Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Adirondacks: Off the Couch, Out the Door

Severe thunder storms. Stuck in the house. So what else is new this summer in northern New York? Now, nature addicts like me don’t mind a little rain. That’s what Gore-tex is for. But crashing branches and slashing lightning? No way am I hiking or paddling in that, and it’s driving me nuts.

Where comes this craving to be out in the woods in all weathers (except severe thunder storms or maybe freezing rain)? It started when I was just a small kid, maybe 9 or 10, growing up in a boatyard on a lake in Michigan, with a dad who had lots of chores for me and who wasn’t all that nice about getting me to do them. But he had taught me how to paddle. And a winding creek ran between our lake and another, the banks lined with marsh and forest. And canoes were there for the taking. I soon learned that two turns of the creek carried me beyond the sound of my dad shouting about unfinished work. So the woods and the waterways became my refuge, my place to get lost on purpose.

And so they still are. For 15 years I worked as a nursing assistant for Hospice, traveling all over Saratoga County to care for people in their own homes, people dying of every illness the human flesh can fail by. And I couldn’t fix it. Each day I had to walk into the heart of suffering. And stay there. Friends asked me, “How can you stand it?” One way was to go to the river, push off in my little canoe (a 10′ Hornbeck Black Jack, weighing 12 pounds), and as soon as I felt that smooth silken water bearing me up and smelled the sweet scent of mossy banks, I sensed that all was well. I could really believe that some great goodness lay at the core of creation, that death and change were just part of the scheme of things, and that all would be well, indeed.

It’s funny. I thought I’d enjoy such nature magazines as Outside and Backpacker, but when I leafed through a few issues, I found the articles were mostly about surviving nature — enduring thousands of mosquito bites, falling off cliffs, freezing in the mountains, struggling across deserts, that sort of thing: Nature as something that had to be challenged or overcome. Not for me. I preferred to go to nature for its power to heal. During my work for Hospice, I witnessed this power in the lives of others, as well. Let me tell you about two of these folks. While it’s true they both eventually died, I know that their final days were enriched by getting them off the couch and out the door.

Dan, a Polish-American retired paper mill worker, wanted nothing to do with me. No, he didn’t need a shave. No, he could shower without my help. No, he didn’t want to chit-chat. “Just siddown and be quiet. I wanna watch ‘The Price is Right’.” Now, to spend an hour doing nothing was bad enough. But to have to spend it watching “The Price is Right” — torture! So I busied myself making his bed and nosing about for something to read. And there on his bookshelf were several field guides for mushrooms. I interrupted his program: “Dan, do you like to hunt mushrooms? You know, we could go look for some.” It was late autumn. There might be a few late fruiters. Click! The TV went dark. “Could you really take me?”

Indeed I could. We drove to a site where he knew some Late Fall Oyster mushrooms might be found. While he sat in the car, he sent me off into the woods. It must have been angels (plus Dan’s good directions) that led me right to them. A whole bunch. I gathered a gallon or so, and you know, it might have been gold I laid in his lap, he was so delighted. And after that adventure, off we would go nearly every day until the day he died. He’d sit in the car with his oxygen tank (he had terminal heart failure), and we’d drive along the Hudson and Hoosick Rivers, visiting all the haunts of his youth. We found where he used to hide his canoe. We found where wild asparagus grew. He recalled how his father was gassed in the war. He remembered his mother’s struggles to run their tavern. He confessed how he started drinking young and how mean he had been to his wife when he was drunk. And he found at last the courage to ask for his wife’s forgiveness before he died. And he died in her loving arms.

Then there was Eleanor. I’m not sure what Eleanor’s illness was. Terminal crankiness, probably. She lived in an assisted living facility, very nice, lots of social events, classes, good meals. She never left her room. She wanted her meals sent up. She wanted her shades pulled down. The one pleasure she allowed herself was to sit on the porch in her wheelchair on pleasant days. One day I rolled her down the ramp: “Some Blue-eyed Grass is blooming near the parking lot,” I told her. She reluctantly consented. She had never seen (nor ever cared to see) Blue-eyed Grass, but that day her eyes were opened. A sea of radiant blue covered a vacant lot, studded with bright yellow Small Sundrops and snowy Wild Strawberry. “Oh my! How pretty,” she said (in spite of herself).

All summer we walked and rolled, on into the fall. If the day was rainy, she waited for me in her raincoat. She couldn’t get over the beauty of Blue Vervain (“How can that be a weed?”) or the tiny pink blossoms of Northern Willow Herb (“Wouldn’t they make a darling dollhouse bouquet?”) We picked gorgeous bundles of Panicled Dogwood (burgundy leaves, waxy white berries on hot pink pedicels) mixed with the dark maroon seed sprays of Curly Dock. Then we got in trouble for bringing in armloads of Goldenrod. Her daughter threw it all out: “Get those weeds out of here! They’re dropping pollen all over!” I heard that cranky tone and marveled: that’s how Eleanor used to sound. She didn’t anymore.

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Ellen Rathbone

Ellen Rathbone is by her own admission a "certified nature nut." She began contributing to the Adirondack Almanack while living in Newcomb, when she was an environmental educator for the Adirondack Park Agency's Visitor Interpretive Centers for nearly ten years.

Ellen graduated from SUNY ESF in 1988 with a BS in forestry and biology and has worked as a naturalist in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont.

In 2010 her work took her to Michigan, where she currently resides and serves as Education Director of the Dahlem Conservancy just outside Jackson, Michigan.

She also writes her own blog about her Michigan adventures.





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