The Tonic of Wilderness

Ray Zimmerman

Years ago, I took my elderly father fishing. The arteries to his brain were largely blocked, like thoroughfares in rush hour traffic. In that doubly misnamed phenomenon of urban life, no one is rushing anywhere and it always takes more than an hour. Like the autos stuck in traffic, my Dad moved with slow determination. He took longer to get from place to place.

As we ambled toward the lakeshore from my pickup truck, I noticed that a beaver had girdled a tree on the bank, chewed it all the way around. No living tissue remained in that ring, about a foot in height. Like the blocked arteries in my father’s neck, the severed tissue allowed no flow of life giving sap to the tree’s leaves and branches, and slowly the tree was dying.

I took two photographs of my dad leaning against the tree, and I asked him to photograph me. I still have those three photos, though the one dad took of me is too blurry to resemble any actual person, living or dead.

I loaned dad one of my fishing rods equipped with a spinning reel, and began casting for fish with my other rod. I looked over and saw him standing motionless.

I asked him why he wasn’t fishing, and his childlike answer disarmed any pretense of life remaining as it had been in my younger days. He said, “I forgot how to use one of these.”

I remembered the cane pole sitting in the toolbox on my pickup truck. I retrieved it thinking of the many children I had taught to fish with cane poles in my work with youth programs.

I helped my father fish that day, helping as I would a young child who was just learning to fish. The fish were biting, but I had no time to cast or retrieve. I helped him cast the cane pole, with the motion unique to that kind of fishing. Although he landed no fish that day, his enthusiasm was genuine. As he felt the tug of a fish taking his bait he lifted the pole with only mild disappointment. He was certain he would get the next one. As I returned to a place where he had taught me, I realized that he was the child I would care for over the next several years.

***

Caretakers die first. Take good care of you. I received this salient advice from a social worker as I cared for my dad at my home and his dementia progressed. I had already taken dad’s driver’s license, as well as his shotguns and hunting regalia. He had undergone surgery to remove the plaque in his carotid arteries several years earlier, but the arteries were closing again.

A short stay in a geriatric psychiatry ward allowed for evaluation and medication to control his moods and sleeplessness, and to control the voices he heard in his head. I hired sitters and made use of an adult day care center so I could work over the next few years, but the care took a toll on my finances and my career.

As caregiver, I lost one job and then another. Eventually I lost my home and my health insurance, and incurred a small debt for medical care of my own. I saw the reason why caregivers die first.

In the final five months my dad lived at my home, I had a teaching job which required me to report at 7:00 AM. In order to do so, I would rise at 4:30, shower and get dressed. I would then wake my dad, clean him up and put a fresh diaper on him. After our breakfast, I drove him to the daycare center and reported to work. After work I got in a brief nap before a hired caregiver picked him up, fed him dinner and brought him home. We would visit for a while and then I graded papers after putting him to bed.

***

My dad went to a weekend of respite care as I attended a conference at Fall Creek Falls State Park, sometimes called the “crown jewel” of Tennessee State Parks. I left behind the modern lodge and fine golf course to seek out scenic vistas, away from the crowd.

I discovered a small pond behind a low stone dam, undoubtedly a product of the labors of young men employed by the Civilian Conservation Corps. During the hard years of the Great Depression, the men in this camp worked on land purchased by the federal government. The National Park Service transferred the land to the State of Tennessee in 1944.

Just above this pond, a swinging bridge crossed the stream to a rustic amphitheater in a hemlock grove. On that September day the chorus of crickets provided soft percussion as Blue Jays entertained me with calls like rusty hinges. Caregiver responsibilities retreated as I simply felt present in this wild, peaceful place.

Away from my caregiver responsibilities I slowed down, breathed deeply and allowed the healing arms of nature to enfold me. I took pleasure in the motion of the swinging bridge, but not in the way a child uses this motion to imitate a trampoline. I simply enjoyed the gentle sway. I let my body feel the motion, as an infant in a cradle would be rocked to a peaceful sleep.

After crossing the swinging bridge and sitting for a brief time in the amphitheater, I crossed back and sat on the shore of the pond for a brief meditation. I stretched my conscious mind to its boundaries and then beyond just a bit. I ceased to be a man sitting in the landscape, and became man, an extension of the landscape.

I felt the roots of ancient hemlocks stretching through soil, resistant enough to support them and hold up the weight of wood they bear, but pliable enough to let roots grow, to seek a hold in the land. I felt minerals and water pass through the membrane that sheaths the root and allows nourishing chemicals to pass through. I felt mosses and lichens grow on the trunks and downed logs.

Then I felt the ancient stone of the cliff face buffeted by wind and sand particles, boring holes in the surface. As I sat on the shore of the pond, a bluegill broke the surface and shattered my reflection.

These words greeted me outside the park nature center, engraved on a wooden sign, We all need the tonic of Wilderness– Henry David Thoreau. I discovered anew that tonic on my weekend respite.

***

When dad’s dementia progressed to the point that I could no longer care for him at home, I moved him to a nursing home where he resided for the next two years. I visited him four or five days a week, usually at mealtimes. This became especially important when he was no longer able to feed himself. I knew that the staff fed him, but I felt better if I could provide this care at least some of the time.

Through this trial, it was not hope or faith, or even the light at the end of the tunnel that sustained me. Duty, in particular, saw me through my father’s care during the last few months. Eventually, he no longer responded to his name. His eyes flickered with only faint recognition when I entered the room.

***

John Muir once said Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. On the Saturday of my trip to Fall Creek Falls, I got the good tidings of this plateau, not by climbing a mountain, but by descending into a gulf. I took the trail to the base of the great falls for which the park is named. The falls on Falls Creek, better known as Fall Creek Falls, descend 256 feet to the valley below.

The trip to the base of the falls was a geology hike and the leader dutifully pointed out faults, steps, striations and other rock bound features. Amidst the sparsely vegetated rocks, I noticed a plant that was familiar and at the same time unusual. It was pale jewelweed, much like the wild impatiens found in wet habitats near my home, but with yellow flowers, quite different from the orange blossom of its more common relative. Hummingbirds seek sustenance from the nectar of jewelweed, but I wondered what hummingbirds might brave this land of rock outcrops above the falls to sip nectar from the delicate yellow blossoms. I pointed out the unusual plant to my comrades. Their reply was something like, “That’s nice, but let’s get back to the rocks.” Their singleness of purpose allowed me to enjoy my discovery uninterrupted.

At the trails end, hikers cavorted in the cool waters of the pool below the falls. Some had the foresight to wear swimsuits, but others would later experience the discomfort of a hike out in wet clothes.

Dogs had accompanied the humans to the pool and they too enjoyed the cool waters of Falls Creek. Of course the dogs left the water to approach and greet me and every other person seated or standing on the rocks. Along with Ogden Nash, I pondered the mystery of why, “Wet dog is the friendliest.”

Aside from the dogs, the rocks at the base of the cliff, near the falls, are perpetually wet. Liverworts cover the rocks, not the wildflower hepatica, but the green relatives of mosses that only grow on perpetually wet rocks. These I did not point out to my rock bound companions.

I started the return trip to the bluff above well before the main party, knowing that the pain in my knees would slow me down. I paced myself, resting frequently along the trail. At the top, a tourist asked me if the hike to the bottom was difficult. I replied, “No, it’s the hike back up that will do you in.”

***

In January of dad’s final year, a bout with pneumonia laid him low. Strong antibiotics brought him back for a brief time, but he relapsed in April. The blockage of blood flow through the carotid arteries to his brain was nearly complete, and his body simply shut down.

He awoke to take meals with some regularity, but feeding remained a slow and difficult process. At times he would aspirate food rather than swallow it, and this aggravated his respiratory problems. As the dementia progressed, he slept more and more hours of each day.

I sat with him through longer and longer time periods, abbreviating my work schedule in order to be there. On a Sunday morning, he slipped into a coma that lasted four days. I held his hand and said prayers, as I had on previous visits. I stayed with him through those days, reassuring him of my love and God’s love. I was preparing him for the journey ahead.

***

When dad finally passed, my trip to Fall Creek Falls was but a forgotten set of entries in my journal. My ability to grieve returned. I cried for my long departed mother, and for myself. I prayed for strength greater than my own. During this time, I walked through a dreamscape in which I was not alone. My church, three of my closest friends, and the larger community supported me. A spiritual strength held me up from within and from without.

A friend from another part of town appeared among those I greeted at the visitation. He had searched for the funeral home and nearly given up. Then he looked up and saw a double rainbow directly above the building. He called me outside to see it, a perfect rainbow rendered in red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. The second rainbow was a mirror image with the colors reversed.

Although I have never been much disposed to pay heed to “signs and wonders,” I have pondered that rainbow these many years. A sentimental friend said that the rainbow was my father sending me a message, telling me “Goodbye.” My ego wants to say that it was God’s smile—blessing me for a job well done, telling me that this trial had ended, and handing my life back to me. My Germanic ancestors might regard it as the rainbow bridge awaiting the passage of a fallen warrior into Valhalla.

This last image fits with the scripture I read at my father’s funeral. As a celebration of his long and vigorous life, I read Isaiah 40:28-31, which reads, in part, “They shall rise up with wings like eagles.” I picture my father rising on eagle’s wings above the double rainbow and flying homeward. It is a fitting tribute to a man who overcame his upbringing in an orphanage to survive combat in Europe and work two jobs most of his life. He still found time for his hobbies—hunting, fishing, and gardening. Spending part of one day planting herbs, vegetables, and flowers in his memory felt most appropriate.

Dad was a World War II veteran, and the military honors were important to him. He had been through some major battles. The special salute used at a military funeral is slow and deliberate, but only a prelude to the twenty-one gun salute, taps played on the bugle, and the folding and presenting of the flag. Soldiers paying tribute to a deceased comrade have an unmatched air of dignity.

***

As the days passed from his death to the funeral and burial, my emotions transformed from pain and anger to relief and back again several times. My mother’s passing had been different, for it had been sudden and in her sleep. Dad had already begun the long struggle with senility, and caring for him left little time or energy for mourning. A nurse’s assistant said to me, “You have taken care of your father, now it is time to take care of you.” I repotted the live plants sent by friends and colleagues for the funeral. For good measure, I purchased some herbs and a pepper plant. As I bought the pots and soil, I felt my own life return. My time was again my own. I was working again. Today the song of a chickadee or a passing flock of cranes connects me to that same special place and the tonic of wilderness comes home to me.

Author Portrait

Ray Zimmerman has spent a lifetime observing, photographing, and writing about the natural world. His nonfiction and poetry have appeared in The Hellbender Press, 2nd and Church, Photo Traveler, Legacy: The Journal of Interpretation, The Avocet, and The Southern Poetry Anthology. He lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he works in tourism and spends as much time writing and reading as possible.