When school ended and summer stretched out endlessly before me, I had a vision of how my family would wind down our summer.
Two weeks before we started school, we would strictly adhere to my boys’ 8 o’clock bedtime. A week before starting classes, we would resume our 6 a.m. wake-up schedule. I even considered instituting a 15 minute “homework” time in the early afternoon, so that the transition between complete freedom and structure wouldn’t be so jarring. Then, August came a little sooner than I expected.
We decided to spend our last days of summer in the Canyonlands of northwest Texas. For the past 20 years, the area has experienced intermittent drought. With only 7 inches of rain, 2011 was the driest year in recorded history. A local friend told me they were only 20 years into a 40 year dry cycle. Others began to talk about the desertification of the southwest. The dependable creek, where I spent my youth fishing, went dry–a cracked and hollow ghost of its former self. This year, however, El Niño brought spring and summer rains. The yellowed grass ran green against the pink canyon walls. Sunflowers, blue spiderwort, yellow evening-primrose, canyon tea, buffalo grass, Russian thistles, and yucca filled the canyon floor. The area teemed with wildlife. We saw mule deer, frogs, grasshoppers, cottontail rabbits, and evidence of raccoons, pack rats, and skunks. There were even reported sightings of beavers in the creek. My kids fished, swam and wandered into the “wilderness” alone, a luxury they do not have in the city. We had campfires and s’mores and dinner parties with friends. My children made homes for grasshoppers and minnows. They collected sherds of Native American pottery and flint from a dirt road leading up to the rim of the canyon.
In this unpredictable space, we don’t know many things. On our walks, we don’t know if we’ll see deer, lightning bugs, rabbits, or a snake. The children peeking under rocks could find a toad, a black widow, a lizard or a centipede. Next year could bring rain with full creeks and springs, but it could also bring more drought, more dryness, yellowed land, and parched earth. The only certainty we have is how beautiful our surroundings are now. While we know that school will begin in one week, the need to plan, to worry, and to prepare becomes eclipsed by our desire to appreciate nature. We watch the green herons skim across the creek to catch perch or catfish. The Mississippi Kites circle high above the canyon without any indication of their future migration to South America. We also swim, canoe, catch minnows and bugs, savoring our last few days in the canyon without a hint of our own trajectory south, or the world that we ordinarily inhabit with bedtimes and order, traffic and schedules, and our own carefully constructed routine.