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A walk, a willow and a cherished memory

John Pepin

“I can still see them playin’ with their pails in the sand, they run to the water their buckets to fill.” — Bob Dylan

Among the many splendid memories of outdoor days, packed into the mental suitcase I carry around with me, is a warm summer afternoon spent sitting under the shade of a weeping willow.

I had walked a couple of blocks from the house and had found this tree down on the corner. It grew across the road from the lake, not far from the front office steps of the big mining company.

The location seems strange for a lasting outdoor memory, there in the shadow of one of the towering concrete obelisk heads over the iron ore shafts but the day was so fair, the breeze extraordinary and light.

I was probably about 11 years old. I pushed my back up against the strong, wide trunk of the tree and looked up. There I saw all the magic of the leaves turning front ways and back with the wind.

In the parking lot behind me, off the lawn, I had learned how to ride a bike without training wheels. My dad had taught me. I recall his impatience with my early inability.

But this day was different, I brought a book to read. It was one of the old Nancy Drew series mysteries, “Clue of the Whistling Bagpipes.” For me, book and album covers have always held an engaging fascination.

I spent a lot of time looking at the artwork, drawn into the images as they imprinted on my mind. Inside the hardcovers of the Nancy Drew books there were small, simple line drawings showing a cover or a scene from other books in the series.

I enjoyed seeing if I could identify them all.

The cover of “Clue of the Whistling Bagpipes” showed a Scottish lass on a mountainside playing bagpipes high above a loch, while sheep and goats stood at the base of some pines in the background.

This was volume 41 in the series and full of international intrigue as Nancy and her friends try to recover a missing heirloom.

It’s the simplicity and the feel of that day that sticks with me. There was something totally new and foreign in reading a book outside. The gentle breeze contented me, the sounds of the robins singing, and the sights of the willows and the placid lake lulled me into a dream state which lasts to this day.

I can plug into that day in my memory quite easily anytime.

This was only one instant in a seemingly endless kaleidoscope of days and memories I have of doing things outside.

From grilling hot dogs in the backyard, playing in the sandbox and football and whiffle ball to fishing, riding bikes, collecting rocks, acorns and grasshoppers, walking the railroad tracks and sleeping in tents made from blankets pulled over the clothesline, the corners held down with rocks, all of this was done outside.

Except for wintertime, I think I might have spent as much time outside as I did inside when I was a kid. Maybe more.

My brother and I would do just about anything to get outside, including “sneaking out” when we were supposed to be stuck in the house as some punishment.

Maybe my brother had refused to eat his green beans again and I aided and abetted him by suggesting he conceal the ball of mush from his mouth in a napkin, that I said he might leave on the chair next to him?

Maybe.

I remember us running out the front door when we knew my mom and dad weren’t looking, knowing that the screen door had a delay before they would hear it shut.

We laughed so hard as we ran full out, hearing my mom’s voice hollering for us to “get back in here.”

Of course, there would be a vicious hiding in the offing for us when we returned, but we didn’t care. It was worth it to us – just to be outside.

In those days, long past I know, my parents would send us outside to play and they didn’t expect to see us back in the house until supper, and then not until almost dark.

All of this seems to have changed so dramatically in our society over the past couple of decades. I don’t understand why exactly. A lot of kids have no interest in going outside anymore, unless it’s an absolute necessity.

It hurts me just to type those words, hoping that really isn’t the case. I guess it’s hard for me to understand because I didn’t grow up that way. For us, getting out of the house was like feeling the elation of a jailbreak.

I lay much of the blame at the feet of technology, our false digital god that requires “virtually” complete and unfathomable fealty in exchange for endless mind games, fleeting gratification, false promises and a sordid introduction to an unseen host of shadowy figures and broken worlds.

But can the power of technology really be the complete answer? Can its pull really be that powerful to render not only children, but whole families, inert?

I think most people have seen families in restaurants not talking, just eating and looking at their phones. While I admit digital technology can do incredible things, it can also prove to be a tremendous waste of time.

I wonder where these kids will end up. Where are they going? Are we all going together, following the siren’s song? I hope not.

I have the privilege of living with two teenage girls who are enamored with the Internet in the form of YouTube and Buzz Feed, the band Why Don’t We (which I refer to as Why Would I) and Netflix.

Now, with them heading to high school in the fall, I wonder if the days we spent fishing, camping, hiking, stargazing, watching birds and animals, boating, playing in the backyard and riding bikes are gone forever?

I asked one of them recently whether they were going to go fishing with me any time soon, it’s been a couple of years since the last time – a night when we caught a bunch of trout.

She said it’s just something she’s not interested in anymore. During this past winter’s ice storm, I basically forced them out the back door to see the incredible sight.

They have said they would rather be indoors than outdoors, especially when it’s too cold or too hot. I guess they’re Goldilocks girls.

I am hoping this is a streak of teenage rebellion and a finding of their individual selves. Maybe in the future they will return to these things they seemed to love so much before, but I just don’t know.

There are still a couple of things I can coax them into, like sitting around a campfire in the backyard, even in winter. They will do this, especially if they have friends spending the night, at least long enough to have s’mores.

I hope the seeds have been planted and they are lying beneath the soil, watered and germinating, taking a long time to bloom, like those beautiful trilliums I saw a few weeks back.

Whatever the influence, technology, society or something else, I hope the world will always continue to allow a kid to go outside to find out what’s out in the pond or down in the valley or up in the sky.

I hope kids will continue to be able to dream, to want to dream and to experience simplicity, peace and goodness in their lives, growing up or otherwise. I know I found all those things outside when I was a kid.

I know they’re still out there now. But I guess for some they’re like the old wizard who just doesn’t do the trick anymore, the magic’s gone.

I’m not sure where these girls are heading, but I hope the remember how to find their way back. The old willow tree is still there and there’s a summer breeze blowing with their names written on it.

Editor’s note: John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula. Send correspondence to pepinj@michigan.gov or 1990 U.S. 41 South, Marquette, MI 49855.