My dad and I always took walks. When I was really little, we would explore “The Back 40.” That’s what he called the acre or so behind our house. I remember heading past the crab apple tree and across the stream with the plywood bridge that dipped when you stepped on it. And there it was, the forest. It was vast and wild to my 5-year-old mind, so I clung to his hand, trudging through spring mud in red rubber boots. I couldn’t see the new split-level houses sitting just beyond the trees. But Dad could. “Developers,” he’d mutter like a curse.
He always craved the open space. And soon, Dad, Mom and I moved over the river and through the woods. For real. The new house was surrounded by forest and fields and looked out on the Shawangunk mountains. There was wood to chop and much to discover.
So Dad and I roamed the abandoned carriage trails and country roads, and he carried his “stomping stick” in case anything feral, rabid or hungry attacked. Nothing ever did. But Dad wielded that stick, thumping it on the ground in cadence with his step. Sometimes he’d grin and aim it at the sky, pretending to shoot a crow or Canada geese flying in formation. He was goofy like that. But whenever a car approached, he’d use the stick to shepherd me off the road. Then, steely eyed and serious, he’d march between me and the machine, a centurion in khakis and a fishing hat.
And he would educate me. At least, he tried. A dedicated wildlife biologist and naturalist, he could identify most any flora or fauna by both their English and Latin names. He was eager to pass this knowledge on to me. “Sylvilagus floridanus” he would announce as a cottontail rabbit hopped by. The monarch butterfly in the air: “Danaus plexippus.” And the trees and flowers. He was over the moon about them, from the delicate floral Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota) to the gnarly old Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovate).
Despite his constant drills and repetition, I never committed a single Latin name to memory. But still, our interludes with the outdoors had value. When things felt out of control at home, these walks grounded me, even if the two of us weren’t getting along and didn’t really understand each other. So it’s no surprise that throughout my life, and especially since Dad died last year, I have never stopped feeling the powerful tug of nature, drawing me in.
One of my favorite places is what is now called the Nyquist-Harcourt Wildlife Sanctuary down by the Wallkill River in New Paltz. Fertile ground, it’s home to wetlands and ponds, all part of an oxbow formed when a portion of the river meandered and got cut off hundreds of years ago. In the late ’80s, my dad worked on trails there, helped build a bridge and created markers along the paths identifying various plants, trees and flowers. Walking through the space decades later, I find him everywhere.
He’s the flight of the red-tailed hawk circling above and the repose of the painted turtle sunning himself on a log. He’s the silent grace of the swan adrift on the mossy pond and the saunter of the woodchuck ambling through the grass. He’s the good cheer of the robin and the lament of the mourning dove as dappled sunlight dances on verdant leaves. He’s the babble and flow of the river as it bends, heading north, and the loamy scent of old earth that fills the air after a downpour. Like this, I seek him and find him again and again. And it brings me joy even as I mourn the loss of his hand on my shoulder, leading me through the woods.
On the day after his funeral last year, I walked the trail and found some of the old markers he made long ago. These signs, treasures nestled among the leaves, were worn but legible. There he was again, still teaching me about the wonders of the natural world and protecting me from its dangers.
In memory of Warren H. McKeon, 1922-2015.