There is no greater blessing than to be a student of the natural world.
Curiosity leads to discovery. Discovery gives way to passion. My passion for the outdoors has sent me all over the country in the search and study of God’s creation.
Along my journey, I have been privileged to learn from teachers who chose both to educate and inspire. But all journeys have a beginning. My first teacher is also my hero. I call him Daddy.
While he prefers to be referred to by other titles, namely cowboy, because he is one, he can do so much more than rope and ride (though he does that very well). If you’re brave enough to saddle up with him for a six-hour ride in the forest (be prepared to work on the fence), you will find out just how many plants and animals call Alabama home.
“I gotta go smell the longleafs,” he always says.
Our woodland journey takes us down trails no one but us can find, across creeks my grandfather built bridges upon years ago, through swamps with mud so deep no motorized vehicle dare touch, and up grand hills graced by the presence of God.
Though seasonality and a careful eye always determine what we see, Daddy’s detailed knowledge of the area’s natural and cultural history passed down from generations always determines how we see it.
After being confined all winter to feeding and calving, February’s silvery winter woods provide a welcome escape from ranch life reality and an unobstructed view of the landscape beyond the leafless trees which Daddy can identify with one glance.
As we pass an old railroad bed, I can almost hear the train chugging through the hills and hollows as Daddy recalls stories about the travel routes when time passed much more slowly.
The hope of springtime appears weekly in March, April and May, and Daddy and I watch with wonder as bloodroot, iris, wild azalea, phlox and mountain laurel take turns coloring the forest floor, along with the much-coveted, tasty wild blueberries.
If I look hard enough, I can see a ghost cow chewing her cud of springtime green while Daddy laughs about Granddaddy Bearden’s 40-acre forest service lease being wherever the cattle were grazing at the time.
To beat the heat in June and July, we have to saddle the horses pretty early, but the smell of pine needles warming under the summer sun is worth getting out of bed early on a Saturday.
Timber rattlers and kingsnakes basking in the sun give us a few creatures to contemplate and the horses some wildlife to worry about.
As we pass the chevron-shaped markings on the longleafs, Daddy reminds me of enterprising early settlers extracting turpentine from the Southern giants.
The race for muscadines is on in August and September, and each bite brings a bittersweet reminder that summer is drawing to a close. Daddy still picks the first one for me. “That’s what Daddies are for,” he says.
Regardless of the time of year, or how hot, cold, wet or dry it is, a ride in the forest always yields a history lecture, a botany exam, a wildlife biology lesson and a therapy session all rolled into one energetic equine expedition.
The best part is we get to personally experience God’s creation together. As we return to the barn with tired horses and smiling faces, we’re already planning our next big adventure.
Daddy has taught me everything I know, but not everything he knows. After all, he has to save something for the next ride.
More from Southeast Farm Press