Why I Haven’t Posted All Summer
All through the summer, I’ve seen wonderful things:
A bald eagle perching by its nest in Lyme, New Hampshire
Black-crowned night herons stalking fish in NYC’s Morningside Park
- and 1,500 miles west, stalking fish in Texas.
Grackles panting in the 100-degree Texas heat
and a mysterious river dog emerging from the Hudson;
Raccoons lounging in the Riverside Park retaining wall as evening blanketed down
and two baby red-tails jumping and playing in Central Park
Marvelous sights, indeed. But for the past two months, I’ve not been able to write about what I see. For my silence, dear readers, I apologize, and for your patience and your inquiries, I thank you.
It’s been a tough summer. I’ve been sorely missing one particular reader, a reader whose overflowing pleasure in each new post was only equaled by his curiosity and willingness, at 88 years of age, to learn and marvel. Readers of the comment section of Out Walking the Dog may recall the terse yet effusive praise of “Daddy-o,” who sometimes simply wrote: “More! More!”
Born in Brooklyn in 1923 and raised in New Jersey, my father, aka Daddy-o, moved to Manhattan to attend Columbia University and, aside from a stint of seven years in Connecticut, never left. He was among the most cultured and rational-minded of New Yorkers, yet he imparted to me an abiding fascination with the natural world.
To say simply that my father “loved nature” would be misleading. His relationship to nature, as to most things, was complex, layered and richly ambivalent.
For the past 45 years, maybe more, he spent virtually every weekend and a month each summer on the south shore of Long Island.
There he grew gorgeous flowers, attracted songbirds, cast into the surf for bluefish, fought to maintain patches of local wildness, and planted river birches to block the McMansions that cropped up in erstwhile potato fields.
And there he engaged in bitter warfare with any of nature’s agents, be they animal or vegetable, native or invasive, that threatened the boundaries of his cultivated Arcadia. The phragmites that dominated the shoreline of little Mecox Bay, the tick-harboring white-tailed deer that nipped the heads off his beloved day lilies, the bittersweet vine that gobbled everything in its path, such plants and animals were of the devil’s party; their encroachments unleashed in my father a righteous warrior who pushed back hard against the anarchic threat of uncultivated and invasive nature.
The Battle of the Bittersweet Vine became a personal Thirty Years War of hacking, chopping and tearing of roots. Decades ago in Connecticut, this most urbane of men borrowed a neighbor’s 22 rifle and sat in wait for the barbarian muskrats that were tunneling into his lawn. Age did not mellow this fighter; in his 80s, he swore no meat ever tasted as good as the venison from a hapless deer, undoubtedly bent on heinous vegetable depredations, that a friend killed on his property with a bow and arrow. His response to the arrival of coyotes in Manhattan in February 2010 was to say wryly, “It’s the end of civilization,” and to, at least in part, mean it.
But it was with my father that I first experienced the unexpected thrills of engagement with the natural world, looking for beetles in the damp dirt beneath a rock, capturing crickets, watching for bluebirds in spring, or rowing behind a water snake as it swam along with a still-kicking bullfrog halfway down its throat.
My father, who spent his life inquiring with compassion and clinical interest into the workings of the human mind, never lost the capacity to be amazed at the wonders and horrors of both the natural and man-made worlds. I miss him mightily.
Arnold M. Cooper, M.D.
March 9, 1923 – June 9, 2011
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