As I write these words, the 100th anniversary of my dad’s birth is just days away: March 12, 1920. Later this year, on the Winter Solstice, I’ll remember his death at age 70, the same age I am now, which, if I’m honest, sometime haunts me. Both seem good reasons to celebrate the life of my father, Edward William Sherwonit, and reflect upon some aspects of our relationship.
Given my passion for the wild Earth and nature writing, and the ‘City Wilds’ theme of this column, I suppose it’s natural that I’ve thinking about the ways Dad influenced the path I’ve followed. Again, to be honest, that’s not so clear.
I think Dad struggled to understand why I gave up my first career in geology, where I’d already found considerable success, to become a writer (and a “nature writer” no less; what the heck is that? he wondered); and then to settle in a place so far, and so alien, from our family’s East Coast home.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that my own path didn’t flow naturally from his, at least on the surface.
Dad, as I came to know him, was a conservative, blue-collar guy; a deeply religious Lutheran and World War II veteran who worked most of his life as a carpenter; and a stern disciplinarian of a father who loved to say (sometimes with a smile), “I may not always be right, but I’m never wrong.” He was a man whose life revolved around his family, his church, and his work.
I meanwhile have evolved into a far-left leaning “greenie,” an advocate for wildlands and wildlife and a pacifist who believes that social and environmental justice are intimately connected; someone who considers himself something of a pantheistic pagan. Not to mention all that nature-writing and Earth-loving “wildman” stuff I enthusiastically embrace. I’ve struggled more with human relationships than with my connections to the larger, more-than-human world we inhabit, but my “people skills” and ability to express intimate feelings have gotten better as I’ve aged.
During much of my own life, particularly as an adolescent and young adult, Dad seemed to me a man who rarely displayed emotion and revealed little about himself, or at least his vulnerabilities. Back in my twenties, I thought of him as a “mystery man.”
And still . . .
I’ve always sensed that when I was an infant and little boy, maybe until the age of 3 or 4, Dad and I were emotionally close. But then something happened and he backed away. He hardly ever hugged me and for many years never said “I love you.” Eventually I came to understand—and intuitively know—that he did love me but for much of my young life I really wasn’t sure. That was hard, because I loved him so much. There was a time when I loved him more than anyone else in the world. He was my first and greatest hero. Finally, as he aged—and I think softened in the best sense of the word—I came to experience his warmth and kind-hearted side, even his pride in me. And yes, his love.
As for wild nature and “the outdoors,” my Uncle Peach (Dad’s younger brother) was more obviously an outdoorsman. Peach loved to hunt and fish and camp and during my adolescence he became an important mentor.
Still, when I think about it, Dad too spent much of his life outdoors, both as a carpenter and a guy who loved working in his yard, especially tending his lawn and eventually building a “rock garden” in the backyard.
I wonder now whether the lawn and yard-care gave Dad needed order in his life, while also giving him the gift of solitude—something I, too, cherish—all while surrounded by more unruly nature. Our home stood along the edge of rural Connecticut and our yard was bordered by a large expanse of New England forest, a place of many boyhood adventures that my friends and I came to simply call “The Woods.” Not far from Dad’s beloved lawn was another place of bountiful wildness, “The Swamp.”
Both The Woods and The Swamp became my refuges, places I explored with friends and on my own, places where I found mystery and delight in the form of exotic creatures like frogs and salamanders, turtles and snakes and fish.
These may have been among my father’s — and mother’s — greatest gifts to me: building a home and putting down roots along the edges of such wild places, and giving me the freedom—no, more than that, the encouragement—to explore and play in those places, to discover the wondrous wild right in our neighborhood.
It was there, in Trumbull, Connecticut, along Old Town Road, that I first experienced the “nearby wild” that I love to celebrate in these City Wilds columns. That in and of itself is a gift, a legacy, worth celebrating on the 100th anniversary of my father’s birth
Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at email@example.com.