of sharing cramped quarters with his younger brother? Ask him what he wants, and he’ll jump for any of those things. (There will also be a strong emphasis on the puppy — accompanied by a long, persuasive argument.) But what does he need most?
I barely remember my life at eleven years old. Fifth grade, Little League, fishing, a few video games, and . . . hey, that’s just like his life right now. Yes, by no surprise, my son is a lot like me. And I understand what drives and motivates him.
He’s been spending hours at a time in the woods this year, on solitary walks with a pair of binoculars or a walking stick. And I get that too. I think I spent half my childhood roaming the twelve acres of my parents’ land and hiking across neighboring fields and dirt roads. I knew my surroundings, and I expanded my perimeter as I grew. He’s doing the same now, and on many after-school evenings this fall, he geared up with boots, waders, rod and vest. Then he walked down the hill toward our home water and fished. That’s something I was missing at eleven. But he has access to one of the best wild trout rivers in the state.
Every time he returns from one of these solitary hikes or fishing trips, my son seems a little older, somehow more mature. He also returns more peacefully than when he left. I feel that in him. I understand what the woods and the water do for a soul.
But I’m also surprised. While I’m classically introverted, he’s clearly an extrovert — and that alone is our major difference. I’ve gone to the river for an escape my whole life, to get away from the people, places and things that wear me down after an overflow of exposure. So seeing him seek out that same experience reminds me how there’s more to being in nature than just escaping things. It’s the feeling of independence, the connection to life without language, to things that exist free of judgment. Nature just is. It lives. It thrives. And the space between the branches and riverbanks harbors time itself. These places change, but they are more constant than shifting, more lasting than fading. The stream that I fished as a boy every April still holds the same trout, and I follow those familiar bends upstream around rocky mountains. Fallen trees have diverted the channels enough to move the main flow twenty yards east or west, but permanence is more powerful. Here, change is minimal. And that’s comforting.
He feels it too. And so he’s drawn to the woods, to these places larger than his small life that often seems too big. I’ve been doing the same for forty-four years.
But what else does he need?
More than anything, I feel his desire for my companionship, for my leadership, for some instruction and for my love. The closest bonds I’ve formed with other men in my life have been forged on the river. I get it. So my son and I fish. And we walk through the forest when he asks. He wants to hunt, so we’ll do that too. Anything that brings us together, outside and with dirt and water under our feet, I’m in.
Ed O’Neil said the following, on the TV show, Modern Family: Ninety percent of being a Dad is just showing up.” This nod to Woody Allen’s phrase about showing up for life in general hits home for me. I’ve spent much of my time following through on the commitments and promises I’ve made to myself. After playing guitar for a few months in my late teens, I realized that I’d only progress if I dedicated a part of myself to the instrument. So I vowed to play the guitar every day — at least one chord — no matter what. To fulfill that promise, I took it with me everywhere. I played every day. Always. And on those days when I picked it up merely to fulfill my obligation — to play one chord — I was predictably tempted by the muse to play more. And an hour later, my fingertips were sore from a good workout. All of that eventually led to a rewarding career in music for seventeen years.
I fished as a kid. And I fished a lot more when I turned sixteen. Finally, I could drive to the next county, toward better water with elusive wild trout. But I always wanted a good stream in my backyard too. And in 2003, when my wife and I moved to central PA, I had it. So I made a promise to myself, to fish five days a week, no matter what, in all four seasons. I did that for six years, until my first son was born. Then those fishing hours turned into Dad hours. Being a father is the greatest opportunity I’ve been given. So I show up. And I do my best to balance other responsibilities with dedicated time for both of my sons.
And when my oldest seems a little lost, a little confused or overwhelmed because he’s eleven years old, I take him fishing. Or we go for a walk among the pines and look for squirrels. Because both of us need nothing as much as we need what the woods gives back to us.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N