Column by Hal Walter
Nature – June 2007 – Colorado Central Magazine
MRS. HAVEY GAVE THE WORD and the children poured out of the classroom onto the playground and charged toward Spike. I feared the worst, as Spike has not been known for his predictability, despite winning four World Championship Pack-Burro Races.
But the burro scarcely seemed to notice as several preschoolers ran up to and surrounded him. He steadily munched the green grass and dandelions at the playground’s edge as they reached out to touch him and feel his fuzzy ears. They pulled grass and fed him by hand. The children were clearly thrilled to be this close to the big animal. They asked questions. They said they liked Spike. And after Mrs. Havey told them it was time to wash their hands and move on to snack time, one by one they followed her back inside, much more slowly than they had emerged. Two of the youngsters trailed as I led Spike back to the gate.
“Where are you going?” they asked.
It’s time for Spike to go home, I replied.
“Why?” they asked.
Because it’s that time. I told them. We have to go.
Later, after I had packed up Spike and one of their classmates, my son Harrison, and was driving home, I thought how surprised I was that the chance to see a burro at school seemed to be such a big deal to Custer County kids. How could that be? I thought. They must see animals all the time, if only from a car window.
Then it occurred to me that this was probably the first time that some of these youngsters had been close to a big critter. Had watched it eat grass. Had touched it. Fed it by hand. Times are changing and this is not a community of farm kids anymore. Most of their parents ranch the view instead of cows. Despite the rural existence, Nature Deficiency Syndrome, it appears, is alive and well here in Custer County.
I was drawn to the outdoors at an early age, I believe partly by instinct and partly because I could not be caged. By the time I was eight I had a fishing rod and prowled the banks of the Truckee River in Reno, Nevada, quite alone. It’s a wonder I lived. By the time I was nine I had a BB gun and was “hunting” in the foothills north of Sparks. This was probably safer than hanging out around the river, but it’s true I wandered miles and miles through the sagebrush at that young age, mostly alone and sometimes arriving back home after dark. I don’t recall ever actually killing anything, but I sure tried hard to bag a jackrabbit or the elusive quail that sparsely inhabited the cheatgrass hillsides of the area.
My mother remarried and we moved to Las Vegas. My new father, Dave, was a range manager for the Bureau of Land Management. On various hunting, fishing and camping trips his influence began to take hold and I developed a larger vocabulary of nature terminology: names of plant, insect, fish, bird and animal species. The bookshelf was lined with his college texts and I started to leaf through some of them and develop a better working knowledge of the natural world. Geology, geography, biology. Much of this I kept to myself, but my knowledge was gaining. Often when I saw something for the first time I knew what it was because I’d read about it or seen a picture of it. I watched desert pupfish play in Devil’s Hole in the Mojave Desert. I caught bass from a canoe in Ruby Marsh near Elko, and brook, rainbow and brown trout from Snake Creek in what is now the Great Basin National Park. For my 12th birthday I got a .22 rifle. I killed my first gamebird, a chukar partridge, that same year with a .410 shotgun somewhere west of Beatty. At that point I could also name numerous plant and animal species.
[Harrison Walter exploring nature]
We moved back east for four years and although I adapted to the northern Virginia woods, lakes and streams quite well, I yearned for the West and the environment I had known as a younger boy. The summer before my senior year in high school Dave was transferred to Craig, Colorado, and I left behind suburbia and all of my high-school friends. I spent my first month in Colorado fishing nearly every day. I had my dog, my fishing rod, my rifle and my parents’gas card. What else was there to do? I could not be caged.
Years later, my lifetime of outdoor experiences is a splendid blur. I hunted ducks on Boulder Reservoir (now frowned upon, I’m sure) while attending the University of Colorado. I hiked stoned under the moonlight in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. A buddy and I skied into a wilderness cabin to study for final exams one spring; we did no studying but did descend Buffalo Peak each sitting on one showshoe that was placed on top of a cross-country ski to form a sort of one-runner sled. I studied “Environmental Conservation” but got my degree in journalism. There was a scary face-off with a mountain lion on the Lewis Creek Trail. On that same trail I once stepped on a rattlesnake and it bit me (luckily) in the shoe. One spring evening I watched a mule deer doe swim all the way across Turquoise Lake near Leadville; when the deer floundered up on the shore and shook itself dry, I was sitting on the bank just a few feet away. One winter day I saw a golden eagle rocket out of the sky and plow into a sitting raven in a cloud of snow and feathers. While hunting with a muzzleloader I called a bull elk and missed him from 13 paces when he charged. I’ve packed burros all over the Sangre de Cristo Range and many parts of the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness. I’ve run to the top of Mosquito Pass with a burro at least 60 times and each time has been a strangely different experience. Little glimpses here. I’m fortunate there’s been so much more. And I’m sure there’s more to come.
And yet lately, I feel like I’ve grown uncomfortably distant from the natural world. Fatherhood and work can take their toll on time that used to be spent outdoors, and I’m feeling some effects of Nature Deficiency Syndrome myself.
However, living where I live it’s difficult to not take in some wonder nearly every day. Recently I’ve been stunned by the chance sighting of a bald eagle, a badger and a wild turkey. Harrison is getting bigger, more mobile and more aware every day, and the weather is improving. Recently we’ve been taking nature walks on my property. Each spring the pasque flowers, which are wild crocuses, are the first to brave the cold, and this year with all the moisture they have been especially plentiful. Harrison walks through the pasture, bending down and touching each lavender pasque flower he sees and announcing, “flarrer, flarrer.” The ponderosa pines, small and large, he touches lightly and says “tee, it’s atee.”
Today we kneeled beside an ant pile and watched the tiny red insects do their work. It took some effort to get Harrison to recognize the ants moving in and out of their entrance, but once he took notice he stood and watched intently as the ants went to and fro on their business. It was a tiny world he had never considered, I’m sure.
And then he was off, running through the brush, falling down, picking himself up, and taking off again. I suppose he cannot be caged. No kid large or small should be.
Hal Walter writes from his burro ranch near Ilse in the Wet Mountains.