In the Canyonlands of the American Southwest, there are many places where time – on a geological scale – is clearly evident.
One simply can peer down into the Grand Canyon to witness how erosion of the Colorado River reveals the passage of time, each strata an unfathomable age or era. A hike to the bottom of the mile-deep canyon is like a journey back in time hundreds of millions of years.
This is why so many paleontologists flock to these arid lands to leaf through the layers of rock like the thin pages of a history book to determine, upon discovering some new fossil or bone, that, “Indeed, velociraptors frolicked and played here 65 million years ago. We believe it was on a Thursday.”
I note this because I believe we are all truly just “renting” the land. My plot is in northern Chapel Hill, about 560 feet above sea level. This is where my family and I have left our footprints on the geological record, more or less.
This was clearly demonstrated to me recently as I walked my dog around my yard and came upon the fossil of an ancient, tattered baseball. It was barely recognizable, the way it protruded from the ground beneath row of boxwoods.
Now, with my son entering UNC this fall and my daughter finishing up her college career at Emory next spring, and as my wife and I prepare to truly “empty nest” in the autumn, this brief reminder of a long-forgotten game of catch with one of my children was all the more precious.
This put me about my quest, and I took to the yard with a vengeance, looking for the remnants of a bygone era.
There were more than a few baseballs, a couple footballs, golf balls, a deflated basketball (circa 2002), a strand of Christmas lights, a T-ball bat, a pink-and-gray softball glove, two Frisbees, a BB gun target, one skateboard wheel, two whiffle balls, the skeleton of an old DIY pitching backstop, and one random seven iron from the Cretaceous Period.
Some were half-buried; some were exposed. All were in disparate states of disrepair. And this was to say nothing of the titanic tower of dusty sporting goods stacked in a corner of my garage, all atop a wooden Red Flyer sled and topped with lacrosse sticks and tennis racquets.
There was a sadness about each item; each was like an old teddy bear, forsaken beneath a child’s bed. And yet I knew that each fallen soldier – each ball, each glove, each club – had fought the good fight and died an honorable death.
“The things which the child loves remain in the domain of the heart until old age,” Kahlil Gibran wrote. “The most beautiful thing in life is that our souls remain hovering over the places where we once enjoyed ourselves.”
If true, then the memories would still soar about this place long after college graduation tassels are turned or my children raise kids of their own, hopefully providing them with the varied tools of robust recreation, just as my father had given to me.
There remains in the hazy pages of my memory the image of a 1971 mustard-yellow Dodge Coronet station wagon and, in the back-back, a duffel bag full of implements of my physical education – a bottomless bag, a magician’s hat from which any item of sports equipment might be extracted. Poof: a catcher's mitt. ... Bam: a square-toed football place-kicker’s shoe. ... Abracadabra: five iron.
On Sunday drives, my father would often answer the whining pleas of my brother and me by pulling off at some park or court or open field so that we could stretch our legs and rummage through the duffel bag.
We’d play street hockey in a hot parking lot; we’d play tennis in the rain; we’d have baseball batting practice in the snow. Thus did we learn the basic conversational syntax of virtually every athletic activity imaginable.
The memories of those distractions and the relics about my yard: these are simple testaments to the increasingly rare belief that even a couple of humble skills in any sport or activity is like learning a few words of a second or third or 12th language.
More and more of today’s top young athletes are looking to highly specialized youth athletics programs and year-round rigorous training. It’s hard to find folks fluent in two sports, never mind versed in several.
There is a growing reticence related to physical diversity, as if two minutes with a two wood might unravel two years of training with a Louisville Slugger, particularly if scholarship money hangs in the balance.
“The three-sport athlete isn't exactly a high school dinosaur,” Bill Tilton commented in the Northeast Ohio News-Herald, “but it's safe to say they are on the endangered species list.”
What is made manifest in later life, begins in our own backyard.
I now have two children of my own, and both are involved in college sports. After that, they may, just for fun, take up golf, or tennis, or bocce. They may not excel, but they’ll “speak the language.”
As I now gaze about my yard, I see a green lawn, partially because my children no longer beat it into submission with their endeavors, partially because I sowed a variety of seeds. Any landscaper will say, after all, that the best, hardiest lawns are the result of a mixture of seeds. My hope is that my children will go on to live lives that are as evergreen, and adventurous, and healthier than I will ever know.
“For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,” Gibran wrote, which I cannot visit, not even in my dreams.”
As for the balls and clubs and gloves, I left them where they lay.