With special permission from Black Hills Audubon Society, we are reprinting Anne Kilgannon’s inspring book review from the March-April edition of The Echo newsletter. As many of you know, Anne is a member of the LBA Woods Park Coalition leadership team and is passionate about protecting the natural world as well as celebrating its glories. Anne’s review of Robert Michael Pyle’s The Thunder Tree will make you want to shut down your computer and run into the woods. To make it easy for you, we’ve included a link at the bottom of the page to a map of the walking trails in the LBA Woods. Enjoy!
Armchair Birding: The Thunder Tree by Robert Michael Pyle, 2011 edition
By Anne Kilgannon
Bob Pyle, in his memoir of growing up in Denver, takes us immediately to the place that made him the dedicated naturalist he is renowned as today: “When people connect with nature, it happens somewhere. Almost everyone who cares deeply about the outdoors can identify a particular place where contact occurred. This may have been a wilderness, a national park, or a stretch of unbounded countryside, but more often the place that makes a difference is unspectacular: a vacant lot, a scruffy patch of woods, a weedy field, a stream, a green ravine like Ravenna—or a ditch.”
As it happens, my own attachment to the natural world also began in a ditch, the more modest ones that bounded our rural road, with frogs in season, bulrushes for sabers, pussy-willows, birds, even a weasel family one year, and sprouting aspen saplings redolent with sap and a-flutter with leaves that could foretell coming storms. I can still almost feel the difference in the air when I entered that green world, close to home, but so far away. It was my place. I went there as often as I could and tried to melt into the ground and the trees, just sitting and turning my eyes from sun to shade patterned by leaves and clouds. It lives in memory only; we moved away and the entire area was bulldozed, obliterated and built-over. So when Pyle writes of his profound love and identification with the High Line Canal, his ditch, his childhood sanctuary, classroom, and adventure center, and of his lifelong crusade to save any part of it from destruction, I’m right there with him. Ditches are a sacred space!
Pyle gives us both the history of the building of the High Line Canal and what has happened to it through the years as the area “developed” from its original wilderness to agricultural uses and then the suburban-sprawled environment. But more importantly, he tells us about his own development in relation to the Canal. He and his brother and friends ranged long stretches of the countryside on their bicycles or explored sections on foot, climbing trees, poking into the stream, noting the animals who made a home there and experiencing hours and days of glorious unsupervised or adult-directed immersion in the rich world found there. From discovering the delicate life of butterflies, soon to become his consuming life passion, to a close encounter with a shattering life-threatening electric storm, Pyle recounts his formative escapades and the experiences that ultimately shaped his thinking about the natural world and his place in it. His writing pulls the reader to his side, his words reveal the sights and sounds, the smells and feel of that world. You’re there, the muck pulling at your shoes, the sun beating down on your head. Even if you’ve never walked the Canal in person, you learn to see it through Pyle’s eyes and pen.
There is laughter—and then tears, as yet another special place is put on the chopping block, chipped and mowed into submission, paved over, cut down and lost. Pyle fights back with all his knowledge, energy and passion, and he does win some reprieves. He does it for love and calls us to love his Canal, and our own special places. And if we have children, he implicitly asks us to let them get on their bikes and head out to find what can be discovered. This is what will save those next nearby unheralded but so necessary places: that more young Pyles will grow up to fight the next fight to save our ditches and fields and woods. We must, both, fight now and pass on the torch if we will save enough of the natural world to string together viable habitat and reserves for species survival. Just as gardeners can create oasis of healthy environments, the presence of vacant lots, pocket parks and acres left un-built upon can provide sanctuaries for both nature-hungry humans and plants and animals. It is no accident that this edition of The Thunder Tree is introduced by Richard Louv, the writer and leader for the movement to reconnect children with nature. If the environmental movement has a future, it will be this connection renewed that provides its lifeblood.
The Thunder Tree, then, is full of lessons as well as being a rousing great memoir and story. Saving the world begins with the love of place, a special place, a known and experienced place. The children we were and the children to come must have these experiences, these places to ground—literally—their attachment to the world. Pyle writes also of the timely and providential appearance of mentors and opportunities that opened windows and doors for his growth as a naturalist, of the availability of guide books as crucial tools for building knowledge, of the role of natural history museum collections and other hands-up the ladder of his education. We can all work to create and sustain such ladders for generations of Bob Pyles. For this is what the world needs now: accessible nearby nature and guides to show us the way, even as they step out of the way to wave the children onto their own paths of discovery.
For more good news of this movement, look for activities of the No Child Left Inside Coalition, the LBA Woods Park Coalition, our own Audubon chapter work, and other like-minded groups. And get outside for a walk in your neighborhood woods and fields to see what can be found there.
Click here for LBA Woods Trail Map Please keep in mind that the trails are unnamed on the map and unmarked in the woods.
Click here to learn more about The Thunder Tree. published by Oregon State University Press.
Now go find your sacred space!