Free & Easy

After enduring the frightful years of parenting difficult adolescents, you tend to forget the joys of young, sponge-brained, preschool boys, eager to absorb whatever you throw at them. Then, if you’re lucky, a grandson arrives and drops a refresher course right into your breadbasket.

This past weekend was a case in point, when Jordan Steele Sanderson, 2½, brought me to a place I had been meaning to go. For weeks I had wanted to inspect the beaver dam that broke and wreaked havoc in East Colrain late on the morning of Sept. 13, sending a surge of water a mile downhill into the Green River of Falltown Gore. The West Leyden Road neighborhood now refers to that event as ”the tsunami,” which may be overstating it a bit. But it did indeed damage a couple of culverts that required touch-up repair, and could have been worse, far worse, when you ponder it.

Anyway, with little Jordie in town Sunday, I had the needed impetus to go up there and closely examine the breaking point The boy would be the beneficiary. Nothing like a nature lesson from Grampy for a young, inquisitive, bright-eyed boy, totally absent of the distrust spawned by stifling schoolhouse discipline. You know the suffocating, military-style routine: Don’t ask if you aren’t called upon, and sit still, no wiggling your foot to release the anxiety of being cooped up on a bright, otherwise invigorating afternoon. And don’t bother asking why, either. The answer is, ”Because I said so.” Never what an inquiring mind wants to hear. How boring. Like my Vietnam combat veteran pal told me many times in intimate conversation: ”Give him a half a thimble full of brains and one more stripe than you and you gotta take orders from him.”

What a nightmare for a private or student.

But, back to the flood and its destructive path, which has, in a month’s time, pretty much blended back into the landscape. All that’s left is cold-patch here, roadside reinforcement there, and a gaping 15-foot hole akin to a dynamite blast in the middle of the secluded, once-formidable earthen dam. The hole vividly displays the violence and force of the event that unleashed a disruptive torrent through a tranquil hilltown hollow for an hour or two, dropping the depth of a mucky, two-acre beaver pond some five feet, lots of water, filthy brown.

I remember thinking shortly after discovering the flooded meadow at Paul Moyer’s produce farm that it wouldn’t take long for the beavers to repair their dam and again impound Johnson Brook to reinforce their wetland colony. But, being no beaver expert, I was mistaken. To my surprise, the hole was intact, with no hint of attempted repair. Instead, the beavers had constructed two small dams within 10 feet of each other 20 about feet downstream from the blowout. I assume that they will, in time, build it back up and refill the pond to its original depth. So, it’ll be interesting to monitor, a nature’s classroom for me and the young boy. And although it’s just an amateur hunch, my suspicion is that a lot will change between now and the spring freshet, maybe even between now and snowfall.

Once out and about on-site — grandparents and boy — I led them afoot a short distance back into the wetland to show Jordan the pointed stumps and felled trees as my three dogs slashed and splashed through the dense cattails, their enthusiasm infecting the boy to the core, jacking him up like the sound of a playground Ding-Dong Cart. You could read it in his face, his eyes and his light-footed gait — the pure joy of open, boyhood freedom I myself enjoyed during years of unsupervised play in the South Deerfield woods and fields. There was then much more open space down there than now; more freedom, too.

After poking around the dam for a while, the three of us took a soggy walk around the perimeter of a freshly brush-hogged field to a solitary apple tree standing tall and green along the overgrown foundation of an old barn that once wore the sweat stains of my ancestors, Jordan’s too. Standing 15 feet from the tree, the boy was captivated by the dogs’ activity. Having never seen a dog eat an apple, he thought it amusing and described it as ”silly” in his imperfect tongue. He stood and watched them slither in and out of the dense underbrush surrounding the tree, disappearing briefly before poking back through carrying small red apples in their mouths. They’d trot a short distance into the clearing, lay down, patiently break off bites and devour them before returning to the tree, picking up another apple and repeating the process several times. Soon Jordie joined into the game, picking up apples, running out and throwing them into the field, where one of the animals would chase, pounce on it and eat it to his youthful glee. When the dogs had had enough, we walked back to the truck, boxed them up and headed home fulfilled. A worthwhile trip.

Upon our return, we kenneled the animals, two in the back yard, one in the box stall, and went inside, he to his toys in the TV room, me to the computer, where I Googled ”beaver,” pulled up a site and went to retrieve the boy. When told that there were beavers on the computer, he enthusiastically sprang to his feet, reached for my wife’s hand and said, ”Nanny, come.” She didn’t, but he and I did, going promptly to the study, where, on the computer screen, he saw many pictures of beavers, beaver ponds, beaver huts, beaver footprints, and beaver dams, all sights fresh in his recent memory. I enlarged the individual photos, described what we were looking at, and he listened intently, the field-trip imprint still clear in his fertile little mind.

The young, inquisitive boy had tasted the succulent fruit of non-threatening exploration and discovery, a short but meaningful trip, about perfect in duration for a curious, far-from terrible 2. There will be more, many more similar lessons, equally invigorating, fun and free of pressure. Can there ever be too much of such learning? Not in my world. Soon enough for him, though, the dynamic will abruptly change, like that exploding beaver dam, and the innocent little boy will be shoehorned into a hard wooden chair, behind cold brick walls, under stark, white, humming lights, those sorry sunlight substitutes. Yes, this precious grandson of mine and many like him cannot avoid institutional learning, lessons some of the best and brightest learn to loathe; confining, restrictive and tedious to a creative, free spirit.

It makes you wonder. Isn’t there a better way to teach and learn? Is rote learning and A-B-C-D or All-of-the-Above options really the way to go?

It works for some.

Not me.

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