Before They’re Gone: A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks
by Michael Lanza
Beacon Press, 2012; $24.95
Michael Lanza’s debut book, [booklink isbn=”0807001848″ title=”Before They’re Gone”], is in many ways a story of hope. As parents, it often seems impossible to hold hope for our children’s future and also track the soul-numbing litany of problems in our world. Lanza not only clasps these two contradictory feelings at once, he goes out in search of them.
In [booklink isbn=”0807001848″ title=”Before They’re Gone”], Lanza, a freelance writer and Backpacker Magazine editor, chronicles his family’s adventures over the course of one year as he and his wife, Penny, take their son and daughter—Nate and Alex, aged nine and seven—to the ten US National Parks most threatened by climate change. Each chapter recounts their visit to one park and describes in thorough, well-researched, heartbreaking detail the changes already put in motion by our insatiable hunger for fossil fuels: the melting of Glacier National Park’s namesakes; the loss of Rocky Mountain National Park’s trees to pine beetles and Sudden Aspen Decline; the submergence of the Everglades by rising sea levels and diverted freshwater.
Lanza takes his kids on this journey because, he writes,
I want my kids to discover what I’ve found: the satisfying simplicity of purpose in moving under your own power, at human velocity, through a place crowded not with people, artificial noise, machines, or flashing lights, but with the abundance of nature.
Yet, while Lanza sets out to show the world to his children, they end up showing the world, or at least a new way of seeing it, to him:
So Penny and I get to see these small, beautiful events for the first time again — not because these sensations have slipped through the fingers of memory, but because our children remind us that there are few joys more powerful than discovery.
But hope can be slippery. On many occasions throughout the book, Lanza’s mind flickers to the future, and what will be missing from the landscape when Nate and Alex are adults:
In an August of my children’s adulthood, someone standing here might see five waterfalls, or three, or two [rather than seven]. That sight may still feel like a gift rather than a theft, but perhaps only if that person had not stood here years earlier and did not understand what had been lost.
We readers feel that loss, the pain of losing places we have experienced and loved, as well as those we have not yet, or may never, see. Still, Lanza manages to maintain tempered optimism, closing the book with two alternate future endings, one in which the most dire predictions come true and one in which “humanity rose to the challenges it faced. People and nations willingly sacrificed and adapted.” For our children’s future, let’s hope and work for that second ending.
Daddy Long Legs: The Natural Education of a Father
by John T. Price
Trumpeter Books, 2013; $14.95
In [booklink isbn=”1611800021″ title=”Daddy Long Legs”], author John Price and his two young sons, Ben and Spencer, keep their adventures close to home. Price is a University of Nebraska at Omaha professor and author of two previous books of nonfiction, [booklink isbn=”0306816059″ title=”Man Killed by Pheasant: And Other Kinships”] and [booklink isbn=”0803260261″ title=”Not Just Any Land: A Personal and Literary Journey into the American Grasslands”]. This memoir begins with a vaguely diagnosed “cardiac event” brought on by the stresses of parenting and work, and evolves into a meditation on life and death.
Ben and Spencer are devoted enforcers of a self-imposed “No-Kill Zone” within the perimeters of the family’s Iowa home and yard, a rule that drives Price to complicated (and non-lethal) lengths to dispatch mice and carpenter ants that invade their house. Yet when the family begins to feed live crickets to the “pet” brown recluse spider Price rescues from the bathtub, Spencer agonizes over sacrificing one living creature to sustain another. This push-and-pull of respecting life and coming to terms with death challenges Price throughout the narrative.
Throughout much of [booklink isbn=”1611800021″ title=”Daddy Long Legs”], Price is frustrated with the novel he is trying to write, with the destruction of the Loess hills near his home, with the family’s labor-intensive old house, and with his wife’s desire for a third child when he feels he can barely provide for two. Despite these frustrations, Price finds humor in the adventures of two rambunctious boys — neighborhood stuffed-animal feuds, praying mantis rescue operations, traumatic invertebrate cannibalism — and deftly weaves his fatherhood experience with reflections on his own childhood and the natural history of Iowa, which he calls “the most ecologically decimated state in the union.”
During a family visit to his childhood home in Fort Dodge, for instance, Price sees a luna moth for the first time and muses:
Upstairs, my sons were inside their own dreams, but before they fell asleep, I wondered if they gazed out the same window I had as a boy, setting loose some of the same questions about life and death and the mysteries of nature. The questions with wings.
As Price muddles his way through his frustrations and copes with the impending loss of his beloved grandmother, he begins to find answers to some of his questions, courtesy of his children. For Father’s Day, the boys give him a book of pithy bits of wisdom a father should teach his son. Quoting lessons from the book, Price notes:
What I was most struck by, however, was all the wisdom in the book that my sons were trying to teach me…. Through their presence in my life, and our adventures in the No-Kill Zone, they had strengthened my conviction “not to hurt others,” and encouraged me to see “every life as precious” and “each day as holy.” Even when I failed to do so.
Price begins to listen to the messages sent to him by both his children and the natural world, and instead of focusing on what his life lacks, turns toward how he could enrich it, both through the addition of that third child, and his active involvement in preserving the remaining prairie in the hills near his home. Price learns that both our children and the natural world are filled with wisdom; we need only slow down long enough to listen.