by Dylan Tomine
Before reading the excerpt, see what Patagonia's founder, Yvon Chouinard, has to say about Closer to the Ground.
A note from the publisher: Why I love this book
Dylan Tomine’s Closer to the Ground is a lot more than your usual tribute to local food or to a local sense of place, or how to manipulate your kids into doing what you want them to do. Closer is a good-humored guide to teaching our kids how to learn from nature as teacher and mentor. Chief among nature’s lessons is self-reliance. You can see in Dylan’s kids, the more time they spend foraging and fishing with their dad, just how different their relation is to the food they eat, and how they develop a confidence anyone of any age could envy.
Patagonia Books is discriminating. Every one of our titles has to be written with strength and clarity, and deliver a message that fits our reason for being—to publish work that supports the conservation and restoration of the natural world (that in turn underpins and sustains human life).
Closer to the Ground is my favorite so far.
From the Introduction
During our first years of living together in Seattle, Stacy and I were dedicated urbanites, working, eating, sleeping downtown and taking full advantage of everything the city had to offer. But gradually, we found ourselves shifting to a strange, part-time rural existence, motivated by our quest for wild foods we could only find out in the country. The life of a city-based dilettante hunter-gatherer, though, is not easy. Try parking a drift boat in a crowded underground garage or finding a place to dump crab guts in a high-rise apartment. Step into an elevator stinking of tidal mud and lugging a bucket of geoducks and your neighbors press against the back wall with fear in their eyes.
Then we had Skyla. If we were already feeling the gravitational pull of a life more connected to the earth, our baby daughter was the catalyst. It wasn’t long before we packed up and moved to this house in the woods on an island in Puget Sound, although that probably sounds more romantic than it really is. This particular island is merely a suburb of the big city we left, and most who live here commute daily by ferry to the highrise office buildings we can see from our shores. Suburban sprawl, with its nouveau craftsman home clusters and manicured lawns, is rapidly consuming the old farms and open forest. But the island has also managed to retain a deeply rooted sense of community, and at least for now, there’s still plenty to keep us busy in the woods and on the water near home.
Clearly, our life here isn’t about survival – at least not in the usual sense. For us, I think it’s more about living and raising our children in a way that keeps us in touch with our surroundings. Our constant search for firewood, oysters and mushrooms brings a heightened awareness to even the most mundane activities: Driving to the store for milk, we scan the roadside for windfall madrona trees, new tideflats, good places for chanterelles. Walking to the mailbox, we glance at the treetops for a reading on the wind. A dog-eared tidebook is tacked to the wall by the phone, and there’s another one in the car. The weather carries more significance now, beyond simply what shoes to wear or whether to pack an umbrella. This day-to-day, season-to-season awareness has become a vital part of our lives.
[Closer to the Ground features the artwork of Nikki McClure.]
As parents, Stacy and I are just starting to understand how active participation in food gathering and production affects our children. When six-year old Skyla and three-year-old Weston eat the tomatoes they grew, fish they caught or berries they picked, we can see the pride that comes from contributing to family meals. When the kids serve these same foods to guests, their pride grows exponentially. The biggest surprise, though, is that our children have come to view healthy food—salmon, oysters, homegrown broccoli—as delicious treats. It could be their involvement in bringing these foods to the table, but it also might be the simple fact that fresh and wild foods taste better than what’s available at the supermarket.
Another factor here is our search for ways to deal with the onslaught of electronic communication that seems to define modern life. That doesn’t mean I’m against technology. In fact, last year I learned to text message so I could stay connected with our small fleet of anglers who share on-the-water reports. But not long ago, Stacy and I were at a barbecue hosted by friends with teenage kids. When I came inside to grab some fish for the grill, I saw two kids sitting at opposite ends of the couch, furiously texting away. It was sunny and warm outside, and here they were in a dark room, pounding away at cell phones. I asked with whom they were communicating, and without even glancing up, they pointed to each other. I couldn’t help but feel this wasn’t the future I wanted for my children. Perhaps in vain, we hope that outdoor pursuits might balance the inevitable technology “advances” that are sure to be a part of their lives.
The process of finding or growing food with our kids provides learning opportunities for all of us. Of course, there are specific skills and knowledge which accumulate over time, leading to better results and more consistent success. But there’s something beyond that as well. Any student of Zen Buddhism could find valuable lessons in following a three-year old as he moves through the woods searching for mushrooms. Everything—and I mean everything—along the way is significant, interesting and fun. The actual picking of mushrooms is almost beside the point.
One of my false assumptions about outdoor activities with children was that achieving your stated goal—finding, catching, picking, harvesting—is mandatory. I based this belief, in part, on my own goal-oriented approach to most things, but also on overwhelming input from friends, acquaintances and media sources. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard or read that children have short attention spans, if you want them to enjoy fishing, make sure they catch fish quickly and often. It makes sense and I bought into it. But on many occasions, I have found the opposite to be true.
For example, while salmon fishing last summer with the kids, we spent the day trolling, a technique where rods are placed in holders and left there until a fish is hooked. It increases the odds of catching fish by allowing you to cover a lot of water at specific depths. I figured we would hook more salmon and the kids would be free to fidget, watch for wildlife, eat snacks, etc. We had a good day, but the kids seemed unusually subdued. I chalked it up to fatigue from our early start.
When it was time to quit, I cut off our fishing gear and ran the lines out behind the boat to untwist as we motored in. “Dad, can we hold the rods?” Skyla asked. I told her there weren’t any hooks on the lines, that they wouldn’t catch anything. “I know,” she said, “but what we really like about fishing is holding the rods.” Oh. I handed them each a rod with empty line trailing in our wake and both kids sparked to life, smiling, chattering and cooking up fantastic make-believe fishing stories. I’m learning to redefine my understanding of the word “success.”
Dylan Tomine, formerly a fly fishing guide, is now a writer, conservation advocate, blueberry farmer and father, not necessarily in that order. His work has appeared in The Flyfish Journal, The Drake, Golfweek, The New York Times and numerous other publications. He lives with his family on an island in Puget Sound. [Photo: Stacy Lewars]
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Closer to the Ground Book Tour 2012
Meet Dylan and hear him read from his book at one of these upcoming events.
Nov 3: Orca Books
509 4th Ave., East Olympia, WA 98501
Nov 9: Avid Reader
617 Second Street, Davis, CA 95616
Nov 10: Sports Basement
610 Old Mason Street, San Francisco, CA 94129
Nov 11: Diesel Bookstore
5433 College Ave, Oakland, CA 94618-1502
Nov 13: Collected Works
202 Galisteo St., Santa Fe, NM 87501
Nov 15: Kings English Bookshop
1511 South 1500 East, Salt Lake City, UT 84105
Nov 16: Dolly’s Bookstore
510 Main Street, Park City, UT 84060