Matt Dickerson: Eulogy to a nature lover
I don’t write many words about the outdoors or nature that do not, at some point, reflect the life, love and influence of my mother, Clara May Riddle Dickerson.
This past August, my mother passed away. She had been battling cancer for 12 years. Even though her mind remained sharp, over her final year and half her body had grown increasingly frail. In some ways, therefore, her death did not come as a surprise. In other ways, death is always a surprise, always a shock. When she died, I knew that at some point I’d need to write a column about her, and her influence on my life, and in particular her influence on me as an outdoor writer.
My mother was not a wilderness person. She didn’t hunt or fish, though she did come from a family passionate about both. Her father was an avid hunter. Through the Depression and Second World War, he fed his family not only working a variety of jobs — from short-order cook to coal miner to rural pastor — but also through what he could harvest with his rifle in the local corn fields. My grandfather died when I was only 15, so I never got to hunt with him. However, some of my earlier fishing experiences are chasing rock bass, perch and crappies in the quarries of southern Indiana with my mother’s Uncle Bill.
None of that took with my mother. I’ve had a number of memorable wilderness camping experiences with my father. I can’t remember ever fishing with my mother, and I know I never hunted with her. She loved the beauty of wilderness, but didn’t especially want to sleep in a tent or carry a backpack. When our family traveled down the Canadian Rockies one year, stopping for visits to Jasper, Banff and Yellowstone Nationals Park, “roughing it” meant renting a rustic cabin instead of a hotel.
And yet her fingerprint is still all over my outdoor writing.
Among other things, my mother always loved wildlife. She took great joy when a fox would wander into the backyard of our rural home. She enjoyed watching birds at the feeder and listened to recordings of bird songs. There was usually a bird identification guide sitting on the windowsill of our home in the woods, and she’d sometimes tell us interesting facts about the birds that visited us. She got angry when my dad took “measures” to eliminate the pesky red squirrels from the neighborhood. And she had a special love for loons.
At times I think my mother was bothered that I had so much outdoor fun with my father, and maybe she felt like I didn’t appreciate her enough. But the reality is, my time with her may have shaped me even more. When I was young, she used to take me for walks in the woods around our house, or down our quiet, rural, dead-end street. She took delight in trees, wild creatures, and little flowers by the road. (Until the end of her life, she never lost her delight in those walks.) I remember winter days in middle school and high school when school was canceled due to a snowstorm, and we’d take excursions out into the woods on our cross-country skis, listening to birds, looking for tracks in the snow, watching squirrels scamper around trunks, or just enjoying the quiet. In the summer, she would also head out with me for a canoe ride around the lake in Maine where we had family vacations, searching for turtles or checking out the loons on their nests, making sure no predator had gotten them. One of her favorite summer activities was taking a day hike up to a waterfall in a local nature preserve. Unlike me, however, she was also content just to sit by a lake, river, sea coast, or just a quiet patch of woods, and watch and listen — with no need to be constantly doing something.
In this way, just being around her, my delight in nature — my sense of appreciation of the thing itself without the need to own or control it — grew and took shape. My longing to spend an afternoon gliding down the trails at Rikert on a snowy February day traces back to my mom. So does my purchase of a bird guide when I was at Glacier National Park last summer. I still like to paddle the lake looking for turtles.
More importantly than this shaping my nature imagination, though, was her influence in shaping my literary imagination, and especially the place where that nature imagination and literature imagination came together. For more than 20 years, my mother was a public school teacher, mostly in fifth grade though at the end of her career she taught middle school. And nearly every year, she read aloud to her class the “Chronicles of Narnia” by C.S. Lewis. Not surprisingly, she introduced the books to me at home at an early age, and my imagination was filled with stories of a place where humans lived in peace and harmony with trees, mountains and non-human creatures without the need to exploit — where exploitation was an evil to be resisted. One of my earlier books exploring environmental literature and philosophy was an exploration of the environmental vision of C.S. Lewis expressed in his fiction.
It is often impossible to know the depth or nature of how our lives may impact, or be impacted by, others. But given a little time, we do get glimpses.
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