for Ivanie Mae Down Joslin
(August 1930 – March 2000)
When I was very young, my family took an annual vacation. There was never a destination, no Disneyland at the end. We travelled by car, leaving at dawn, my mother riding shotgun with the big road atlas spread open next to her on the bench seat of the Rambler, the Buick, whichever hand-me-down car my father was driving. We drove through places whose names had mythical echoes: The Black Hills, The Smoky Mountains, The Dells. Along the way we stopped at burial mounds and battlefields, my mother gripping carefully copied notes, reading aloud, reminding us of how history and geology informed not only our route, but the land itself and all its inhabitants.
My mother carefully planned these excursions months in advance. She scoured the library, brought home piles of books, and filled her evenings poring over them and taking notes. The talk at dinner was of the effects of glaciation or wind erosion on the landscapes we would traverse — the Loess hills and the Kettle Moraine country. She talked of the footprint of early inhabitants, the cost of “opening the West” to white settlers in covered wagons (my mother’s ancestors), the cost of skirmish and conquest. We learned how each successive wave of human habitation changed the landscape, how the tide of Western expansion made prey of everything: people, prairie, forest, and most of all the animals. My ears pricked at talk of animals: which wild creatures lived where we were headed? Buffalo on the prairie, Black Bears in the mountains, the Pileated Woodpecker in the Ozarks?
There were always birds. My mother loved them. She was a sucker for a gaudy red Cardinal, spied at the backyard feeder in winter, its dense red coat, black mask and peaked feathered cap flashing against the snow. Crossing Iowa, we made a game of counting Redwing Blackbirds, with their glossy black feathers and distinctive red and yellow shoulder markings, clinging to cattails in the ditches along the roadside. She helped me identify the soft, restive cooing of a mourning dove — following the purring sound, we found her nesting in dense ivy on the windowsill of an uninhabited room in my grandfather’s house. My mother instilled in me a lifelong interest in knowing where things come from, and why.