We all become our fathers — to a certain degree anyway. I recently realized just how quickly I'm approaching that line myself when I got into my car only to realize my wallet and keys were still in the pair of slacks I'd left hanging on my closet door knob the night before. I suddenly recalled several dozen times in my young life, when my dad did the same thing.
So it should perhaps come as no surprise to me that I found myself feeling like my father this week. I'll spare you the details, but suffice it to say I had finished an interview at Iowa Lakeside Lab and decided to walk the grounds and take a few photos for future use.
Since it's winter, mine were the only human tracks in the snow, but deer tracks guided me to a lakeshore trail and, as I stooped to get an angle on an aged pylon of some kind, my eye snagged on a giant tangle of branches and sticks sitting high in a tree across Little Millers Bay. I had heard about an eagle's nest out that way some time ago and strained my eyes to see if I could spy anything.
"Look for the little white dots," I could hear dad say.
And indeed, there were two white dots. They were both home. Nimble fingers worked the lens off my camera in a hurry and replaced it with my zoom lens almost as quickly. As soon as I heard the satisfying yet faint ping of the lens locking, my right fingers curled around the grip, my index finger found its perch, my left hand cradled the now-fully extended lens and my breath was still. I couldn't zoom any further, but I could see them. I slowly pressed the shutter button and felt the camera's inner workings stir in a fraction of a second.
I knew it wasn't the greatest shot, but maybe it would be clear enough to crop in on the eagles themselves. But they were so well composed, and such opportunities aren't all that regular for me. I hiked down the trail. I briefly considered crossing the ice, but had no idea about ice conditions, given the weather as of late, and I definitely didn't want to fall through with no one in earshot. Imagine the headlines; "Reporter drowns seeking perfect shot of unendangered bird."
I stopped and took a shot every 50 yards or so, giving my ego a safety net of sorts incase the pair of predators decided to go get dinner at some point. With the main hub of the lab behind, deer tracks had given way to rabbit and squirrel tracks, and I could hear birds. Maybe they were cardinals. Maybe they were finches. I never was very good at bird calls, but suddenly I was feeling energized.
I remembered my mother saying walks outdoors were therapeutic in a way for dad. I left what I assumed at that point to be the path and followed the rabbit trails toward shore, pondering why exactly I felt more relaxed and energetic after walking for what was probably half-a-mile through snow and over ice. But I would have to come back to that.
I saw it —could only see it. There was absolutely no sound, no warning.
Between the trees, a dark shape was silhouetted against the sky, streaking to the west before tilting and turning back. At least one of the eagles had left the nest and was circling over the open ice of the bay. Though I hadn't wanted to set foot on the ice initially, I took the risk now that the bird was showing off. I walked quickly across the ice — paying particular attention to the sound it made under my feet — and finally dropped to one knee with the barrel of my lens pointed skyward.
Everything in my peripheral faded a bit each time the eagle would pass. In my mind's eye, there was the eagle, there was an infinite expanse of ice covered with snow and there was me. We were just two planets orbiting each other in a bright, cold universe as far as I was concerned. And I was just hoping at least one of the photos was in focus.
The eagle's loops grew wider and lower before it disappeared again into the timber. I made my way to the shore again and briefly took a look at where I guessed it had gone, but I'd lost it. I headed back and the question returned. This natural settings — all the sights, and sounds and smells — were doing something to me I couldn't quite describe.
Then there was a bird call, and I thought of water. It called again and I thought of the farmhouse my parents rented when I was young. I remembered the fields I made my playground. I realized what was happening. I was remembering what it was like to be young, just as I'm sure my father did when he retreated to the outdoors. Surely, some bird call or the smell of a cedar tree or the crunch of crisp leaves reminded my father of the days he was a boy growing up along the Mississippi River.
Strictly speaking, all we really need in order to draw a straight line is two points — perhaps in this case, past and future — but nature is something different. I was once told there are no straight lines in nature, and we are true to nature when we don't follow straight paths in life. Perhaps that is why such experiences are valuable, not so that we can return to a former state of being, but so we can find our bearings. We'll inevitably leave the straight path we thought our lives would be, but we may need to use those familiar sounds and sights from our past to chart a straight line and remind ourselves where we're going. The north star is never the goal, only an indicator. We don't expect to reach the star, rather our goal lies on the horizon.