Finding the Center
By Dawn Erickson
“Let’s go to the swamp,” my son says. It’s not really in today’s plans but we go. We walk the railroad grade from our house to where it crosses a small seasonal creek. Here we slip off the grade and follow the creek to the swamp and eventually the park.
The swamp itself is some twenty acres of wetlands. Each time we visit we find some new thicket or channeled water to explore. My son likes to leap from one grassy hummock to another, seeing who can make the most daring-crazy jump, seeing how far we can get into the heart of the swamp. We find that crossing atop beaver dams are good, and though we see blue herons, and kingfishers, eagles and salmon and big green tree frogs, we never see beavers.
On this day I tell my son not to expect much. It’s only just stopped raining and when I last walked by the swamp was more a river, with a mighty current. So I’m surprised we can go as deeply into the swamp as we do. My son leaps and jumps. Our dog leaps and jumps. We shimmy across narrow logs over deep clear water, or pools of muddy water, or water covered in a thick green slime. We watch the dog leap into water that leaves a luminous green sheen across her back, even after she shakes. It’s fun, my son says, to watch the dog run around. It is here while we are bumping along and laughing at the dog, that my son tells me about the party.
“There is a party today,” he says, as if talking up to some tree or a blank piece of sky.
“Oh?” I say.
“I wasn’t invited,” he says. It’s not like he doesn’t get invited to parties. He is mostly well liked. Usually I’m surprised at how easily things roll off him, how he doesn’t get upset about slights or meanness. He is much more forgiving and patient than I am—more willing to think the best of people.
“Whose birthday is it?” I ask, but he doesn’t answer.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I’m sorry you didn’t get invited.” He shrugs his shoulder and says from across a small channel of water, “It’s probably like his mom said ,he could only invite a few kids or something.”
“Yeah” I say. “It’s probably like that. It’s hard you know, you can’t invite everyone.” When I look there are tears in his eyes that I pretend not to see. “It must hurt though. It would make me sad.”
I want to hug him but I know he’ll pull away. So we talk more, from across the channel, about his birthday party and did he invite this boy. He did not. I remind him that it’s hard to know who to invite and we can only hope that people understand that you can’t always invite everyone.
It seems a small thing, a kid not invited to a birthday party. But I see the flash of pain pass across my son’s face. I know that ache. I know the pain of not belonging. It is real and universal. Whoever we are, whatever our age, exclusion hurts.
The swamp is actually a series of beaver dams but it is rare to actually see or even hear a beaver. And the dams themselves are grown over with grasses. Many times we think the beavers have moved on, but then we’ll see a fresh fallen tree or a stump carved clean.We find sticks gnawed and chiseled so smooth we take them home and place on our mantel above the fireplace. When I look down today I realize we’re walking on one of the old beaver dams. A long solid one covered over in a thick grass, except in places where the recent high water has eaten away the grasses and exposed a mishmash of sticks and mud waddle.
Many Native American cultures call beavers, or the habitat they create, the “sacred center of the earth.” Their dam building creates a place where life can flourish in all its extravagant diversity, the pools they create are a haven difficult for predators to reach and do harm. But more than that, wetlands are a place of repair and restoration. It is the beavers that set things right again, beavers that create or mend the center, create a place for the living to become strong.
I think of how the beavers protect themselves. How I come to this place because it offers me protection, it is home. The blackbirds and herons and beavers, are all reminiscence of my childhood home in the Midwest, the places near our house I would ride a bike to and hang out for an afternoon reading or sorting things out in my head, especially the mean girl middle school years, the years that loom straight ahead for my son. Those mean girl years stung, and still do. I’m still loath to admit the bullying and ostracizing that took place years ago. I feel a shame creep in, as if I deserved whatever was dished out, that what they said was true, all of it. It’s taken me twenty years of adulthood to recognize cruelty for what it is, to know it and name it, to take action against it.
That’s what I’m thinking when I realize the dog is running back and forth across the top of the dam, tearing into a big hump of mud. “It’s a beaver lodge!” my son yells. The dog jumps in the water, her muddied body disappearing underneath the mud and sticks.
“Look, look, look!” my son cries. He grabs me and nearly pulls me into the water as we teeter on the little narrow strip of beaver dam we stand on. I don’t look, instead I try to push my way past him to stop the dog, to put a leash on her and pull her away from the lodge, if it is one.
“IT’S A BEAVER!” he says, “LOOK!” And I look because he won’t let me past. My son has never seen a beaver before.
A stick is moving rather unnaturally. “There, see that stick?” my son says. “The beaver is doing that.” Then I see the beaver under the water’s surface. He glides silent and graceful, swims all the way across the pond before curling into some cubby hole we can’t see. We just see the brown and what we are sure is a wide flat tail.
My son walks toward the dog, calling her name now. It takes the two of us to pull her away from the water and get the leash on. Getting back across the dam isn’t easy. But we do and are relieved to see there is not much damage done and we start back home.
When we come up from the swamp and onto the railroad grade boys are running about off in the distance. It turns out the birthday party is at the neighbors. “Oh,” I say to my son. “Is this the birthday party, here at the neighbor’s house? There are shouts and laughter and moms calling from up on the hill. Now I understand they must have all been talking about the party at school and on the bus ride home. The boys stand with their Nerf guns, shout back and forth, and run in and out of the trees. My son first tries to slow his pace and head back into the swamp, but when they leave he decides to speed up and try to say hello. But the boys go back into the trees and we guess up the hill.
“They probably went up for cake,” my son says. The kids are mostly younger kids and mostly all on the same basketball team but even though I know there’s no real reason he should have been invited, I know we both feel a little like outsiders.
And I know these boys aren’t bad kids; their parents aren’t unkind. They’re not bullies or and this is not all my fault or anyone’s fault, because there is no fault to be had here. It’s just another birthday and there will be other parties. There will be friends that come and go, and friends that might be there forever. There will be times my son is included and times he’s not, and there will be times he’s inclusive and times he’s not. But I fear these middle school years. I fear what my son might suffer. I fear the ways he’ll be influenced by his peers, that he’ll stop talking with me, that he’ll be bullied or bully. I want him to be strong yet compassionate. To be able to stand up to bullies, to say no when needed.
I do admire the beavers. I admire the way they protect themselves, the way they create so much for those around them while keeping themselves safe. And I like that I seek out marshes and wetlands where beavers live. I like that my son wanted to go here today, that it was here that he was able to say what was on his mind, that we could talk.
Maybe there is a reason we like it here. Maybe there is a lesson to learn. Maybe if we cross enough dams, or wander deep enough we might stumble upon an insight or two, get some ideas about creating our own place to flourish.
Author’s note: I sometimes think my husband and I spend too much time dragging our son from trail to trail, exploring and investigating cool spots or pretty places. But then these conversations happen and I realize this is where we all feel most comfortable and maybe that’s a good thing.
Dawn Erickson lives in a small town in the North Cascades Mountains of Washington State. She once made a living fixing trails for the US Forest Service before deciding to write about life with her husband and son. She has written for Literary Mama and Wanderlust and Lipstick. You can read more of her writing at dmerickson.com