It is the last day of Autumn, although it has been looking like winter for quite some time. Today the sun shines, despite the efforts of a few, small, fluffy clouds.
I dress in layers – polyester to wick, wool for warmth, nylon to keep out the wind. Mother Earth’s skin is layered, too. A soft, wet, packing snow is covered by a layer of crusty ice and topped with sparkling powder.
I am heavy enough that every step breaks through the icy layer making crunching sounds. I can tell from the prints that the deer went through, too. The fox is light enough that all her footprints are in the powder… Lolli is at that frustrating weight: the crust holds her up most of the time, but every once in a while she breaks through with no warning… I know that feeling! When the crust is thicker, it happens to me…
There are plenty of signs of the passing season. Each one of them reminds me of another passing. A young man. Twenty-two. Car accident on Autumn’s ice. Slid into oncoming traffic. Prounounced dead at the scene. Later today I will attend his memorial service. There will be a chance to speak about his life. I won’t be able to because of the way my tears choke my throat closed making my words unintelligible.
A wild tangle of multiflora rose, tenacious against the wintery weather, still sports leaves and berries. In my effort to get my camera into the shrub for the perfect composition, I puncture a finger. As my blood drips onto the pure white snow I am reminded of Ryan’s tenacious desire to know and understand everything about the natural world… particularly the herps… and the image of Ryan’s hands holding a water snake fills my mind, blood dripping from his puncture wounds.
There is an anticoagulant in the saliva of water snakes, so when they bite, you bleed for a while… and they almost always bite. This never deterred Ryan. Through his fearlessness, he taught me to be less afraid of picking up little critters to learn about them. I still won’t pick up water snakes… but I will pick up frogs, salamanders, garter snakes, turtles, snails, slugs, centipedes, millipedes, and many more… Thank you, Ryan.
If the seasons of the year are a metaphor for the seasons of a lifetime, Ryan should have been leaving spring to enter the summer of his life… Summer. A time of productivity, action… He was completing his masters at Duke, ready to take on the world…
As I think about this metaphor I remember how Ryan tried to rush his spring – to be grown up quicker than other children. He started coming to Audubon Home School programs when he was young and I noticed what a good big brother he was to his siblings. And when he “met” Liberty, the bald eagle, he became determined to assist with her care. Our policy says you have to be 18. Undeterred, Ryan asked for other volunteer jobs. We gave him the tedious and unpleasant: inventory, data entry, dust the mounts, clean the fish tanks.
No matter what jobs we gave him, he did them without complaint and with a maturity we rarely find even in college kids. The Eaglekeepers gave in. Ryan became our youngest caregiver. He left a big hole when he went off to college… And when we started our internship program, he was one of the first college interns we hired.
There’s a spot along the trail with an odd assortment of plants. I wonder once again about the history of this spot of ground. Dogwood. Pokeweed. Goldenrod. Brambles. In spring there will be daffodils. Intertwined with all of it… Wild Grapes.
This, too, feels like a metaphor… for Ryan’s life, for my life, for each of our lives. We take our twists and turns, sometimes interacting with others, sometimes out on our own… Sometimes it feels random… but there is a greater purpose, even if we can’t see it all the time.
Ryan touched all our lives at Audubon and leaves behind many memories. My mind wanders through the building and sees projects Ryan built. The very fact we have so many herps on display is in part due to him. Out on the trail is a nest box he and his Day Camp kids put up. And each time we do a Home School program or hire a college intern, I will think of him.
Of all the wildflowers, Witch Hazel blooms last… still blooming on this December day. It will take a whole year for the seed pods to set… even longer before the seeds are ejected… even longer for new trees to sprout.
I suspect it will take a long time for me to understand the meaning of a life cut so short, taken so early…
Even Mother Nature seems to have wept over Ryan’s departure from her.
Now, we enter a season without Ryan. While we will miss him, our lives are so much richer for having known him. Thank you, Ryan, for the many ways you touched our lives and for the ways you will continue to influence us as we go through our days.