In a field surrounded by budding, deciduous trees, a crowd of ten-year-olds is staring at a naturalist describing the spring wildflowers of Northeast Ohio.
I am standing in the back with my mom, whom I am visiting for the day. She is a special education assistant at the elementary school, where she works with students as a one-on-one aide. Today she is along on an end of the year field trip to the Brecksville Metropark.
While assistant may be her formal title, it is fitting to describe my mom as the enforcer of the classroom. While the teachers are tasked with staying on schedule, my mom listens with the hearing of an owl for the soft chatter of children. She does not hesitate to shut down conversation between the fourth graders with poor field trip etiquette. Most require repeated instruction to be more respectful, often groaning in response to her intervention. Within the first half hour of the excursion, I can pick out the troublemakers with ease. When moving from location to location, I make a remark about how exhausting the kids are. “Now you know what I deal with every day,” my mom jokes.
Animals change behavior with the seasons. Birds migrate in the spring and fall while bears hibernate in the winter, but human behavior is perhaps most visible and disruptive in the summer. Examples include vacations and grill-outs. Wardrobes are another one, with shorts and Hawaiian shirts emerging from closets to see sunlight for the first time in months. My mom theorizes that the coming season makes younger humans especially hyper, and I think this is a good theory. Some explanation lies in dietary changes. As spring ends, foods like ice cream and popsicles become abundant, and these contain high levels of sugar, which leads to sharp spikes in energy. However, summer also brings heat, which tends to make kids sluggish. While a forest might give off a rhapsody of screeches, hollers, and hoots, a gaggle of fourth graders has been recorded giving off whines in high temperatures.
As we begin to walk further into the field, the children struggle to keep up the pace. I extend my arms and point them at the ground, telling my mom that I’m a bulldozer who’ll scoop up any stragglers. She replies with a laugh, and luckily, none of the fourth graders fall too far behind. At that age they are heavy enough that I would not want to carry them very far.
We stop once more at the edge of the field where the naturalist lectures about milkweed and monarchs. There’s also a brief mention of milkweed beetles and milkweed bugs. I try to listen, but it proves difficult. Most of the information is not new to me. Truthfully, I’d love to be the one up there talking about the flora and fauna of Northeast Ohio. I am not an aficionado on much, but I do know a thing or two about the region’s biota.
When I am visiting home, I spend at least a few hours of each day visiting Cuyahoga Valley National Park, which includes the Brecksville Metropark. Unlike places such as Yellowstone or Yosemite, Cuyahoga Valley is not at all an unpopulated expanse. In fact, family farms dot the landscape, one of which is home to a student on the field trip. Industrial constructs are another unique feature. A pipeline, railroad, canal, two interstates, and powerlines crisscross the valley. Two skiing hills and the remnants of a quarry lie within the park’s borders, as well. Parts of a papermill can even be found at the east bank of the Cuyahoga River, and the buildings from its company town now house the park’s headquarters.
Some nature lovers might take this infrastructure as reason to squawk and growl, and I can’t blame them. Pipelines are a proven hazard to ecosystems, and interstates cut travel times at the cost of more noise. I would much prefer fewer human structures, but even with these ailments, the Valley remains a miracle of ecological resilience.
As you might have guessed, the infamous Cuyahoga River, meandering its way through the land on its way to Lake Erie, is indeed the waterbody the park is named after. Even today, it isn’t the cleanest of rivers, but it is healing. This is best seen in the critters who have recently come back. Over the past decade, bald eagles have returned and successfully raised young—fifteen of them, according to the National Park Service. Also the river otter, one of the park’s more elusive species, has been reintroduced, and now its ripples glide across the waters. Above all, the park serves as a useful classroom for schools in and around Cleveland and Akron, both formerly powerful industrial centers.
While I may have a lot of experiences with the park, being a good chaperone is the task at hand. To set a good example, I tune in again and listen to the naturalist, even though her lectures are nothing new. Occasionally, I carefully scan the surroundings for forest residents, but only spot a few buzzards (known as turkey vultures outside of Ohio). The animals are on double duty, avoiding both predators and the midday heat.
We pass through the tree line and into a dim forest. A chipmunk observes our movement from a mossy log. Only a few scraps of sunlight drop through the ceiling of oak, beech, and maple leaves, landing in a gentle creek whose residents are a few minnows and a water strider. Along the trail, signs mark Mayapple and Jack-in-the-Pulpit, some of Ohio’s spring wildflowers, but the naturalist passes by these stops along the trail, scanning the ground for poison ivy instead. She spots the “leaves of three” and the announcement evokes chatter from the children. An itching rash is one consequence of poison ivy, and it does not appeal to ten-year-olds. Like air exploding from bubble wrap, stories about ivy affliction stampede around the forest floor. My mom and the teachers join forces to quiet the group.
Commotions like these are why I typically visit the park alone. I’ve learned this solitary style from people like Christopher McCandless and Edward Abbey, whose excursions have instilled a sense of adventure in me. After all, having more people on a hike tends to raise decibels such that wildlife will retreat unseen into their dens, nests, and lodges. To avoid this, I prefer to take my hikes along railroad tracks, which don’t have much foot traffic. This ensures that the surrounding area will be kept tranquil. While railroad tar may emit a piercing scent that disgusts others, my nostrils have come to associate it with joy.
This “trail” is far from dangerous. The railway happens to be scenic, and rather than chugging, “turtling” is a better way to describe the movement of Cuyahoga Valley’s train. It travels at a slow pace so the passengers don’t have their views warped into a blur; wildflowers or fall foliage do not jumble into a blob. On all occasions, the burst of the train horn will rush down the tracks long before the wheels and leave plenty of time for hikers to make the necessary steps to safety. But even with this limited danger, most humans remain deterred from walking the tracks. Instead of boots and tennis shoes, most of the footprints are left by hoofs, paws, and claws.
Even while these may be my preferences, I’m the visitor on this class outing and not the lead. I really can’t complain about the commotion. These are kids after all, and they’re having fun. Field trips are a break from long division or lessons about goods and services. They have good reason to be a bit crazy.
After a few muddy hills and shushes, we arrive at an amphitheater at the edge of a ravine. Curved wooden benches move out from a stone stage like ripples in a pond. Naturally, the kids jump from bench to bench, some chasing each other between the rows. Sit down! Sit down! Take a seat! The adults exchange eye rolls and half-smiles. They’re ready for summer break as well.
The naturalist takes center stage, giving instructions about visiting the nature center, the final stop on the tour. The fourth graders must leave things where they are, not tap on the animal cases, walk and not run, keep their voices at an acceptable level, and line up and be counted when it is time to leave.
Once again, my attention wanders, and I perform another scan of the forest. Nothing. Not even a squirrel can be seen. I keep looking, just in case, but it becomes time to move into the nature center, and a horde of children zips past me. My mom waits until the wave of childhood energy passes by, and only an echo or ripple is left in its place.
Like the light of a TV in a dark room, a glow appears in the greenery. It is not sunlight moving through leaves, but rather an interruption of color. Deep red hugged between black wings sparkles on a dead maple branch. The creature, another elusive resident of the deep woods, has come to visit, though it does not speak. While I’m accustomed to deer, rabbits, and bullfrogs, this sighting is a gem, one I have not had in close to three years. It is the Scarlet Tanager, who is about the size of a bluebird.
Now I am the one doing the shushing. “Stop, stop, stop,” I whisper to my mom. “There’s a Scarlet Tanager up there.”
“A Scarlet Tanager, up on that branch, at twelve o’clock, a bright, red bird.” I emphasize bright. She can’t pick the bird out.
I’m an avid birder. They are my favorite animals to search for in Cuyahoga Valley, and this is a big deal as far as avian sightings go. Herons are common and eagles have become old news, but the Scarlet Tanager is a find; it’s the one species I actively go searching for. Because this is so rare, I am nervous. Birds, like all wildlife, are unpredictable. For instance, you might spot a bird with your eyes and raise your binoculars for a better look only to be met with a bouncing, empty branch where the critter you seek used to be.
I crouch down a few inches to my mom’s height and place my hands on either side of her head, gently tilting it in hopes that her eyes become level with the Tanager. “I still don’t see it,” she says. I grow frantic as the bird crouches, suggesting that he is preparing to soar. A feeling of dread slithers through my body as I get the sense that the opportunity is ending. I try different tactic. I shuffle us over a few steps and point to a lamp. “See this?” I ask. “Follow this lamp up to the dead branch. You see the dead branch, right?” She nods. “The Tanager is just above the top of this lamp. It’s bright red. It’s bright and red. The bird is red and bright!” I reiterate this as a way of saying that you can’t miss it, but still she does.
The bird wiggles. My heart bounces.
A few, wonderful words then fill the forest. “I see it. Oh, wow, wow.” And to my surprise, the bird remains. I quietly extract my binoculars from my backpack, undoing the Velcro case with the same care one uses to hold an infant. For a minute, the Tanager perches on the branch, even as the muffled yells of fourth graders begin to be heard from the nearby nature center. My mom and I trade looks through the binoculars until the Tanager tilts his body forward, falling in a surrender to gravity. Then, black wings spread, he disappears into a shroud of leaves.
We exchange wows, some smiles, and then head to the nature center to help get the kids back to school.