I spent hours at my father’s feet. I can still see the dirt dried on his shoes. I watched his shoes sink into the garden. I remember now a small grass fire near his feet, his shoes crushing the flames. And looking up, I see him wearing an Army coat and a baseball cap.
He is in his early 20s, but he seems to me at this moment to be the oldest man on Earth. The only man on Earth.
I remember, later, rushing to roll out new sod with him as a thunderstorm approached; and hiking in the woods with him in new snow; and fishing with him from a boat gliding through a stand of trees killed by rising water, watching him cast delicately between the trees.
In this memory, formed when my father was a still a myth, he could throw a plug so that it would curve in the air and go around a tree trunk and drop into the dark green shadow just beyond it. This was his time gift. Turning in the air.
Later, my father’s life turned, but these memories create a kind of spiritual window for me, to nature, to another world beyond nature.
When I became a father, I hoped to pass on to my sons this sense of wonder in the natural world. To be the kind of father he was when he was young.
A couple decades ago, when I wrote a book about fatherhood, I learned how ambivalent our culture is about fatherhood. Our popular culture invests far more in defining motherhood than it does fatherhood. Take a look at any magazine rack. In the headlines, how often do you see fatherhood mentioned?
To many women, especially those who have been abused by men, the ambivalence reflects justifiable distrust, and even fear.
This ambivalence extends to our relationship with nature. Traditionally, the roles of men and women in nature seemed divided along the lines of dominion and stewardship. Men conquer the land; women nurture the garden. God is a man, or used to be. We say Mother Earth, but not Father Earth.
Why must the Earth or God be assigned a gender? The tyranny of past assumptions, I suppose, a dominion of habit over both sexes.
Our language isn’t particularly helpful. One word does invoke a gentler relationship between fatherhood, manhood and nature: husbandry. The word is derived from a combination of the Old English husdonda and the Old Norse word bus (to dwell). “A husband was a household dweller deeply bonded to his home and land rather than a wanderer or nomad,” Robert Mannis, a psychologist in Frederick, Maryland, explains. “Husbandry also came to be synonymous with the craft of farming.… At its heart, husbandry reflects a bonding of both family and nature through a clear appreciation of the responsibility inherent in the role of provider, caretaker, and steward…”
All of these qualities, of course, can apply to all parents, regardless of gender. But husbandry is a good word. Mannis called for a “renaissance of husbandry.”
A young rancher I met in Colorado described his manhood and fatherhood in that context. One of the perks of being a rancher, he said, was taking his children with him when he works, especially during one season, when he and his wife and kids work side by side.
“May is our lambing time. We’ll have as many as 2,000 ewes having lambs over a period of 17 to 20 days. At that time, the whole family works very hard,” he said. “When our kids were small, just starting to walk, they always were with us down at the lambing pens. And they liked to get in with the orphan lambs, and just hug them and love them. In the pressure of work, we’d lose track of the children, but then we’d find them in a pen, wrapped up with a lamb, asleep. These times of intense work were hard on them when they were small, hard on all of us, but they learned to work and learned the problems that we all have.”
Whether we live rural or urban lives, whether we’re men or women, the spirit of husbandry can be applied today.
We can nurture the natural habitats around us, and serve as midwives to new nature in our cities. And we can do our best to introduce children to moments of wonder, to the inherent risks of our world and the dangerous beauty of life.
Meanwhile, I doubt that anyone will claim the last word on the proper roles of fathers and mothers, different or overlapping. At least in the past, the literature of parenthood has suggested that fathers play a particular role introducing their children to risk. I don’t know about that. But here is a story.
When our boys were small, my wife and I took a family drive to Laguna Mountain, near San Diego, and stopped at a desert viewpoint. Kathy and our infant son, Matthew, stayed in the car. I took Jason, then seven, down a path to a place I knew. We walked to a cliff—or, rather, I led him there.
I held his arm as we sat down; then I let his arm go. We dangled our feet over the canyon. We could see, far below, two ravens picking their way up a ravine. We watched shadows move out across the desert. I could feel Jason’s tension ease. I knew, perhaps instinctively, that this moment was important, that my job as a father included taking my son to the edge of the world.
Richard Louv is Chairman Emeritus of the Children and Nature Network. He is the author of “The Nature Principle” and “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.” Like Richard Louv on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @RichLouv
This essay first appeared on Father’s Day, 2014.
Photos © R.Louv