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Living and Writing in the Natural World

A Summer Evening

August 1979. Heather and Holly and I rode down to the stone wall by the creek this evening, Heather on her bike with training wheels, Holly on the handlebars of my 3-speeder. They wear new swimsuits, I only my jeans. The air is warm. We walk the bikes the last couple of hundred yards, as that stretch is not paved and Heather’s back wheel dangles in midair frequently between the two training wheels—a frustrating experience not to be endured by a five-year-old. We park the bikes by the wall and clamber onto its broad top. Sitting there, legs dangling toward the water, we survey the scene. A wide, shallow creek, lined by willows and alders and thick with various shrubs, with valley oaks and sycamores beyond, topped by a blue sky laced with streaming wisps of white clouds. Heather says the clouds look like a scarf blowing in the sky. I agree. She says they look like something Mommy puts in her hair. I don’t understand her description of it, but it doesn’t matter. We notice the water insects dancing gaily atop the water. I say it looks like raindrops striking the water, as each dancing insect spawns concentric rings like a raindrop does. Heather says it’s like it’s raining, except the three of us are covered by an invisible umbrella. We all laugh. Holly gets up, steps off the wall to the road, and does a little dance of her own, with moves known only to three-year-olds. We laugh again.

We sit there in silence, looking for beavers spotted from this vantage point before. The clouds are pink now in the sky. “Oh, pretty,” Holly says. My keen eyes pick out a figure floating down to us: “Beaver!” I whisper hoarsely, pointing dramatically. “Daddy, do cans float on water?” Heather asks. Generally not, I reply. My beaver floats past us. It is, as Heather thought, an aluminum can. Holly gets up to do another jig. We wait in silence again. From across the creek comes a low “barump.” We all look at each other in excitement. Another throaty “barump,” louder and longer now, and from beneath our very feet an answering call. We giggle, trying to be quiet. I explain why bullfrogs call. Heather can’t understand why female frogs like the calls. “They just do,” I finally say, and shrug, sensing this is not the time for an explanation of evolutionary mechanisms. They are not impressed when I claim the calls are lovely. We sit on the wall, listening to the bullfrogs and watching the daylight fade. The clouds are now orange. “Oh, beautiful,” says Holly. “Daddy, I’m getting itchy,” says Heather. “Let’s go home.” “Me too,” says Holly. “Let’s go home.” I extract five more minutes from them to watch for the beaver. A duck bursts out of some bushes across the creek and flies downstream. Finches call and rustle in an alder beside us. The stream flows on, silently.

We finally stand and step down to the road. No beaver, but that’s all right. We walk our bicycles back to the asphalt. I lift Holly up to my handlebars, and we proceed up the country lane to our driveway some thousand yards ahead. I hum a tune. Holly sings a wandering ditty about grass and horses and paper and beer bottles—whatever her eye encounters. Heather is trying to whistle. I point out to Holly how the muscles in Heather’s leg ripple as she pedals her bike. Holly informs me that bicycling is good for you. And jogging. Even walking. I agree. We stop to peer at a hole Heather discovers, and conclude it was dug by a squirrel. Heather remembers the acorn she had found as we set out and stored in our mailbox. She gives it to me to put in my pocket, because she has to walk her bike halfway down the steep hill our driveway forms as it branches off the lane. Holly, perched atop my handlebars, tells me when Heather has passed the steepest part and gotten back on her bike, and gives me permission to swoop down the hill after her then. We all glide down the long driveway together, whooping and laughing in the gathering darkness.

November 2012. Heather is married, with two curious and adventurous daughters of her own. Holly, who loved hikes, bicycle rides, and celebrations, died of cancer in 1999, at age 23.
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