Yesterday evening, I walked through my own woods with three of my students, all hunters who have grown up in the northern woods and who are getting degrees in wildlife biology. I love walks with students who really know the woods, who can tell me the names of every plant and tree, who can read the narrative of creatures through tracks and skat and rubbings. Our foliage is not yet out, so evening sun was filtering through the trees as we tramped across puddles and new patches of green.
We followed an old logging road through the pine forest to the more open area where oaks and beeches grow. I showed them the cluster of hemlocks where the deer gather. We stood and talked in the cool evening air, enjoying the peaceful quiet of a woods in which the bugs have not yet hatched. They wanted to stay until after dark to see if they could hear the wild turkeys. So I hiked back to the house alone, to return to my desk and get With-a-Why to bed.
Long after dark, the three guys knocked on my door to say good night. They were wet and muddy, but exhilarated from their observations, from all they had seen and heard while sitting quietly in the woods for a couple of hours. Yeah, they agreed, I was right about the flock of wild turkeys: they had heard and seen them. We stood on the front porch, talking quietly, since the kids in my house were settling down to sleep on a school night.
"Don't you all have final exams and papers?" I asked teasingly. "How are you all going to graduate if you spend all your time hanging out in the woods when you are supposed to be doing work?"
Two of the men laughed, but MilitaryGuy shrugged. "I have papers due, but I'll just write something the night before to get it done. Your class is the only one I've really bothered with this semester."
He looked at me. "What do academic papers matter? I figure I'll be dead in eleven months."
I knew he was serious. The army will commission him the day after graduation. He'll be in training for the summer and then he goes to the desert. All the knowledge he has of the flora and fauna of the northern forests is not going to help him over there.
I asked if he was afraid. He spoke seriously, "I don't care about what happens to me. But the thing is - I'll be a lieutenant. I'm going to be in charge of all these guys. Mostly young, some nineteen or twenty, with parents worrying about them. Some with wives and kids back at home. I have to do whatever I can to get them home alive."
He and I just looked at each other, while the other two guys shifted uncomfortably and looked away. MilitaryGuy has expressive blue eyes. He's 22 but looks even younger. I wanted to reach out and touch him, put my hand on his shoulder or the sleeve of his shirt, but I knew if I did that, we would both start crying.