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Walk When the Moon is Full

Lessons in Parenting from One of Leopold’s Students

It’s a November evening, the moon has started to rise, and the season’s first snowfall is coming down in huge weightless flakes. Looking out the front window, Alina (5 years old), and Archer (3 years old), are watching the snow fall majestically in the glow of the floodlights. Together they turn and beg to go for a walk. My to-do list of tomorrow’s preparations nag at my mind, but my heart pulls me outdoors. Still undecided, I hear Alina plea: “Come on Mom! The moon is full!” Alina’s statement is a reference to Frances Hamerstrom’s book titled Walk When the Moon is Full. For the last two years we have been reading Fran’s book one chapter at a time with each corresponding month. Alina has fueled the gusts of my second wind. How can I refuse?

Lessons from Hamerstrom, Leopold’s Student

Hamerstrom has been a role model to me for a long time – I first learned of her work in college. She often gets mentioned as being the only female graduate student of Aldo Leopold. However, there is so much more to her story than being a footnote. As a female biologist getting her start in the 1930s, Fran was building her career during decades when women’s societal roles were mostly restricted to domestic duties, nursing, or teaching. Breaking that mold, Fran instead laid the foundation for the field of raptor research. Her work in Wisconsin with Greater Prairie Chickens (Tympanuchus cupido) started the conservation efforts that have prevented their extinction today. Her charismatic personality and tireless spirit are qualities I strive to emulate in my life.

In addition to her professional achievements, Fran was a mother of two. Walk When The Moon Is Full is her monthly account of nightly explorations with her young children, often involving a wildlife encounter. Fifteen years after learning of Fran, she continues to be a strong role model in this stage of my life. Like her, my life-long passion of studying the natural world has expanded to teaching my children what I know. It is important to share knowledge with them so that they grow their own roots, developing their own relationship with nature.

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The author’s children, Alina and Archer, with beaver sticks found on an outdoor adventure. Photo: Sarah Piecuch.

These days, with a frantic work and family schedule, it is often difficult to find the time to fan the flames of both my professional work and my other obligations. But I know there is a short window to make sparks that will light the fire within children; now is the time for me to make nature explorations a lifelong passion for my kids. Like Fran, I have to search for a way to combine all of my interests.

By the Light of the Moon

I thought of all this as we stepped out into what has become a clear, cloudless night. Cool air filled our lungs: so fresh, so invigorating. The light fluffy snow underneath our feet felt like powdered sugar for my soul. The early moonrise this time of year was a perfect opportunity for us to start our own monthly adventures. I had been waiting for the kids to be old enough to experience the moon in all her glory, and I was thrilled to see the appreciation in their eyes signaling that my wait was finally over.

It’s a short walk down our dirt road to a common dock that overlooks Irondequoit Bay. Irondequoit Bay is part of a pre-glacial river valley in western New York with steep, heavily wooded hillsides covered with 100 year old oak trees. The area is so enchanting that you can forget that suburbia exists at the top of the hill.

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This early 1900s postcard reveals that Irondequoit Bay has been capturing people’s attention for some time. Courtesy: Marty Piecuch.

At the edge of the dock, we kneel and huddle for warmth. As the moon climbs higher in the sky, its light illuminates the perfectly flat waters of the bay. Not a breath of wind. To the south, motorists in rush hour traffic zoom over the Route 104 Bridge, oblivious to the quiet calm below. Archer delights and points to “Christmas lights!” as he calls them, when he sees the red and green navigation lights of the bridge.

“Shhhh,” I whisper. “Be as still as you can and listen to the sounds of the night. What do you hear?” Suddenly Alina yanks on my arm. She points in front of us. Only a foot away, a huge beaver swims quietly past. We watch in silence until we can no longer see the “V” of its wake. As we start on the path back home, I take this opportunity not only to praise the children for how quiet they were, but to explain the importance of listening to the world around them. If they had been loud, we might have missed the chance to see the beaver up close.

Moonlight walks are always special, but this one, under the fresh white snow with a beaver preparing for winter (and mating season), was exceptional indeed. This observation is one of many that I hope will build my children’s connection to the land, and set them on their own path to “thinking like a mountain.” I think Fran would have been proud that I said “yes.”