There once was a little boy, red-haired, freckled and skinny...
who lived with his mother and father in a green and mountainous land called Tennessee, far from here. This little boy, had he lived today would probably have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder. But in that day no one had heard of such a thing, much less his teachers who simply thought that he was lazy or stupid, probably both, because of his failure to complete assignments such as "Look up these 20 words in the dictionary, write down their definitions and turn in the paper tomorrow", or "Work 400 long division problems before school is out for the summer".
What did the little boy do with his time? In class, which was in a school way out in the country and which had large open windows looking off to green trees and rolling hills beyond, the little boy looked out the window and wished he was outside, with the trees and rolling hills. He did, however, look up a few words in the dictionary, but mostly he got stuck reading the dictionary and wondering about the strange words he found and how many words there were and marveling at the strange and wonderful meanings which he found on absolutely any page in the dictionary. He loved to open the dictionary at a random page and pick out a random word and try out that word on his mother or father who would be somewhat surprised and mostly said "Hmm-m-- isn't it about your bedtime?" So his dictionary assignment didn't get completed for the next day.
And he did a few long division problems-- "divide, multiply, subtract, bring down and do it all over again until you run out of numbers" he had memorized and was very good at. But after a few times of dividing 745.37 by 1.24 or 35.6 by 8.7 it wasn't much fun any more so he just kind of quit doing them. At the end of the school year he and his parents had a conference with his teacher and the principal to demonstrate that the little boy really could do long division and shouldn't be made to sit through the 5th grade over again because he had only done 20 of the 400 long division problems.
But what the little boy loved most of all was to go exploring in the woods. His house and neighborhood were new and right on the expanding edge of their little town. It was built on what used to be forests and woods, sprinkled with an occasional cleared and fenced pasture, an old barn and sometimes a log cabin-- a hundred, or maybe even just a few dozens of years ago, these were little farms where families just like his kept a cow, chickens, pigs and a horse to pull a plow and grow some corn and other vegetables. The little boys house was right on the edge of the development and beyond his back yard was not another backyard but a rail fence of old, gray split logs, stacked in a line like a row of X's. From the earliest the little boy could remember he wanted to see what was in the dense woods on the other side of that rail fence and he was not very old-- certainly before he had to go to school and look up words in the dictionary-- when he climbed that rail fence and began to explore. It was the very greatest enchantment when he was first alone in these deep woods and out of sight of his house or any house and even the rail fence. Even though he knew, very carefully, where was the rail fence and the particular X of stacked rails that was easy to climb over and behind which was his very own house and mother and father and supper waiting for him very soon and he had better not be gone very long because he wanted to keep his enchanted woods his very own secret.
As the little boy grew older he explored deeper and deeper into the woods and found the old barns and log cabins and old farming implements-- ax blades and saw blades with the handles rotted away-- and sink holes where the rainwater would disappear into the ground and old roads with deep-rutted, narrow two-tracks and stone fire pits with corroded metal tanks and coiled tubing coming out the top. As he grew a little older, he liked to get on his bicycle and see how far he could ride and what new and interesting roads he could find and where they went. Since he lived on the boundary of the country, he found the old country roads which soon wound into the foothills of what he, years later, learned was the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
One time he found a railroad track crossing one of the roads and determined to find out where the tracks went. The rails were rusted and many of the wooden ties were rotten and decayed. He took a couple of his buddies with him one Saturday, packed a sandwich and a candy bar and off they went to explore the tracks. They hopped on the ties which were just barely too far apart for their short legs, saw where the flat lands gave way to little hills and the tracks meandered up the valley, crossed a creek and climbed up the hills. The boys saw more woods and clearings and, sometimes, farms with cows and farmers driving tractors in the fields. One thing they learned was that yellow jacket bees, which they hated, liked to build their nests in rotted, hollow railroad ties and when you stepped on one of them the yellow jackets were very angry. Then the little boy learned that he was really not so very far from home because he ran all the way back and it didn't take nearly as long as he thought it would.
The little boy grew still older and explored ever more deeply into the woods and when he was in high school he found out that other people were also interested in exploring, not only woods, but whole forests and mountains and many other great things. He spent many weekends walking and hiking and camping in the Great Smokies. But he also learned to love a few of the other things. The most important of these was a certain red-haired girl, who, fortunately, also loved to walk in the woods and fields.
Now time went on, as time always does, and the boy and the girl grew older and bigger and had many great adventures together. They got married and moved away from the little town and went to new and different schools and moved again and again to new cities. They took jobs as teachers and scientists and taught other young men and women to know about and love forests and woods and mountains and fields and streams and other great things. Many good things happened to them, and a few bad things, too. After a long time they discovered that they were getting on in years and that they had worked for as long as they wanted to work and it was time to slow down.
They bought a little farm of their own and grew some of their own food. And the little farm was nestled in the green and gold hills of California. The boy, who was now an old man, looked toward those hills, just like he had when he wasn't doing long division problems, and decided he would once again learn how to walk among them, from streams in the valley to wooded hilltops and grassy meadows. He learned he could swim in the ponds built by folks who lived long ago. He learned to take his friends along. By so doing, he made a great many new friends. And he loved life and he had great joy.
You might have guessed by now who the little boy and girl were, but even if you haven't I want to leave you with a message from them-- the message is this:
Find out what you love and who you love and stay devoted to both of them. Figure out, together, how to make your love work for you-- this is one of the secrets of life and it is hard work. And, it is lots of fun. Do it well and life can bring you great joy.
--sam bledsoe, spring, 2010