The (Young) Man in the (Backyard) Wilderness--Richard Proenneke and Kiddo

Sometimes, serendipity plays a bigger role in educating our kids than we would expect. Sometimes, we find a gem when we least expect it. This happened to me last month; I'd turned on the tv for some distraction while ironing and stumbled into the middle of "Alone in the Wilderness", a documentary made by Richard Proenneke.  I was initially intrigued by Proenneke's narration of his life out in the Alaskan Wilderness in the winter, living in a cabin that was "a toasty 32 degrees", shoveling snow paths daily so he could make his trips to the lake, where he cut a hole in the ice for water. So unusual in its nature, this documentary sparked my curiosity and we rented it for the whole family to watch over Christmas. After bit of my own research, I've come to admire Proenekke; a World War II veteran, he moved to the remote Twin Lakes area of Alaska to retire and then did what most of likely do not have the sheer gumption for: he packed in the metal parts of tools, some bare essentials, and built himself a log cabin by hand as well as a john, a woodshed, an elevated meat storage (and I hear there was another cabin he built later). He'd crafted his own tools, handles for some of the metal tools he already owned, and then also built furniture for his cabin. This is really an insignificant description of Proenneke's ingenuity and incredible work ethic; I was fascinated with his ability to craft so many things from wood and his tireless striving to succeed out there in the very far back of beyond.

Kiddo, too, has been enchanted by this video. I've since learned that Proenneke has also made other documentaries about his time out alone in nature...he spent 30 years as a disciplined naturalist, keeping exact records of weather, temperature, flora and fauna. Kiddo never minds that, instead, he's hooked on watching the carving of logs to fit together so perfectly to make a house. He's amazed that someone can take a piece of wood and make a spoon. (I was amazed that someone could take pieces of wood and make door hinges and an operating latch mechanism with a lock.) We've talked a lot about the caribou and wolves that Proenneke mentions, and how nature's ways of survival aren't always pretty. (There is a bit of animal carnage, but that's pretty par for the course in an area where animal control doesn't come and remove dead critters.)

One moment that Kiddo has talked about repeatedly was Proenneke's discovery of a burl on a dead spruce; he removed the burl in two large sections and took it back to his cabin (strapped to his back, no less) to craft a table and a bowl out of the burled wood. Kiddo wanted to know about burls and this resulted in some researching, first in a "Nature Questions" book (no luck there) and then on the internet, where we found some explanations (burls form where trees are stressed) and images. Being able to see both the burls on the trees and wooden works crafted from burls was great; when the bark was stripped away, the beauty of irregular, chaotic grain of the wood is impressive. We've also taken the time on a few walks to notice the burls on the trees in our neighborhoods, as well as the shelf mushrooms growing on the trunks of trees--and in the fork of one older tree, actual little toadstools growing all the way up there four feet from the ground.

Our observations of nature have increased in the cold weather as we've been offering our neighborhood juncos and "Sweetie Tweeties" (the song sparrows) some seed scattered on the ground. Our thistle feeder has brought a regular pair of lesser goldfinches and the suet feeder has (for now) remained undiscovered by the acrobatic squirrels. Instead, a sweet delight, a Townsend's Warbler, with its little black mask so dramatic against its yellow head and breast, has been visiting. Two days ago, I spied what I think was an Anna's Hummingbird, with a red head instead of just a ruby throat. We haven't had any visits yet from the downy woodpecker pair we saw last year, but I'm still keeping my fingers crossed.

Kiddo's also becoming more interested in letters and words. I want to just take a minute here to say to so many parents: if your kid isn't interested in letters at four years old, don't sweat it. At the beginning of last summer, one well-intentioned person in our lives was fretting that Kiddo had no awareness of the difference between letters and numerals, and nearly-zero letter recognition. I'm glad I took the deep breath and told myself it would be fine. There's some sort of moment when they get interested in something where the lightbulb in that part of the brain clicks on automatically and it can sometimes all start falling into place. My friend Alisha has loaned me a stack of engaging 'early reader' books, which I really like. Kiddo's been looking at words and naming each letter of the word to me, all on his own. We are nowhere near learning sight words yet, but I'm delighted that he's enjoying noticing and recognizing letters, or asking me "what does PCL (or any cluster of three or four randomly selected letters) spell?" So, parents of children who aren't yet interested-- have some faith; four is a very long year and we've made it this far before five.

We've been playing games: Mystery Garden, Dinosaur Bingo and Granny's House are my three favorite board games for right now. Granny's House (from Family Pasttimes a favorite game company of mine--they make cooperative games for players of all ages)  takes the team on a trip through the forest to bring Granny a basket of goodies. Along the way, the team moves forward and can collect and employ "Good Things" to overcome obstacles and challenges. This game allows for children to be creative and use a bit of reasoning--even if it's magic reasoning--to help the team along. Dinosaur Bingo is what it says it is, a bingo game with dinosaurs. Kids are challenged to observe the smaller details, since many dinosaurs appear to be generally similar but have differing features; the names on both the small cards and each player's card also allow for children to practice looking at the letters/names to get secondary confirmation of a 'match'. Mystery Garden is a game centered around a fairytale-inspired 'garden'; small cards each show one object/character that is in the Garden, when one player draws a card, the others must guess which object/character they have drawn by asking yes/no questions. I like all of these games and they are helping Kiddo in the areas of reasoning, observation, counting and deduction. All in all, good times.

I write all this to remind  myself--and perhaps you, too--that we have so many opportunities to teach our children in fun ways, right at home, in some more old-fashioned ways. Especially by simply spending time with them and listening to their interests and curiosities. In retrospect, I don't think we would have had as much fun or learned as much about the burls if I'd just told Kiddo what one was. I like the exploration of a topic. I like board games by the fire, and the need to get one lit right now is nagging at me a bit, so I'd best get to it soon. If you haven't guessed it yet, I'm trying to bring some of that remote log cabin life of Proenneke's here to Portland, to our little bungalow. I like having a life where we learn to be hardy by walking to school, even if we need to put our rain pants on to do it. Kiddo's a child who can keep himself busy in the most creative ways, both indoors and out. I'm thinking Lincoln Logs are next on the gift list, perhaps for his birthday, or maybe some Kapla blocks. Not that he needs anything new--with a big potful of sticks outside, plus the stacks of other, bigger sticks, he's got plenty of building potential once the weather warms up. He's still a little man of simple means: give him those sticks, a place to dig mud and some water and voila, paradise for the young.

I'm hoping to grow more easily satisfied as I grow older, too.


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