Fin has made a bow. It is gorgeous, long and slender and burnished, its surface silken to the touch. So many hours with his hands on that one length of wood, carving and sanding, or merely for the pleasure of feeling, and it occurs to me that he knows this piece of wood in a way that no one else ever will. In some unspoken way, in a language older than words, he has come to understand its intentions, even as he has communicated his.
“Watch this,” he says. He pulls back the string and the bow bends. It seems to me as if it should not be able to bend so far without breaking. He slowly releases the tension. “It’s my best one yet.”
How many bows has Fin made? Thirty? Forty? Certainly more than I can say, more than I’ve kept track of. The first ones of simple sticks, short whips of red maple or yellow birch, notches carved into each end where a string could be wound. The arrows were sticks, too, straight-ish but not straight, capable of a dozen feet of wobbly, slow-motion flight, like a fledgling leaving the nest for the first time. And now, this: a bow hewn of black locust, not merely made but crafted, exactingly tillered for even draw, micrometers of wood fiber shaved at a time until the top and bottom halves flex in perfect symmetry. It is the evolved embodiment of all its predecessors, some long ago broken and fed to the fire, more simply forgotten, abandoned in a corner of the barn or basement. I stumble across them but cannot quite bring myself to discard them. They are evidence of my older son’s studied persistence, an immersion into whatever wild corners of his heart and mind have given rise to this passion. For that reason alone, I leave them where they lie.
My children do not attend school, and often when people hear of this, I am asked how my sons (Fin and his younger brother, named Rye) learn, or how we teach them, or some combination of the two. And I struggle with my reply, probably because I feel as if the answer being sought will never satisfy the assumptions inherent in the question: that children must be taught to learn. That learning is something that happens primarily in isolation from other aspects of their lives. That teaching is best left to specialists. But of course children needn’t be taught how to learn; they just do. It is as natural and obvious as breathing, as necessary to their spiritual, emotional, and intellectual beings as food is to their physical manifestations.
Like so much of what my sons know and do, Fin did not learn how to craft a bow because someone told him he should learn to craft a bow. He learned because he had no choice but to learn, because his innate curiosity and desire to learn simply could not be overcome. In the same way that you cannot stop children from learning to walk, or to talk, you cannot stop them from learning anything they set their minds to.
That is why I say that learning is my children’s nature, just as it is every child’s nature. I am reminded of this when I see Fin bent over his bow, rubbing it again with an oiled cloth, so intent on the task that his world has folded in on itself. What does each pass along the bow’s spine teach him? What does it tell him about the bow, about the tree, about the process? About himself and his place in the world? And I am reminded of this on late-winter mornings when I look out the window above the kitchen sink, the stars still visible in the brightening sky, and I see Rye tromping through the snow, laden with the implements of tapping sugar maple trees in preparation for the season’s first sap run: a cordless drill, a hammer, a small bucketful of taps. Like his older brother, my second child is drawn to tasks that involve the hands and that yield something tangible.
In these moments, it often occurs to me that while we are socialized to believe that our children’s lives should be constantly expanding into new horizons and opportunities, could it be that we are ignoring (or simply ignorant of) the value of having their world contract? Perhaps we should pause to stem the distractions of this big and wondrous world, so full of possibilities and choice that no matter how determined we are, we cannot expose them to more than the smallest fraction of its offerings. Maybe we could start to show them the richness of experience that waits directly outside our front doors, in our neighborhoods and communities—in our imaginations, even. This is the dream I can’t quite kick, although I sometimes wonder if it’s not a selfish one: my boys will not chase the infinite possibilities of the world at large, but wherever they may be, they will instead continue to find fulfillment in the world at hand.
A few days after Fin rubbed the final coat of oil into that slender stave of bow wood, I watched from my home-office window as he carried it across the long expanse of our meadow. It was a cool morning, and a soft rain hung in the air. My son walked quickly, and I did not know where he was going, or what purpose drew him, and for the briefest of moments I was visited by the sense that it was not he who was taking the bow with him, but rather the opposite. The bow was leading him. I imagined pushing away from my desk, running down the stairs and out the door, calling after my boy, “Wait! Wait! I want to come!”
But I did not, and I knew it was right that I did not, and so I merely watched as he disappeared into a dense stand of fir.