Columnist’s Note: Toni Alioto is a writing major at Northland College who was recently my student in “WRI 273: Writing the Environmental Essay.” It was a joy to have her in class, and I’d like to share one of her essays with you this week, in honor of Mother’s Day. Enjoy! –Emily Stone
The trail was full of sharp turns, exposed roots, peek-a-boo rocks, and one spot slanted at such a steep angle that if a camper did not grip onto the trunk of the above tree, they will make a big splash. The Lucas Lake Trail at Camp Silver Brook near West Bend, Wisconsin, is the path on which Girl Scout troop 834 would follow their leader, Mrs. A, to the main camp for morning activities. Mrs. A was often the most talked about troop leader at camp; not only was she fantastically creative and organized, but she was also blind.
There are many versions of blindness, but what Mrs. A had was a form of macular degeneration where she saw nothing but white at all times, as if a round room was painted the color of milk from floor to ceiling. What impressed the other campers most was the fact that she was rarely seen with her red and white cane or hooked onto someone’s arm for guidance. Instead, she led us with trust in her own footing, no matter the obstacles ahead.
Oh, there’s one more cool thing about Mrs. A: she’s my mom.
I often think of those years we spent following her around camp when I struggle on my own path. This is where I find myself now; uncertainty flowing through me like the water from Silver Creek into Lucas Lake back at Camp Silver Brook. A white wall of doubt obscures my path toward graduation, grad school, and teaching in a field I love. My opposing wants litter the ground like obstacles, tripping me up.
Do I continue on this path of academia where jagged twists and turns keep me from picturing a clear future? Or do I take a path I’ve walked before but never completed; the path of an untethered life, living in a canned-ham trailer, moving to a new state every year, and becoming an explorer of humanity, creativity, and change? How do I trust my footing enough to find the path right for me when I cannot discern what lies ahead in either direction? How can I be more like my mom?
Twenty years later and my mom and I still go off into the woods together. She leaves her cane in the car, only takes my arm for guidance when there’s a steep drop-off nearby, and asks that I simply let her know when a large obstacle or rough terrain is coming up. The soles of her feet do most of the work, reading the ground like braille, and each time I am awestruck at her capabilities and her trust.
To learn her ways, I once tried walking along the trails in Grant Park in Milwaukee with my eyes closed. I know the path well, as it’s a favorite of mine. It went fine at first, taking slow and deliberate steps—but ended with my foot in a stream and a soggy-sock car ride home. Putting trust in my other senses, when I so often rely on my eyes to do the work of all five, proved difficult.
As I was writing, I called my mom to make sure I remembered our troop number correctly; I didn’t. She asked what my topic was this week, and I said, “mostly you.” I explained a bit more about the idea for this essay, to which she responded with a laugh, “the other night at bowling my friends were explaining me to a new bowler, and I overheard them say. ‘She can see, but she can’t see.’”
I am glad there are others taking notice of what an unusually gifted person she is. My mom relies on all her senses, often clarifying that she doesn’t have heightened hearing, she simply makes use of its full potential. This holds true with all her senses, which allows her to walk this world as if she were a sighted woman.
While I am not blind, I can’t see what lies past the obstacles on my path. I’ve lost trust in myself because I have not given weight to the senses that might guide me beyond my vision. Could I learn to walk these paths by focusing on where my foot must land next, and not by what I see as an obstacle in the future? Could I be more like my mom back on the paths at Camp Silver Brook, approaching those sharp turns and exposed roots with awareness and trust in herself? How might I take the way my mother walks these paths into the world?
What if we all trusted our footing a little more instead of relying on our sight? Would life be better if the focus wasn’t on the obstacles ahead, but on the steps we’re taking in the moment? Maybe we could all benefit from following Mrs. A down that path.
Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at www.cablemuseum.org/books. Or order it from our friends at redberybooks.com to receive free shipping!
For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is closed, but our Mysteries of the Night exhibit is available online. Connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and cablemuseum.org to keep track of our latest adventures in learning.