by Steve Van Auken

When I was a kid I lived among grown-ups who had been raised by wolves in Siberia. At least it seemed that way from the stories they told about how hard their winters used to be.  

“You kids these days complain about having to wait for the bus in a little bit of snow. Why, when I was a kid we didn’t have any fancy school bus. No, we walked to the school, if we could find it, buried in the drifts. Six miles going there, and nine miles coming back. We bigger kids had to keep the crows off the little ones. They’d try to eat the stragglers.  

“There was this one time — I must have been in third grade — we got trapped in the snow and had to dig in for the night. We ran out of wood and I had to burn my “Alice and Jerry” reading book. The school charged me $2 to replace it. A lot of money back then. That’s another thing. You kids today don’t know the value of a dollar. Why, I remember this one time…”

Today I tell younger people my own stories about what winters were like in the 1950s. There was lots of cold weather and lots of snow. This made fine conditions for skating and sledding. I have to constantly seek new people to tell my stories to because all my younger family and friends are sick of hearing them. They assume they are fanciful products of my fading memory.

But… they aren’t. Winters really are milder now. Consider that in the 1950s, we were able to skate on frozen creeks and rivers throughout the winter. There has seldom been a day in the last 20 years when any flowing body of water froze solid enough to skate on. Global warming has seen to that. It has taken my unlikely stories about how winters were stronger in my childhood, and made them true.

As a child I assumed that many adults, judging by their stories, had been apprenticed out as wilderness guides while still in grade school. Mr. Cowells, my barber, was one of them.  

“You kids today don’t know what real fishing is,” Mr. Cowells told me. “Why, every day in the summer we’d go down to the river and catch us a mess of smallmouth bass that was heavier than we could lug home. We’d have to make two or three trips. One time I cleaned this big old bass for our Mom to cook. I noticed something shiny in its stomach. It was the collar off Bruno, our neighbor’s Saint Bernard. Nice dog. Been missing for a week. Our fault, for letting him get too close to the river.”

A childhood full of dubious fish stories can make you skeptical. I swore that when I grew up, I would never make up stories just to get attention from credulous young people.

But now I find I’m going back on my promise. Like the Ancient Mariner, I latch onto a reluctant young person and with a glittering eye, I say to her, “There once were Evening Grosbeaks! And Regal Fritillaries!”

Because it really is true that all kinds of wonderful creatures are now almost entirely missing. We’re talking about birds like the Bobolink, the Meadowlark, the Ring-Necked Pheasant — birds that not long ago were everyday flashes of color in fields throughout Ohio. Don’t even get me started about the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, which was still listed as possibly not extinct in the first bird book I ever owned.

At certain times in the spring, Red Eft salamanders would virtually cover the road in places in the Cuyahoga River Valley. When was the last time you saw a salamander?

And where are all the insects? The night sky in summer used to be full of the neon glow of fireflies. And the butterflies: Swallowtails, Fritillaries, Wood Nymphs… and Red Admirals that would sometimes settle into trees in flocks. When people drove their cars on the highway in the summer, they would have to stop to clean the bug carcasses off the windshield. Now we don’t have to be inconvenienced.

But what will be the consequences of their departure from our world? It was no more than twenty-five years ago that the evening sky above Schneider Park in our town was filled with up to one hundred Nighthawks at a time, swooping, chattering to each other, feasting on insects high above the ground. It is rare now to see one Nighthawk.    

When I tell young people about the birds, the insects, the fish, the salamanders we used to enjoy, they must feel as skeptical as I did when I had to listen to the tall tales of grown-ups. But skepticism about disappearing nature is unwarranted. All these wonders really were part of our everyday lives. Global warming and habitat destruction have transformed my stories of how our world is diminished. They have made all my lies come true.

Now those of us who remember, and those too young to remember, must join forces. We need to do everything we can to help the kids who come after us to create their own stories about nature in its stunning richness. The kind of stories that are true — and that last.    

Steve Van Auken has now lived in Akron long enough to give directions according to where things used to be.

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