Out on a Limb: Stories from the Rim of North America

When my oldest son, Casey, was seven years old, a biologist friend took us on his airboat deep into the Florida Everglades. Casey sat on a high perch five or six feet above the water. I sat to his right, below him. My friend gave us ear protectors to shield us against the bawl of the engine. For almost an hour, while the airboat skipped like a seashell across miles of open sawgrass, we rode in joyful silence, watching birds and the shadows of birds peel off the Everglades. Whenever a limpkin or an ibis flushed in front of the boat, I'd glance up at Casey, who, momentarily transformed by the experience, craned his neck, stretched out his arms and began to flap to the beat of each bird's wings.

By the time we reached our destination, a sodden archipelago of willows, the sky had become a fruit bowl of color. Snail kites and wading birds were gathering on the islands to roost. When we removed our ear protectors, a discordant symphony washed over us: herons, egrets, and ibises squawked and cackled: moorhens hidden in the sawgrass giggled like children; kites croaked; pig frogs oinked. There were also the mysterious splashes and plops of creatures moving unseen across the liquid land. As night began to jell, a barred owl hooted. Casey’s eyes roved and his ears tuned from one sensory feast to the next. He knew nothing of the canals and dikes that circumscribe the Everglades. Why should he? Innocent of environmental issues, a child ought to celebrate the power and magic of the American landscape before he faces the task of its stewardship.

“What else is out there, papa?”

Because the imminence of wildlife elevates a visually delicate panorama like the Everglades into a truly magical kingdom, I told Casey about the Florida panther. He will likely never see one, but knowing big cats crouch in dark shadows makes South Florida (or any region) more attractive. To find panther spoor is a gift, for animals embody the spirit of place. They give a landscape meaning and make even the most stunning New England scene immeasurably wilder.

America is blessed with geographic beauty and biologic diversity. From the desert Southwest to the moss-green forests of the Pacific Coast, from the summits of the Sierras, the Rockies, the Brooks Range to the domes of the ancient Appalachians, the American landscape is a veritable feast, a tribute to the power of geologic forces, as well as to the slow, steady etching of the wind and the rain. Add to that a stunning variety of plants that stretch from coast to coast, and there is a landscape to suit everyone’s taste.

Having grown up in the Northeast, I have become imprinted on the painted hills of New England and the white sand beaches of Long Island. Home in Vermont, I marvel every October as the hills transform like chameleons from green to red, to gold, to yellow, to orange, even to purple. Add a goshawk, rocketing through the colored woods, and the scene transcends postcard beauty. I crave the view from Cadillac Mountain on the coast of Maine, when the leaves of blueberry turn crimson and seabirds dot the horizon above Frenchman’s Bay. I count myself privileged when I find time to wander the outer dunes of Fire Island, a ribbon of sand framed by the sea and haunted by the memory of heath hens, Eskimo curlews, and Labrador ducks.

Although I dream of the vistas and the seaboards of the East, I always sought out the visibly rugged West. I wanted my boys to experience the full sweep of the American land. How else could they appreciate how America grades from one bioregion to the next? That understanding brought them a fresh view of the Connecticut River Valley, their own home ground; an integral valley in the ensemble of American landscapes.

Wishing to show Casey and his youngest brother the splendor of unyielding Alaska, a couple of decades ago, our family visited Kodiak Island. A floatplane dropped us off at a remote cabin on the south end of Frazer Lake, a long, narrow body of water hemmed by green, dripping hills. Early one morning, Casey and I rowed across the lake and then hiked nearly a mile to the upper falls on the Dog Salmon River. The river twisted like a serpent through a lush valley of grasses and lupines, bluer than robin’s eggs, and spilled from stony ramparts in a swirl of mad water. Shoals of sockeye salmon swarmed against the current, red fish in blue water. Eleven brown bears fished the river between the upper and lower falls. Late in the afternoon, three bears walked out on a weir. The largest bear, the size of a Buick, stopped and leaned far over the railing as though scanning for salmon. Smiling, I turned to Casey and said, “If those bears were boys, the smaller ones would shove the larger one into the river.” Almost as soon as the words left my mouth the smallest bear leaned on the big one and in he fell.

Casey and these seemingly other worldly beasts had a common ground, a shared behavior—whatever the bear’s actual intention—that brought the boy ineffable joy and closer to the heart of the rugged island. A landscape, no matter how beautiful, that is bereft of wildlife is like a playground without children. I cannot imagine Kodiak Island without the great bears. They give the land authenticity and lend their size and power to our tales. We need those stories to bind our children to the land, to remind us of the beauty and diversity that is wild America. A child needs to be immersed in his immediate environment, but he also needs to take pride in the plateaus of central Texas, the golden, rolling hills of California, the Badlands of the Dakotas. Animals and the stories of animals help forge that connection, for the living land grows stories as well as plants.

Casey’s grown now, married, his brothers both in college. Whenever possible they traveled with me. I tried not to let school stand in the way of their education. Long ago, they learned that beyond our ephemeral perch in the rounded Appalachian Mountains there once stretched a prairie ocean, nearly a million square miles of tassel-headed grasses and assorted wildflowers, trampled by countless bison and hunted by white wolves and tawny-colored lions. And that the bison and elk, at least, are staging a modest comeback because some people found the Great Plains empty without them.

This article is modified from the original printed in National Geographic’s “Landscape Calendar” (1996).

Photo: David Anderson