By NICK SIRIANNO
My back stood firm against an American hop hornbeam tree and I was reminded of my father. The tree, otherwise known as Ironwood, is firm and ruffled, just like the muscles of my dad’s back. I was taken back to a time when he crawled like a big elephant across the forest floor while my older brother and I latched onto each other and rode him. My brother was 8 and I was 6. We were still small enough to hide behind trees and still young enough to escape our thoughts through the wonder and imagination of the forest.
Growing up just a few houses down from where Roger Tory Peterson did, my father understood our good fortune to live close to this resource. Just before leaving, he sat us down and said that we were headed into the forest for the next three days. I held up three fingers, he smiled and laughed. He then took out three books and handed one to my brother and me. My brother was given Roger Tory Peterson’s field guide to wildflowers, I got his field guide to North American trees, and my dad kept the classic Peterson field guide to North American birds. The next three days were spent identifying the wonders of the natural world that until this point I had never understood. This trip was the foundation of who I am as a naturalist, a poet, and a seeker of the spirit that surges through every living organism on this earth.
From where I sit, I can’t hear much besides the roar of the Northern Branch of the Grasse River. Even as I speak, I can only feel the vibration the words make in my chest. My voice is carried with the spectrum of fall leaves down through the rapids into a still pool, where they sink and are captured forever—captured in the root system of knowledge that only the trees and the water, and the soil and the fires will ever completely understand. I write about the beauty, but there is a much larger transformation going on that I will never really know.
To my left I look through bare branches like lattice work. Just beyond them and at the base of a hill, a pocket of yellow birch trees stand, still fully wrapped in a big yellow blanket. We are holding onto the beauty of fall for as long as possible. Though my intentions are purely based on aesthetics and emotional transformation, they hold their leaves for a much more complete reason. The trees belong to a cycle of life that I will only ever dream about.
Beyond books, lists, and field guides, there is much more to be learned in the forest. It is not the identification that sticks with me: It is the knowing of names that I value. I see trees, plants, flowers, insects, birds, bugs, rocks, rivers, and all elements of the natural world as good friends—friends with a name, place, and inspirational quality that I look up to.
As I walk out, I try to imagine how the forest has grown up. Big Poplar trees stand like grandfather clocks recording the time of nature. Ravens give tremolo croaks to the red squirrels as a warning sign of human footsteps. Though I can only see so much, I know that hidden under the leaf beds, up in the branches, and underground, creatures fill this forest. My footsteps are tainted by the heavy hand of man. Out of all the things the natural world understands, why can’t they see the good intentions in me? If I were to return to Harper Falls I’d hope that the animals remembered me and my peaceful intentions.
The car ride back takes me through farm country of Northern New York. There clouds are low, and an opaque peach sheen transforms the shape of the sky. I feel roofed in by beauty. The colors shine bright on big hay bales like stage lights on symbols. I think about my feet and how they should be making this journey more often.