Sally’s Tale of the Wild Things

Last week, we spent several days “up north” at Howie and Sally’s cottage on Oxbow Lake. It’s a great place to relax and to experience some remnants of wildness — bald eagles, loons, deer, wild turkeys, once in a while a bear.

Soon after we arrived, Sally shared with us the tale of an early spring experience.  It is the story of an encounter with wildlife in their cottage world.  It’s a simple tale, yet it touched me deeply.

The Tale

Early this spring, upon their arrival at the cottage, absorbed in the flurry of activity involved in settling in for comings and goings all summer long, Sally looked up through her kitchen window to see a doe standing only a few feet away, staring at her. The deer literally stayed there for the rest of the day, determinedly staring toward the window.

The next day, the doe was out of sight, but all day long Sally and Howie heard her — a sort of bleating sound coming from somewhere in the woods nearby.  On and on it went, with almost no let-up  — a sound full of distress and agitation.

On the third day, the bleating stopped.  At some point later that day, Howie was startled to discover a dead newborn fawn, lying in a small space below one corner of the deck. What sounded so mournful the day before was, indeed, just that:  Or so it certainly seemed.

Surely, this was an experience of being truly a part of a wild creature’s world for a brief period of time.  A doe’s desperate sharing of distress. A doe trying so hard to communicate with two humans.  And for Howie and Sally, a brief but poignant connection with one of the wild things of the world and a glimpse into its inner life.

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And to the “Woods,” Again

In my previous posting (I Went to the Woods), I described the woods near my childhood home and its meaning to me as a source of play and pretending.  My good colleague Virginia Dickie sent me a thoughtful comment: she wrote, “…it made me wonder how many kids today get that sort of opportunity for unsupervised play outside the house!”

I have thought about that, too, especially related to our granddaughters as they have been growing up.  Our son John and his family live in a newer neighborhood in a municipality that borders Madison. The house they purchased when moving here from out East is on a 2/3 acre lot; the very back part of the lot is undeveloped and sort of a tangle of trees and grasses and vines.  This small “wild” backyard area has provided the girls with a place for unstructured play, a sort of childhood respite from the otherwise landscaped lawns of the nearby homes.

When Carolyn was 7 or 8 years old, she and a neighborhood friend built a “hide-out” in the back corner of their lot.  When we were over visiting one day, we were allowed to peek into the hiding place.  I remember appreciating the fact that these children had an area of the yard that they could mess around in, where they could create a special place for themselves, and where they could enjoy some imaginative unsupervised play.

That is the kind of play that was so important to me as a child.  Indeed, building on what Virginia said, how many kids today have opportunities for daily outside unsupervised and unscripted play that they structure themselves?

Something to think about.

Thank you to those of you who shared with me memories of your own childhood woods, and the “houses” you made in a carpet of pine needles or fallen leaves.

Dis-confirming Data — in Real Life

In 1991, I helped my mother move into a skilled nursing center in Madison, Wisconsin.  My brother and I had scoped out the various care facilities in the city and chosen a Methodist-run facility located downtown near the capitol square.  As a Methodist herself, my mother liked being able to say that she was moving to the “Methodist place.”  That, plus being able to say she was moving to be “closer to Betty,” helped her get through the anxiety of the relocation not only from her much loved home of almost 60 years but also from her longtime friends and her familiar routines of everyday living.  .

At the time, I was a fairly new faculty member at the University and I was steeped in the teaching and research of people’s everyday occupational lives.  My specialty within occupational therapy was gerontology.  I knew reams of information and theories about being elderly in our culture.  I attended and presented at annual conferences of the gerontological society, subscribed to and published in gerontology journals, taught a seminar on aging, and was carrying out research on family care giving for elders in the community.  I knew the literature on relocation and institutional living like the back of my hand.  And I was determined to make all this expertise available to my mother during the time of the move.

Well . . . 

My expertise in gerontology told me that when people first move into a care facility, it is helpful and comforting for them to have familiar objects from home with them.  It is an important way to help them feel “at home” in an institutional setting.  On the day of the actual move, my mother took only a suitcase of clothes and one tiny framed photograph of her with my father, taken on their honeymoon.

Sometime, during the days that followed the move, I suggested bringing a few more items from home — to “personalize” her space.  In particular, I thought of the chair she always sat on in the living room.  That chair had become, in recent years, a sort of command station for her — a place to keep her knitting basket, to see the view out the window, to be close to the telephone, and from which to watch TV.

Chair2Her response to my suggestion totally surprised me. She had absolutely no wish to do this. Simply, “No.”  I, with all my book learning, was taken aback.  This was not what I expected her to say.  I fully expected my mother to think my suggestions were good (even wonderful!) and to be eager for me to carry them out.

This exchange between my mother and me demonstrates what I would call an example of dis-confirming data, i.e., data that do not agree with current theory or our own assumptions. Often, when faced with narratives that do not fit what we already think the data mean, we react with fear that the dis-confirming data somehow negate and weaken the themes we see emerging during our analyses.  I would argue that instead of casting doubt on the original emerging themes, the evidence-to-the-contrary offers us deeper and richer understandings than would be present in their absence.  We need these dis-confirming data.

In looking back on those first days in the nursing facility, I see now how much my mother’s response was in keeping with her life and values.  To begin to break apart her longtime home by taking out pieces of furniture, etc., would, in its own way, violate the home she had shared with my father since before I was born.  I believe she wanted the context of her “home” to remain as it was.  Home would always be the house in Baraboo.  Now she had moved on to a new phase of her life in a different place.  She accepted this.  She was “closer to Betty.”

How much richer for me to be able to grasp new complexities of the process of relocation to an institutional setting than if my mother had accepted my suggestions.  Her wish not to bring belongings to the new place was her way of adapting to this life change.  We dropped the subject and I never raised it again.

Dis-confirming data are like gifts to the researcher.  They are directives to us to keep thinking, to go deeper, we are not “there” yet.  Dis-confirming data are not to be shunned, ignored, avoided or feared.  They are to be celebrated.  They are there to help us along our journey toward new understandings and meanings.

(P.S. I have the tiny framed photograph, still.)

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Rowles, G. D. (1981).  The surveillance zone as meaningful space for the aged.  The Gerontologist, 21, 304-311.