by Jeremiah Webster
My two year old son has a Radio Flyer scooter: classic red with streamers that blow in the breeze with near-patriotic flair. The scooter belongs in a Norman Rockwell painting, on a marquee, and is machined from a single piece of steel to make its rider feel like a demigod. Install an engine and you’d have an intensive care menace on the streets, a motorized Vandal. Liam would store “bi-ke” in his crib if Mother and I would let him. It’s his set of rebellion wheels until the BMX upgrade.
So when I explained to Liam the other day that his ideal scooter was not designed to go down the innumerable staircases of our apartment complex, he was understandably confused. With a furrowed brow that seemed to say, “Why wouldn’t someone take this all-terrain enchantment down a flight or two,” I realized we were beyond rational negotiation. The kid can be stubborn about self-injury. Opting for shameless bribery, I suggested we find a paved, well-lit, OSHA approved, BPA-free walking trail. I threw in several cookies to seal the deal. “Coward,” his eyes flared, “unworthy diaper-changing sidekick,” but he agreed. I expect worse when he hits puberty.
The nearest trail was a far cry from my visions of a leisurely stroll. It was more of a committed hike leading straight up the ridge that encircled our neighborhood. Liam began scaling the path like a Toddler IronMan competitor, so I went the distance with him. The path was all glory: towering pines I too often took for granted, wild flowers with names like showy fleabane, and a congregation of deer ferns people from Eastern Washington (like myself) find exotic. Most importantly, there were blackberries. Having lived on the western side of the Cascades for only a year now, I found blackberries to be a welcomed anomaly. Rubus fruiticosus, a bramble, an invasive species anyone could feel good about, inhabited most of the landscape. Fruit that demand four bucks a carton in the grocery store hung like multi-faceted sapphires from an endless tangle of vines. There were hundreds, undisturbed in their sanctuary. O taste and see, they said.
Liam would stop his scooter every three feet or so to gather a fistful of blackberries, the juice infusing a permanent dye into his sweatshirt. The first bite elicited “Mmm,” and the boy was wholly converted. We ate ripe ones together and the ones with reddish drupelets. We ate them in groups, in singles. We ate them whole, and in halves to see what they looked like inside. We received cuts from the thorns to reach the alluring ones buried deep. We spoiled our dinner. We wished there were more.
Being a father is so challenging that I often struggle to find the “meaningful” in the midst of Liam’s daily routine. This was no such moment. As I stood watching Liam partake in the unmerited favor of these woods, I experienced (not just understood) a poem from Gerald Manley Hopkins that I had loved for years without knowing why. “Pied Beauty” is comfortable with duality, with “all things counter, original, spare, strange.” The poem marvels in the “skies of couple-colour,” “rose-moles,” and “fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls” that comprise this transitory life. Rather than try and resolve such incongruities with prescription or anecdote, Hopkins worships a God “whose beauty is past change.” Even the title resists an essentialized vision of beauty. It suggests that to encounter tension in the natural world is to encounter the infinite.
This was my encounter. A boy who moments earlier had a naive death wish to take his bike down a flight of stairs was finding sustenance in the mercy of blackberries, in the extravagant droop of their harvest. Blackberries destined to ferment on the vine were now sweet for our choosing. Toddler care (menial, often humiliating) became an occasion for worship: in praise of blackberries. Liam and I were equals in those woods, two blackberry stained souls in the garden. Father and son ate without toil. Hopkins taught me to reside in such mysteries, and to actively seek “whatever is fickle, freckled” as I care for my son. Radio Flyer daredevil stunts and all.
Pied Beauty / Gerald Manley Hopkins
GLORY be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: