The red fox kits were not red. They were a mottled tan and black color. We could see them jumping on each other and playing along the edge of the field with their parents watching and joining in as they traveled.
I was perhaps 12 years old at the time, and this was the view from the dining room window during dinner one night. I couldn't find a field guide that talked about red fox kits starting out with mottled tan and dark colors for decades, but I knew that it was true because I saw it.
"I knew it was true because I saw it." This is worth repeating, because there are some things you cannot learn from books, television or movies. Some things need to be experienced.
Jeff Tome has fond childhood memories involving the Box Turtle, at left (photographed by Kerry Wixted) and Fox Kits, above (photographed by Jon McRay).
My dad taught me a lot about nature just by making sure I was outside and experiencing it. OK, I experienced it through a lot of garden hoeing, orchard picking and pruning, lawn mowing, chestnut picking and weeding, as well as through long walks, drives through Presque Isle and visits to places around the region.
Some of the most amazing things I saw as a child happened while I worked outside. We were raking leaves one fall when my dad pointed out a tiny round ball in the sky of circling dots. They were migrating hawks, high in the sky. There were so many that they were virtually uncountable. The hawks flew over all afternoon, swarm after swarm of them.
I distinctly remember telling my fourth-grade teacher about them, but she told me that hawks don't migrate. I knew it was true because I saw it, but I didn't see how anything productive could come from arguing with my teacher, so I kept my mouth shut. (I already wasn't allowed to go to recess for most of that year, so I wasn't pushing my luck.)
I know now that those swarms of hawks are called kettles and that there are people dedicated to watching them, watching more than 20,000 hawks in a day. I didn't know all the details then, but I knew more than my teacher. My dad didn't teach me out of books, but he taught me a lot about the world.
He showed me the only two wild box turtles I have ever seen in my life. One he hit with the lawnmower and accidentally killed. The other was walking too close to a maple tree in a thunderstorm. Lightning struck the tree and left the turtle stunned and slightly steaming. I remember watching it walk away hours later, perhaps a little warier of trees than it had been before.
My dad passed away recently, but memories and stories live on. It's surprising what things I remember now that I didn't think about before. I won't go into all the details of everything, but one thing that stands out is how much more I saw of nature growing up because of things I was doing with my dad. The other thing, and one that I will never forget, is how he encouraged me to go to college and get a job I enjoyed when I graduated. Being a naturalist was not what he had in mind, but it is a job I enjoy.
The things I remember most about growing up are the unplanned moments, the surprises, the unexpected things that happened while going about life. I don't remember the drudgery of hoeing the garden as clearly as I recall the excitement of finding an intact snake skeleton in the apple orchard while taking a break in the shade. I don't recall the many hours spent picking up chestnuts to sell in the city as well as I remember jumping on the puff balls under the chestnut trees. I can remember watching a huge bee tackle and sting a Monarch Butterfly in the weeds and the huge pileated woodpecker on the neighbor's pear tree.
I think of these things often as a new parent. What will my little girl remember when she grows up? She's not even a year old yet, so she probably won't have any clear memories of today, but what experiences can I create that will keep her interested and excited about learning and doing things?
What can I do to create an environment where memorable, unplanned things happen that will stick as sharply in her mind as the image of a slightly steaming box turtle has stuck in mine?
Of course, you cannot plan for serendipitous moments. It is possible, though, to be out there where things are happening as much as possible. Close encounters with steaming turtles, snake skeletons and hawk swarms do not happen inside on computers or watching TV. They happen while being outside, working and playing, at unexpected moments.
The trick is to take advantage of those moments and know that, some day, those memories will glow through the years like a string of pearls. Each memory will lead to another through time and space and each will be treasured long after the parent has forgotten it.
And so, those are among the things I remember most about my dad: the unexpected finds and discoveries while working on other things, quietly knowing the truth of things you have seen, and enjoying the work that you do and doing your best. Those are gifts that no money could buy, no TV show could replace and no one else could have taught me.
Jeff Tome is a senior naturalist at the Audubon Center and Sanctuary.