Last Child on the River

On Wednesday we left Skull Shoals Bridge behind, three men and a child, off on a two-day adventure on the Pacolet and Broad Rivers. There would not be another bridge until we took out at Lockhart, 15 miles downstream.

For the three men it was a time to clear out the detritus of the semester. We were all English professors. Between us we had probably read 200 student essays in the past two weeks.

For the child, Esten, it was true ground-breaking outdoor adventure. He had never been in a kayak, much less a two-person kayak, never paddled so far, or slept on a tiny island in the middle of a river.

That first afternoon Esten’s dad Jim kept them headed downstream as his curious son communed with dragonflies and formulated a complex eight-year old’s theory about why the insects liked their bright orange boat best.

I paddled my green solo canoe and Alan guided the green sit-on-top kayak. Mostly we drifted downstream, playing attention to the world passing by as best we could.

When we talked it was about past adventures and theories of nature. We mused about adult intellectual things much more abstract than the dragonflies flitting around us all.

Richard Louv’s book, LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: SAVING OUR CHILDREN FROM NATURE-DEFICIT DISORDER, made a big splash a few years ago when it was published. In it Louv argues admirably for getting our children back out in nature. “In nature a child finds freedom, fantasy, and privacy,” he writes, “a place distant from the adult world, a separate place.”

I’ve always thought the opposite was true. It is the adults who too often drift off into fantasy and a separate place, and it is the children who keep us looking at the concrete particulars of the world around us. A child out in nature is never alone. He is caught up every moment in a complex world of connections and kinship.

I kept looking all day for these things that Richard Louv claimed Esten would find in the woods or on the river. Instead what I observed was the pleasure he took in things themselves-a beaver dam on a little side creek, orange peels swirling downstream on the current after lunch, a wrecked boat, a mother wood duck protecting her babies with a display of a fake broken wing.

That afternoon we made the turn from the Pacolet into the Broad River and camped on an island in the lee formed by a dune of river sand. Esten ran on the long beach at the island’s head. He caught toads and watched a black rat snake swim back to the mainland. He fished and swam. We saw a bald eagle, his first, he informed me, in the East. Four geese landed in the shallows between the island and the mainland.

At nightfall we sat around a campfire as small tribes have done for a million years. We listened to the sounds of the world around the island. They were complex and memorable: cows in a field across the river, a coyote howling on the other side, a whip-poor-will, a pair of barred owls. Esten took them all in, and then he slept in a tent.

By noon the next day our adventure was over. We hauled the boats ashore above the dam at Lockhart, and loaded our gear into the truck to head back to civilization. Esten slept most of the way back to Spartanburg.

Was it nature that wore him out, or did the familiar hum of truck wheels on asphalt put him to sleep? As we unloaded the boats he was wide awake again, catching toads in our front yard.

In my tribe of nature lovers, the naturalists, we are much more keen on this vast variety of creation than on the freedom or fantasy it affords us. We name things. We observe. We collect and classify. It’s Esten’s child-like curiosity we all scramble to recover on every outing.

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