Say the name Sam Gribley and many Americans of a certain age will be instantly transported to a hollowed-out oak in a Northeastern forest, to the fictional home of a fictional boy who ventured bravely into the woods thinking anything was possible. They may tell you of how quickly they devoured My Side of the Mountain, the book that introduced Sam to the world, or how they confidently packed up a rucksack and told their parents they were “running away” in emulation. They may tell you how that book kindled in them a love for nature, or a love for writing. Or they may just nod quietly, as if appreciating some stlll-burning embers of childhood wilderness fantasies.
My Side of the Mountain was unique in that it made manifest the joy of the wild to children, for whom nature was so often tamed and sanitized. It was the brainchild of Jean Craighead George, a prolific writer and naturalist who was for many children a kind of guide to the beauty and wonder of the natural world. I was among those many children touched by Jean’s words, but I also had the privilege of knowing her personally, of being her neighbor and friend. Jean passed away earlier this year, and last Sunday I joined the (very) many who gathered to celebrate Jean and share what she meant to them at a memorial service in Chappaqua, NY. She was a formative figure in my life, and I thought you might like to know more about what it was like to grow up within the orbit of this remarkable woman. Jean embodied joy. In fact, she taught me much about it before I even knew it was what I was looking for.
I never “met” Jean, I just knew her. I lived across the street from her while I was growing up and she was a part of my life going as far back as I can remember. I would show up at her house unannounced, knocking on the screen door, in the way that Dennis the Menace dropped in on Mr. Wilson on TV. (This seems unfathomable now, doesn’t it? How impossible and quaint such a friendship seems now as kids are sequestered at home in front of devices, rather than left to wander the neighborhood, finding their own amusements.) I would arrive with some discovery, a strange plant or insect, and Jean would examine it with me, identify it, and tell me stories. She seemed to know everything. When I found a frog in the skimmer of our pool, Jean helped me set up a tank with fresh water and rocks to help it recover. When I encountered a fallen nest crowded with hatchlings, she took them in. She took note of my curiosities, and fed them. After reading My Side of the Mountain, I wanted to know if it was really true that Sam could stay alive eating only what he could find in from the forests. She soon gave me a book on foraging. This led to my decimating in short order all the fiddleheads in our front yard to sauté for dinner. (I’m not sure that counts as “foraging,” but it was delicious.)
The door to Jean’s wood-shingled house was always open to me. Invariably she was hard at work, but she was never too busy for a visit. I was never told to come back later. I was always welcomed with an exclamation — “Oh, Ingy!” — and a hug. And how I loved going to Jean’s house. Across the dirt road and up a few steps from my house was a wonderland, a world of curiosities. Jean loved to travel, and her house was full of her findings from these journeys. Inuit masks hung on the walls, a feathery blade of baleen hung over a doorway, a shark jaw sat on top of the television. A giant whale vertebra, like a stone propellor, sat on the floor by the fireplace. At the same time, Jean’s house was more than a repository of souvenirs. A lush mural on the front wall had been painted by a friend. In the foyer, a koi pond burbled a comforting background track. It was an unusual but real home, a home well-lived into. And it smelled that way too, the warm smoky air of the always-burning wood stove mingled with transported scents from faraway lands.
Jean amazed me with her adventures, traveling well into her golden years to places I hardly knew existed. She was always just back from somewhere at the edge of the map, and because of this she expanded the boundaries of what I considered my world. Jean traveled outside the realm of guidebooks. She trod the off-off-beaten path. She traveled to connect with the people in foreign lands, more often than not the native peoples who lived in kinship with the wildlife she studied and wrote about. And they embraced her because she was genuine in her desire to understand those places, the spirit that kindled their unique beauty. She listened with reverence to the songs of the wildlife, giving voice to creatures that for many people are distant and silent. She interpreted their characters for us in the hope of creating empathy that might protect them from the dangers of the encroaching modern world.
Jean’s life was so vibrant, I think, because it was all about life, the joy of all that lives and breathes and squirms and squawks around us. Jean embraced all of the messiness of the world, savoring its incongruities, its tensions. She didn’t let discomfort stand in the way of discovery. She ventured into the world’s mysteries deeply in tune with her own sense of wonder, and she cultivated that wonder in others. It was infectious. You couldn’t be in Jean’s presence and not be amazed by what fascinated her. You couldn’t read her books, especially the ones so beautifully illustrated by her collaborator Wendell Minor, and not fall in love with the landscapes she depicted. She understood that she only had one life and she was keen on using the time she had to experience, to explore, to create, and to love.
When I was discovering writing, Jean cheered and fed my passion. When I didn’t know what to write, Jean said to me,”write what you know.”* But she may as well have said, “write what you love.” It is what she did, and oh, the places it took her. At the memorial last weekend, as I listened to so many people speak of how Jean had changed them — how she had pulled them out of depression or inspired them to adventure or taught them to listen to their inner child — I thought of the words of another writer, the poet Mary Oliver:
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
So many of us forget, in our humdrum routines, that we only have one life. We let days full of potential go by without realizing just how rare they are. But Jean didn’t, and looking back, I believe that is her most important gift to us. By living her life to its wild and precious fullest, she leaves a light for the rest of us. And I feel sure that there’s no better way to honor her memory than to do the same.
*To any of you who aspire to write, this remains the best advice I’ve ever been given on the subject. It’s certainly what keeps me at it.
November 18th, 2012