You were never much of a hunter. Pheasants, yes. Squirrels and chipmunks, I suppose, when you were younger. But you never came home from a weekend away with a buck in the bed of your truck, because you never had much interest in deer season and you owned a sedan. I imagine some people from other places can hardly conceive of a Midwestern man without a shotgun over his mantle, a closet full of blaze-orange jackets, a copy of Field and Stream next to the john. And yet when I think of you, I do see an outdoorsman. I see you paying attention to landscapes, to the shapes of clouds. I see you teaching me to love the world.
The lessons looked like this: leaf piles in autumn, the way you would dive into them wildly. And this: two ends of a strong rope — one tied to the front of my winter sled and the other around your waist — with which you’d tug me behind you as you cross-country skied. And this: you, walking bareheaded through the April rain. There were tree forts. Snow castles. Trips to the lake. Trips to the mountains. Trips to the prairie, the wind whipping at the grasses. There were all those toads and turkeys and garter snakes and robins and muskrats and owls and caterpillars you’d point out, whispering.
My favorite times, though, were when you’d drive all of us out of town on an early spring or late fall day. You’d stop along some gravel road, within some stretch of wooded hills. You’d sling a tattered backpack over your shoulder full of canteens and saltine crackers and licorice. We’d go hiking. Often we’d follow the dirt trails deep into the woods, so deep that the only sounds were nature sounds, the only smells were of wet or dry earth. When we veered off those trails, it was because you urged us to, or you’d taught us to, because you wanted to see the valley from a higher place, and soon enough we wanted to know what was down by that stream.
When you leaped up onto old fallen logs, walked across them like an acrobat, arms gracefully extended, we felt ourselves the luckiest children to have you.
And once — hunting season a week away, the air crisp — you stopped mid-step ahead of me and slowly dropped to your knees. “Em,” you whispered, “look.” I hunched down beside you as quietly as I could and followed your finger with my eyes. There, at the top of the ridgeline, were three white-tailed deer, one a seven-point buck. I felt a certain bigness in that moment, and I felt your hand on my back.