A few weeks ago, I took my 5 year-old daughter and 2 1/2 year-old son on a hike at Teatown Lake Reservation in Ossining. If you haven’t been, you’re missing out, as Teatown boasts some of the best nature trails in the area.
On this occasion, we traveled the relatively easy 1.6 mile path around the lake. Both kids took to the task with gusto, running out ahead, reveling in the freedom of the environment with the boundless energy that is the envy of every adult.
My son loves to climb, so every pint-sized boulder in our path was a mountain to scale and a height from which to leap. Every tree root poking out of the ground was a major obstacle to overcome, the accomplishment of which ended with a beaming grin and a look up at Dad for acknowledgement. This wasn’t a simple walk in the woods, this was an adventure.
My daughter was equally enthralled, but on a significantly different level. Though she, too, was jumping off of boulders and running down the path, she was also looking at the world around her. Seeing it. And running a monologue of her observations, as if transcribing her thoughts for future generations.
“Look at that flower! That’s a blue flower! It’s not a purple flower! I’d like to see a purple flower! That’s a blue flower! And a butterfly! There’s a butterfly near the flower! It’s a Becker’s White! There’s a Becker’s White over there! Right by that blue flower!”
That she has not only spotted the butterfly, but identified it from a fleeting glance is not surprising, she has the gift of Butterfly Sight. I turned my head to catch a brief glimpse of something white fluttering out over the water. That was the extent of my own, humble, Becker’s White encounter for the moment, but even that would not have been possible without her. I would’ve never seen it. I wasn’t looking.
The walk continued in this way. Me concentrating on the ground beneath my (and my son’s) feet, and my daughter calling out every new discovery like a professional Teatown tour guide.
“That tree is on its side! It’s not in the air! It must have fallen down! The branches look like a big spider web. Are there spiders in the woods? I think there are spiders in the woods. I wonder if the branches of that tree confuse the spiders, because they look like a spider’s web!”
Normally, I prefer to walk through the woods in relative silence, letting the sounds of nature fill my ears. But with a 5 year-old on the hike, that simply isn’t possible. Every thought, every idea must be verbalized. The observational commentary gene switches on long before the inner-monologue gene, and we are privy to the contents of their consciousness.
“A bridge! We’re crossing a bridge! It’s only two logs, but it’s a bridge! A bridge made of two logs! Oh, look! A blue circle!”
Teatown, like many other places, mark their trails with different colors. The Lake Loop is the blue path, and I was aware that every so often we’d pass a tree with a blue circle pinned to the trunk, indicating which way to go. What I hadn’t realized until my daughter pointed it out, was just how many of these markers were on the path. I probably could have walked the path and counted maybe 10 or 15. My daughter saw upwards of 150, with each find more exciting than the last.
“That’s a big rock up ahead! I’m going to climb that rock! I’m going to climb up the rock and jump off! I can’t wait to climb up that… A BLUE CIRCLE!”
Everywhere we walked, my daughter spotted something that, at that moment, was the most amazing sight in the known world. A tree growing into another tree. A single flower in a patch of grass. An insect on a leaf. The geese swimming along the shore. Everything was met with overwhelming enthusiasm. It was as if I was seeing the world on a regular television set, and she was watching it on HD. Even things I’d noticed on my own proved far more interesting through her eyes. A root wasn’t a root, it was the finger of an evil witch reaching up to trip us. A rock wasn’t a rock, it was a glorious castle from which to survey the land. An acorn on the ground was the remnant of a magic, poisoned apple. Her imagination ran rampant.
It made me feel inadequate, Why didn’t I see things through those eyes anymore? I certainly had as a child. I can remember plenty of summer afternoons on the hill behind my house searching for lost treasure in the ancestral graveyard or turning the thick hedge of weeds into a magical labyrinth. It’s far too easy to say that I simply grew up. People talk about the loss of innocence leading to the end of childhood, but I think it’s something more. I think we’ve just already seen it.
I’ve been on countless hikes in my life. I’ve seen trees, rocks, lakes, insects. The mystery of the endless dirt path left me long ago. But for my daughter, everything is brand new. There’s so much to see in this world, and she wants to see it all. So she does. I look out my window, and I see a lawn that needs to be mowed and some prickly-bushes that need to be trimmed. My daughter sees an enchanted forest filled with butterflies. Perhaps that’s the very secret to eternal youth — to see endless possibilities where others see the daily grind.
Ponce de Leon needn’t have scoured all of Florida searching for the Fountain of Youth, he could have just searched his own imagination.
Or asked a child for directions.