Anyone who has been in my minivan knows three things to be true: it’s cluttered (stray mittens and snowshoes in the winter, sand and rocks in the summer); it smells a little funky (old coffee, spilled milkshakes, occasional mystery molds); and if the kids are in the car, we’ll take the long way home.
For years, when we’d turn onto Bluff Street—that sweeping Harbor Springs vista overlooking the tops of maples and oaks, and beyond to the deep blue waters of the harbor below—my backseat passengers piped up without prompting, “Yes, Mama. We know how lucky we are to live here.”
Because I asked that question, every time.
Like many moms around here, I talk a big game about raising my Northern Michigan children to have attitudes of gratitude. I can wax poetic for hours about it. I can get on my old organic apple crate soapbox and preach a sermon to rival any revivalist. But the righteous are always the first to fall, right?
A few months ago, with just my firstborn sitting next to me in the passenger seat, I did the usual, and turned left instead of right. My almost-14-year-old let me ask the question he’s been answering for 12 years before turning it back on me.
“Do you, Mom? Do you know how lucky we are to live here? Because as much as you send us outside, tell us to know our landscape and all that stuff, you spend a whole lot of time inside, on the computer. I’m just saying.”
Teenagers. Darn their insightful moments of snark.
When I parked the car, I sat outside a few extra minutes, made a pact with the crisp fall air, near-skeletal trees, dark sky above me.
“I will learn. I will get to know you. I will lead by example,” I shushed into the black space of night.
The next day, I called my friend Molly and announced that for my birthday, I’d like her to come do a tree walk with me. As the former director of a college outdoor education program, she’s a guru of such things. Which is why I was surprised when she told me to put my camera, pencil, and notebook away.
“I wanted to record each tree name, so I don’t forget,” I said. I assumed she had students do this a thousand times.
“How we come to know a tree can be like how we come to know a friend,” she smiled, her hand on the grooved and dusty brown bark of an ash. “Spend time together, and you’ll get to know it. You’ll be able to recognize it at a distance, you’ll have its character memorized.”
We walked through a grove of hemlocks, reached our arms around a gnarled maple. We ping-ponged between flakey-barked black cherry trees, gold-flecked yellow birches, rows of tall, thin aspens. I’ve spent countless hours wandering the same stretch of woods with my little ones. But I’d never taken the time to really know the trees, not the way I do with other living beings I love.
My birthday became a turning point. Standing in my own backyard, I realized how much I want to be part of Northern Michigan, part of it in a way that reaches down to the marrow of my bones. Because as it is with most things, the best way to instill a true appreciation and sense of place in my children isn’t a constant call-and-response, or even a cultivation of awareness. Instead, I think, it’s plain, ol’ simple joy. The kind that spreads as quickly as melted milkshakes spilled on a minivan floor.
So I started doing something new. I started taking the long way home, even when—especially when—I’m alone. I find five minutes to run to the edge of sand at the Petoskey State Park on days when the wind blows hard from the west. Waves roll and crash and water seeps into my shoes. Or I duck into the field “parking” behind Boyne Highlands, where a host of mountain biking trails begin, and lie on my back. Shadowed trees curve all around me. I drink in constellations, try to remember how they’ve shifted since my last visit. Sometimes, I go home and just hike past my house, into the woods with coffee in hand, to sit on still-damp earth and listen to chirps and rustlings, snapping twigs and groaning trunks.
We still drive along the bluff a whole lot. But these days, it’s rare for me to say a word. Instead, I let the kids choose for themselves to take in the view. Sometimes, I get a “can we go home already?” yelp from the backseat. Much more often, however, I catch a smile, a happy sigh, a little voice whispering, “Wow.”