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On wings of discovery (11/07/2004)
By Janet Lewis Burns

The First

The first man who whistled

thought he had a wren in his mouth.

He went around all day

with his lips puckered,

afraid to swallow.

- Wendell Berry

There's something charming and inspiring about a youngster's curious nature. They enter the world with a clean slate on which living's exposures are recorded.

Unbelievable, the baby's gone cross-eyed! I recall the energetic spurts of an infant, arms and legs flapping at the wide-eyed discovery of his or her hands.

This past summer, I spent one-on-one time with each of my three grandchildren. Their 4th of July visit, up at our camper in Chetek, Wisconsin, afforded us the perfect setting. Alyssa, eight, our loving "sunshine girl," really got into bird watching at Papa's feeders. The avian guide and journal, which she and Ally had given me, came to life with Alyssa's enthusiasm. "Chickadee, dee, dee" became Alyssa's call of the wild, mocking frequent visitors.

She painstakingly recorded each species in a child's hand. We identified our prize sighting, on both 7/3 and 7/4, as an indigo bunting. He was a plump, deep blue, with black lines on wings. Alyssa's entry of a Baltimore oriole, that dapper guy sporting the bright orange breast, was my last oriole sighting, the colored water removed until spring.

An amusing display, a woodpecker feasted upside down, frequently visiting our "welcome" feeder. We were befuddled by the many varieties of this bird in the guide, none of which pegged our red-head, bigger than a downy, and more black on its backside than the hairy woodpecker.

Our grandkids have seen firsthand the swallows' abodes, spotted beneath concrete bridges on pontoon boat rides. The mud homes resemble earthen baskets, where beaks of the young protrude in anticipation of grub. The adults catapult and swoop, plucking insects from mid-air. By July 4th the swallows disappear for the season.

During that balmy, family weekend, Sam, four, took Gramma's hand as we ventured into a nearby forest on a "treasure hunt." It was a joy to watch his handsome face melt in awe of each of earth's offerings...Sam, inquisitive and spirited.

The wildflower field beyond is a kaleidoscope of rich hues...against a scudding sky, the color of laughter. Sam carefully snipped black-eyed susans, the elegant Queen Anne's lace, daisies, and curlicue grasses. Back at camp, we pushed each piece into a large fruit jar filled with water, attempting to place the showy sides to the outside of the glass, a fragrant memento.

Our blonde, saucer-eyed Ally, nearly four, has a whimsical wit that instigates snickers and grins. One of those picture-perfect autumn days, when air fills the lungs with well-being, she spent an afternoon with Grandma Janet. Strolling through a grove of ancient trees near our home, we gathered up props of the season.

I was thrilled to be able to point out a huge, white mushroom and lichen in a deep orange shade, layered at the base of a towering tree. Her eyes followed the scampering squirrel up a pine's truck, as he escaped our intrusion. Her tiny body swaying, with the echo of eternal breezes, Ally searched for the monarchs no longer here.

Back home, she lost interest as I arranged her collection in a basket, for a fall decoration. I eavesdropped, as Ally, with her uncanny imagination, played "pretend." The family of dolls and stuffed animals in our very retro playroom is a favorite place for our grandchildren,despite worn, outdated playthings, books, and puzzles (with their 69 cents stickers intact).

A Robert Frost poem comes to mind as I write. "The Pasture" captures the simplistic bond between family generations:

"I'm going out to fetch the little calf/ That's standing by the mother. It's so young,/ It totters when she licks it with her tongue./ I sha'n't be gone long. - You come too."

I think I hear my mother calling! I peer through autumn's backdoor, in the midst of life without her, realizing that she's always been within my grasp, our reunion edging closer. 


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