This essay was inspired by our recent trip to the Canadian Rockies and modeled after Terry Tempest William’s piece in Orion, The Glorious Indifference of Wilderness (September/October 2014). In the essay below I play with a mosaic of connected thoughts. I welcome your comments.
I don’t believe in signs.
Not even seeing a black wolf on our last day in Banff, just hours after I lamented such a possibility. Not even a treat of four rainbows gracing the vast Calgary sky on the last few hours of daylight as we left behind our vacation, a splendid respite, a second honeymoon purposefully set in the Canadian Rockies where we’d wanted our first honeymoon, and intentionally starting as soon as we were officially empty-nesters.
Empty-nest: a stage in a parent’s life after the children have left home.
The pre-trip days were heavy with unspoken expectations that vanished into easy, peaceful days as soon as we landed in Canada, rented a car, and set off. If it is possible to mix the passion and playfulness of young love with the wisdom and comfort of a 27-year relationship, we did it effortlessly. It was as hard to leave, as it was to fathom never returning to the nest we’ve built in Virginia. So we lingered on that last day. One more walk, one more canyon to visit, several more hours of seemingly endless mountain vistas, all to stall our return to civilization.
We’re returning to an empty nest. Will it be weird? Can we continue the essence of this vacation once real-life hits us?
For a split second I thought it was a black bear. It’s a wolf! I was driving. I slowed to a crawl on the side of the road while Chris took pictures. Its trot was steady, anxious. If it could know that all my life I’ve wanted to see a wolf in the wild, to look it in the eye, to apologize for the slaughter of its ancestors, that I was an advocate for all the wildness it represents and the wilderness it supports, it would not care. I was interrupting its agenda. It trotted just ahead of the front of the car, seemingly dog-like, until it turned to look back at us. Wild! As far from the dogs sleeping on my living room floor as perhaps we are from our most recent primate ancestors. I could drive the berm for hours just to watch, but suddenly it was gone, retreating back into the understory, back to the shadows in my mind.
I don’t believe in signs, but it is fun to pretend that such events give special meaning to memories of loved ones or milestone events in our lives. And while the wolf and the rainbows are obvious ones to use, it is instead a wildflower we encountered that takes the role of symbolism, or of finding connections, for me. Fireweed.
What happens to an empty nest? How will it change? After all, nature abhors a vacuum.
Chamerion angustifolium. Commonly known as fireweed, but also known as rosebay willowherb, great willow-herb, or wickup is an herbaceous perennial from 1.5 to 8 feet tall with pink to magenta flowers. We saw it along roadsides and in meadows. It is native to Canada and some parts of the United States, and is found throughout Eurasia. It grows in a wide range of soils and can be found in coniferous and mixed-hardwood forests as well as meadows, stream banks, grasslands and aspen parklands. It is most common in disturbed sites such as burned forests, avalanche areas and along roads. It is the first species to colonize a region after a forest fire.
An empty nest is a disturbance to the flow of days and of years, to meal planning, to weekend routines. As a couple we must colonize new ground.
We saw it and wondered at its name. A phlox? No, it has 4 petals not five. We saw it and marveled at its seedpods, how they split open symmetrically, revealing small seeds that will be carried on the wind by long tufts of white fluff. A milkweed? No milky sap in its stems or leaf petiole. And then we saw it colonizing a forest meadow that had burned eight years ago. Even late in the season, with signs of senescence, it was a stunning sea of purple against the tall black stalks of death. Life after death is real in nature. Change is normal.
An empty nest is not a syndrome, though a Google search will try to convince you otherwise. It’s just a change. Maybe a big change, yes, but we are still parents. We’re still here for our children; our nest has just broadened to include their futures as adults. We will cheer them on or offer shoulders just as before. And they will always have this nest to which they can return.
Fireweed blooms from the bottom up. Alaskans have a saying that when the plant blooms at the base, summer has begun, and when the last flowers at the top bloom, summer is nearing its end. All we saw were flowers at the top.
But the end of one thing is the beginning of something else. Nature abhors a vacuum.
A few days after we returned home, I was preparing for bed and I called upstairs, It’s getting late, time to think about bed. All that replied were the echoes of ghost steps ingrained in my brain and I thought of all the times little footsteps crossed that floor upstairs to brush teeth before bed. Those footsteps grew each year, leaving bigger and bigger signatures on the wood floor until they were big enough to leave. Will I always hear them?
An empty nest is not a syndrome. It is a stage in life. It is as real as adolescence, first loves, parenting, and all the other ways we parcel our time into chunks of meaning. We are embracing it the same way we did the sea change that rode in on the birth of our first child. We will ride the waves of time and change, excited for new possibilities, and comforted in wistful times with great memories.
And, while that wolf encounter is not a sign of anything but serendipity, the wolf itself is a sign of all things wild. It is a sign of tenacity. I can hear its paws thumping along the forest floor in a constant pursuit of new beginnings.