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The Reluctant Naturalist

“How does it make you feel that I am going to teach him that the lion is the king of jungle and that the king of the oceans is Aquaman?”

Heat waves ripped over the canyon wall: a blurred curtain that distorted the broad brown wings of a golden eagle. A single male, the largest raptor in North America, rose quickly on occasional wing beats—in search of a mate perhaps? Only God and the eagle know. With the passionless sun scouring the desert, seemingly barren, I was overwhelmed; this must be what Muir felt when first laying eyes upon Yosemite. This joy, this longing, this blissful melancholy: an echo of Thoreau at Walden. But the world’s cares soon returned. The Ravens game was all but certainly back from commercial. I pressed the channel return button and my communion with the eagle, this sky king, is not ended, but rather paused. I have TiVo.

I am a naturalist. The Discovery Channel, National Geographic, and Animal Planet are all programmed as favorites on my remote. I have a shirt with a bear on it. My right arm is tattooed with an eagle, an orca, a dragon, and a squirrel, four natural creatures locked, as far as I know, in a battle for survival, and as soon as the game is over, I will return to my desert reverie.

I heard the front door open and my wife scuffling about in the kitchen. “Hey babe,” I called out, “want to watch Planet Earth on Blu-ray after the game?”

“I’m pretty beat,” Jessie replied. She was tired from her meeting. Jessie is a leader of the Baltimore Outdoor Sierrans and wanted to get up early to go hiking with the girls. Jessie loves the outdoors, but unlike her man, she is not a naturalist. Some people are wired differently. Jessie takes inner-city kids camping. I like a bar with a good view of the outdoors. Jessie keeps a whitewater kayak in the basement, a dual-suspension mountain bike in the living room, and has no problem pooping in a forest. I’ve got an Xbox downstairs, a couch in the living room, and as for forest pooping, that’s squirrel work.

I don’t want to give you the wrong idea, I am not a complete couch potato, and I genuinely like nature, I like to learn about it, to understand it, to explain it. I just don’t like getting it on me.

These differences might seem trivial, and for a summer fling, they are, but in a marriage, these basic philosophical differences can cause deep fissures. Like couples from different cultures, say, a Christian and a Hittite, or a Dutchmen and someone who isn’t, love can bridge much, but it also takes hard work and real compromise. That night, after the game, Jessie and I sat close on the couch, our fingers enmeshed with one another’s—trying to bridge a gulf that often seems so great—and talked about the ways we meet the world.

“What is it about being out in it?” I asked. “What do you get from being IN nature?

“It’s calming,” she replied. “In the city, there are structures, routines, and commitments. Obligations. It’s nice to be free of that.”

“It was a painful realization,” Jessie continued more quietly. “When there’s something that’s essential to you, you don’t even question it’s there in someone else.” There was a pregnant pause, filled with loss. She pressed her palm into mine, slid her eyes up to meet my gaze, and a sly smile crawled across her lips, “Plus, you’d lived in Oregon, which was enough to make me believe.”

I realized then that Jessie had made a mistake, a miscalculation that many before, who have never seen what I have seen, have made. “Babe,” I said, “You should know that much of Oregon is kept indoors.”

But in that moment, when Jessie’s wit cut the sadness, we shared a moment of communion. Jessie’s love for the outdoors runs all the way through her, but our love for each other runs just as swift and strong, and we began to focus on the things we shared. “How would you change my relationship to the outdoors?” I asked.

“It begins with an appreciation,” Jessie answered. “It doesn’t have to be hardcore or anything that requires skill or adventure.”

“What about Jonah?” I asked, referring to our little boy. “How do you want him to meet nature?”

“I hope he loves it as much as I do,” Jessie answered, “maybe more so. I fantasize a lot about it, doing things with him outdoors. A friend of mine is going to hike the Continental Divide and I thought, Wow! Wouldn’t that be a great thing to do with your 13-year-old son? It would be a great 50th birthday for me.”

“That does sound amazing,” I agreed, “but he’s probably going to have a bit of his old man in him too,” I reminded her. “How does it make you feel that I am going to teach him that the lion is the king of jungle and that the king of the oceans is Aquaman?”

“I think we’re going to have a very confused child,” she answered.

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