Two little boys, each at polar extremes of height, sneak through the knee-high grasses along the river. They bend at the waist and tip-toe, heads erect and eyes intent on their prey. Closer and closer, their bows at the ready, arrows nocked, the boys draw near the willows. The taller one slowly, cautiously brings his bow to the shooting position, pulls back the arrow and lets it go. A small flock of blackbirds lift in feathered cacophony and exit, stage south. The taller boy turns back to me and grins.
© 2006 by Dave Sigurslid. Used by permission.
"Hakon, I couldn't even see them. We need to get closer. How 'bout if I lead," says tiny Tyler. He is much less experienced at archery but more highly spirited. One might even call him precocious
These boys have never before done this kind of thing. They spent the previous nine months behind second grade desks, building the kind of impatience and energy we can all remember if we think back to those times in our own lives. These boys are special only in that one of them the tall one is my son and the other is his best friend. Otherwise, they're archetypal little boys and great entertainment for aging dads. I have brought them out to the wilds for a celebration of that magical time known as summer vacation. Such vacations have true immanence in the minds of 8-year old boys, perhaps 8-year old girls, too, but I wouldn't know.
The boys follow a trail into the willows and through them to the river's edge, and I follow twenty yards behind. But they have come at it too fast. Another group of redwings lifts off and flutter-glide away.
"Darn it," says Hakon.
"Hakon, we have to sneak everywherrrre," says Tyler, with emphasis. Most things Tyler says have emphasis. Immediately they both crouch into sneak mode and steal along the river edge. They stay behind the first line of willows in partial concealment to their potential targets. No one taught them that.
"Then they stop and crouch further, making it obvious to me that they have spotted more birds. No one taught them that, either. Both draw their bows and let go almost simultaneously. Tyler's arrow skyrockets over the water and plashes mid-river. Hakon turns back to me, smiles and gives the "fist-across-the-chest" shucks sign. "Darn it," he says.
"Did you hit one?" Tyler asks.
"Man, I was really close! I just about got one flying," says Tyler, whose arrow had missed by several miles. He turns back to me. Ty may not be the greatest archer yet, but free association is his strong suit:
"Do you think we could just built a fire and cook it right here, on a split?" He says split. I tell him of course we can. "Know what, if we could just get one and cook it, I would eat the whole thing, huh Hakon? Then you could shoot one, too, and you could eat that one." Then to me: "Guess what, I don't even know what a blackbird tastes like. Dave, what does a blackbird taste like? I think it tastes like pepperoni. Maybe we could cut it up and make a pizza. No, I'm not hungry for pizza. Let's just roast one on a split, okay Dave? Can we make the fire now and then it would be ready?"
I tell him I think a blackbird tastes like chicken, only more so.
"I don't care what it tastes like. I think it tastes like bacon. I'm just gonna eat him and what I can't eat I'll give to Hakon, right Hakon?"
"Tyyylerrr, you have to get one first." Mr. practical.
"IIIII wiggghhhhllll," says Tyler, much louder and growlier than may be conducive to a successful blackbird hunt. Then they're off at it again.
It may be splitting legal hairs to tell you that these boys haven't a chance in forever of actually hitting one of these precious birds. These are legal hairs because blackbirds are everywhere a protected species and the boys are quite obviously hunting them. I doubt the local game warden would scold me too harshly while writing out the ticket, though. He would remember his boyhood, too. So many people who have an intimate relationship with nature got their first exposure to it in much the same fashion as these boys. In fact, testimonials to the experience abound.
We are not out here to kill blackbirds. Neither do I wish to merely encourage the play of small boys, though that is a key part of it. We are attempting to create relationships. This is a wedding of sorts: boy to nature. As in any marriage, the boy and nature will damage the other ("strike his head, bruise her heel"), but both will mend.
Soon the boys grow tired of the hunt and want only to shoot at a target. So they pick out a stump and try to hit it. Almost immediately, Hakon smacks it dead center. I am thankful that this shot and a redwing did not cross paths.
Then the bows and arrows fall away and the boys are looking for insects, climbing trees, throwing rocks into the river to see who can make the biggest splash. Then they find a log over a slough, the water ankle deep, and the mud...oh, somewhat deeper. They play on this log for half an hour, getting grimier by the minute. Laughter. Then we sit in the sun where the mud quickly dries on their pants as they eat a snack. Four blackbirds land on the shore of the slough.
"Wow, Dad, did you see how red that bird's wing is? What kind is it?" I tell him and it clicks as to why we call them redwings.
"I'm not shooting any more of those. It's so beautiful! What if it has babies?"
Ah, the awakening of a conscience. If we came for a wedding, these would be the vows.
The natural world needs more champions, no matter the means.
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