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Jason and the Monster of Mystery Valley

About the Author

Richard Louv is Co-Founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Children & Nature Network, an organization supporting the international movement to connect children, their families and their communities to the natural world. He is the author of nine books, including "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder" and "The Nature Principle." His newest book, "Vitamin N," offers 500 ways to build a nature-rich life. In 2008, he was awarded the Audubon Medal.

A Father’s Day Tale

As we left the dock, we felt the air coming up from the water. Fishing air feels and smells like no other air. It cools your face and gets in under your shirt, and everything is left behind—all work, all worries, the static of the city.

“Remember last time?” asked Jason as he let his line out behind the boat. I did. At the end of the lake, we had approached a valley that seemed to recede from view as we approached. “The closer we get, the farther away it seems,” I had said to him. His eyes had grown wide. The light had turned red and begun to fade. We had turned back.

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“This time, I’d like to go find the mystery valley,” said Jason.

So just after dawn, we headed straight for the endless arm and the valley at the end. It took a long time.

The valley came closer to us. Above it, the foothills were like pink sheets lifted by invisible fingers. A stream from another century meandered slow as Sunday morning between willows and cottonwoods, oozing through a marsh and into the lake. “Look!” said Jason. “It’s like Africa.” We saw fields of mustard grass and cattle and two white egrets standing tall, lifting their feet in slow motion, watching the surface of the water.

We left the lake and entered the stream. Running the outboard slowly, I slid the boat between drowning bushes. Minnows shot ahead and to each side. The air closed in.

Jason’s job was to watch the water for stumps and hidden obstructions. He knelt on the front seat and leaned over.

“Dad, a log. . . . Dad, an . . . alligator!”

He straightened up, eyes wide. “I thought it was a log, but then the log ate a minnow.” He said the thing was almost as long as the boat. Probably a catfish or a carp, I told him. “Water magnifies. But then again it could be . . .”

Pause. “. . . the monster of mystery valley.”

Jason rolled his eyes. Nine-year-olds do a lot of eye-rolling. But I could tell part of him believed in the possibility. He was pleased.

I recalled a similar morning on the Lake of the Ozarks, one of my earliest memories. I was looking up, as my father and mother loaded rods and tackle boxes into the boat, at a sun so swollen that it seemed to fill half the sky. An optical illusion, I’m sure. But to this day, part of my mind still believes that on certain days the sun approaches us like an eye at the other end of a microscope.

Jason and I moved forward, got stuck a couple times, and poled out with an oar. Far up the stream, we banked the boat and got out. I wanted to see what was in the line of tree. Perhaps a deeper channel. We headed across a mushy field of high weeds through drifting clouds of green, newly hatched flies. Our feet sank six inches below the surface, then more.

At the edge of the trees, in a shallow pool of muddy water something moved beneath the surface. A phalanx of life charged away from us. We waded deeper into the trees, where the light come down through the branches. A sunfall. Beneath it was a field covered by glowing, green snow. We waded out into it, and scooped up fistfuls of the duckweed, each plant a delicate miniature clover. Then we stood for a long time looking out across that scene, and finally we let out our breath.

After a while, we headed back to the brown pool. I knelt in the water. “Feel around,” I said, moving my hands in the muck below the surface.

“Dad, yuck.”

“Really, do it.” I felt something moving and came up with it in my hand—a squirming, fat bullfrog tadpole. Jason, excited and proud, caught one, too.

We made our way back to the boat, and Jason climbed in. I took my rod from the boat and waded along the bank of the stream, pulling the boat behind me. I saw a sudden flash of color. A bass hit my fly just below the surface. I hooted and hollered and fell sideways into the stream. We both laughed. Then Jason pointed. He could see a long dark shadow following the bass on my line.

A few minutes later, I held the bass in the water and stroked its belly, and we watched it slowly swim away. Watching it leave, I made a wish, that when Jason reaches my age, he still believes in the mystery valley. Sometimes the closer you are to a place, the farther away it can become.

We turned the boat and moved back down the stream. Jason again scouted the shadows in the water, watching for danger until he could no longer see the bottom. Behind us, the valley disappeared.

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Richard Louv is founding chairman of the Children and Nature Network. He is the author of THE NATURE PRINCIPLE and LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS.

Illustration by Dave Mollering

7 Comments

  1. Ken Finch

    Rich — Enjoyed Mystery Valley very much. Nice piece!
    Best,
    Ken

    Reply
  2. Wonderful, descriptive writing. You pulled me into the mystery. I’m sure your son will remember this day for a long time!

    Reply
  3. After I have read the monster of mystery valley, I like your story, which is great interest and attract me into the secret of nature. I agree to you with the sentence “fishing air feels and smells like no other airâ€�, because the air fishing is wonderful, it creates for people as everything feel comfortable and happy. Moreover, this story makes me think back of my memory when I was child. I remember that there is once time, my father told me go to fishing with him, where is near our house. I really hate this sport because it’s bored and require a lot of patient, so I only like to stay home watch TV or listening music, but my father want me to fishing with him. Next, I agree go to fishing with him, and this is my first experience in fishing. He taught me how to fishing, which is simple in that one only has to live bait up a hook and throw the line in the water. And when I caught the first fish, I feel very happy and wonderful as a dream of catching monster fish, it’s easy to get started fishing. As a result, I like this sport, the fun is in catching, not in sitting silently for hours trying to break a record, keep it fun and playful. Also, I understand that where I can learn new things in nature and get ready to head out on the water with funs, this is a great way to learn new skills, have some funs, and connect with family. Nowadays, I am not living with my family, but I always remember about whatever I have a good memory with my family. I think that everybody and your son (Jason) will have a day wonder with the family in nature, where won’t forget

    Reply
  4. I agree. This is a really descriptive and interesting perspective on the valley. Seems like a very beautiful place to go! I think that, as you mentioned in your book: Last Child in the Woods, families should follow your example and spend more time in the outdoors. People should learn to embrace the beauty of the outdoors instead of always staying inside by the electrical outlets. People should take a more active role in developing a deep connection with nature and adopting a healthier lifestyle.

    Reply
  5. Prose, poetry, and other from of literature are a powerful means of communicating with the inner child, mystifier, romantic, and environmentalist. This story enchants the inner romantic. I like to think that Thoreau seduced his readers with Walden. Perhaps more fiction about children wandering through imagination and nature will prompt readers to find their own love affair with nature. I suppose that’s what Where the Wild Things did, but children shouldn’t have only one story to rely on for inspiration. I’m certain there are more stories out there, but I’m determined to create even more stories to re-invent the inspiration for the inner nature romantic.

    This story reminds me of Thoreau’s Walden. If edited properly as a short story fiction, it could be published as a children’s book. The descriptive writing is wonderful, and it brings the reader into the moment, sharing the muck, fright, and wonder through words. The adventure itself reminds me of the Jungle Book ride at Disneyland. As I read your son discover the alligator in the story, I was taken back to the robot alligators emerging from the swamp surface; as a kid I thought they were real. They weren’t real, but the excitement was there. This memory trigger can serve as a wonder imagination trigger in other children, inspiring them to go on safaris in the overgrown lawn in the backyard or play swamp thing in the pool.

    Reply
  6. I really enjoyed this sensitive, colorful account, Richard.
    I know this might be a bit of a sensitive issue for broad public consumption, but I hate to see the spiritual aspects of fishing overlooked.
    What’s always captivated me about fishing is that it’s this mystical communication, through a nearly invisible filament, with an unseen, alien world. Casting, you make an overture. Then you wait for the cryptic reply. If you’re lucky you get to meet the stranger, marvel at its beauty, thank it and send it on its way.

    Reply
  7. I love your story! I was hooked like a fish. Thanks !

    Reply

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