The Tonic of Wilderness
A story of adversity and triumph
A slightly different version of this story appeared in the online publication Watershed Review, produced at the California State University at Chico.
“We all need the tonic of wilderness.” - Henry David Thoreau.
Harry W. Zimmerman, my dad, at Adams Lake, near West Union, Ohio.
“The Tonic of Wilderness” is a braided essay in which I have woven two stories together. Some critics have compared the braided essay to a loaf of bread in which the baker weaves together two individual strands of dough, winding them around each other to yield a loaf with a braided appearance.
The story began as two separate essays. “Dad’s Rainbow” was the story of caring for my elderly father through his decline with dementia. “The Tonic of Wilderness” described my visit to Tennessee’s Fall Creek Falls State Park while my dad spent a weekend in respite care to give me a short break. A respite care break was available to me once every six months.
Neither essay seemed bound for publication when I read about braided essays in Writing Creative Nonfiction, edited by Carolyn Forché. I later saw another description in Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola. Each book provides an excellent introduction to nonfiction forms.
I wove the two essays together, resulting in a story completed through contrasts. It needed an introduction, so I incorporated my short theme, “Fishing with Dad.”
As I searched for a possible publisher, Watershed Review, an online journal published at California State University at Chico, came to my attention. I had to cut one part to accommodate their word count maximum, but they accepted the piece in 2018.
I edited the original essay to produce this work. The piece contains some lovely nature images, but it is a story of adversity and, in the end, one of triumph.
I have included several photos taken at Fall Creek Falls State Park.
A dogwood and a Redbud at Fall Creek Falls State Park.
Years ago, I took my elderly father fishing. Plaque deposits blocked the blood flow through arteries to his brain, like the waters behind a beaver dam. My dad moved with determination. He took longer to get from place to place.
As we strolled toward the lakeshore from my pickup truck, I noticed a beaver had girdled a tree on the bank; chewed it all the way around. No living tissue remained in that ring, about a foot in height. Like the blocked arteries in my father’s neck, the severed tissue allowed no flow of life-giving sap to the tree’s leaves and branches, and slowly the tree was dying.
I grabbed two photographs of my dad leaning against the tree and then asked him to photograph me. I still have those three photos, though the one Dad took of me is too blurry to resemble any person, living or dead.
I loaned my dad one of my fishing rods equipped with a spinning reel and began casting for fish with my other rod. Minutes later, he stood motionless.
I asked him why he was not fishing, and his childlike answer disarmed any pretense of life remaining as it had been in my younger days. He said, “I forgot how to use one of these.”
I remembered the cane pole sitting in the toolbox on my pickup truck. I retrieved it thinking of the many children I had taught to fish with cane poles in my work with youth programs.
I assisted my father that day, helping as I would a young child who was learning to fish. The fish were biting, but I had no time to cast or retrieve. I helped him launch the cane pole, lifting the tip so the baited hook would swing out over the water, then dropping the rod tip so the hook would sink.
Although he landed no fish that day, his enthusiasm was genuine. As he felt the tug of a fish taking his bait, he lifted the pole with mild disappointment. He was sure he would get the next one. As I emotionally returned to a time when he had taught me, I realized he was now the child I would care for over the next several years.
“Caretakers die first. Take care of yourself.” I received this salient advice from a social worker while caring for my dad at home as his dementia progressed. I had already taken Dad’s driver’s license, shotguns, and hunting regalia. Several years earlier, he had surgery to remove the plaque in his carotid arteries, but they were closing again.
A short stay in a geriatric psychiatry ward allowed for evaluation and medication to control his moods, sleeplessness, and the voices he heard. I hired sitters and made use of an adult daycare center so that I could work over the next few years, but the care took a toll on my finances and my career.
As a caregiver, I saw one job and then another slip away. Eventually, I lost my home and health insurance and incurred a small debt for my medical care. I saw the reason caregivers die first.
Near the end of my dad’s stay with me, I had a job that required me to report at 7:00 AM. To do so, I would rise at 4:30, shower, and get dressed. I would then wake my dad, clean him up, and put a fresh diaper on him. After breakfast, I drove him to the daycare center and reported to work. After work, I took a brief nap before a hired caregiver picked him up, fed him dinner, and brought him home. We would visit for a while, and then I graded papers after putting him to bed.
While my dad lived with me, the daycare organization provided a weekend of respite care every six months. Dad went to a residential care facility for a weekend, giving me time to recover my well-being. During the first weekend, I slept through most of Saturday.
During the second weekend of respite care, I attended the Tennessee Environmental Education Association conference at Fall Creek Falls State Park. Seeking wilderness, I departed from the modern lodge and well-manicured golf course and found scenic vistas away from the crowd.
I discovered a small pond behind a low stone dam. A swinging bridge crossed the stream above this pond, leading to a rustic amphitheater. The chorus of crickets provided soft percussion on that September day as Blue Jays entertained me with calls like rusty hinges.
Caregiver responsibilities retreated as I felt present in this wild, peaceful place. I slowed down, breathed deeply, and allowed the healing arms of nature to enfold me. Crossing the swinging bridge, I let my body feel the movement as an infant in a cradle would be rocked to a peaceful sleep.
After crossing the swinging bridge and sitting briefly in the amphitheater, I returned and sat on the pond’s shore for a short meditation. I stretched my conscious mind to its boundaries and beyond. I ceased to be a man sitting in the landscape and became an extension of the landscape.
I felt the roots of ancient hemlocks stretching through the soil, resistant enough to support them and hold up the weight they bear but pliable enough to let roots grow, to seek a hold in the land. I felt minerals and water passes through the membrane that sheaths the core and allows nourishment. I imagined mosses and lichens growing on the trunks and downed logs.
I became the cliff face and felt the ancient stone buffeted by wind and sand particles, boring holes in the surface. A fish broke the surface and shattered my reflection as I sat on the pond's shore.
These words were engraved on the nature center sign, “We all need the Tonic of Wilderness - Henry David Thoreau.” I rediscovered that tonic on my weekend respite.
John Muir once said, “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.” On the Saturday of my trip to Fall Creek Falls, I got the good tidings of this plateau, not by climbing a mountain but by descending into a ravine. I took the trail to the base of the great falls. The park is named after those falls. The waterfall descends 256 feet to the valley below.
The trip to the base of the falls was a geology hike, and the leader dutifully pointed out faults, steps, striations, and other rock-bound features. Amidst the sparsely vegetated rocks, I noticed a plant that was familiar and, at the same time, unusual. It was pale jewelweed, much like the wild impatiens found in wet habitats near my home, but with yellow blossoms, quite different from the orange flower of its more common relative.
Hummingbirds seek sustenance from the nectar of jewelweed, but I wondered what hummingbirds might brave this land of rock outcrops above the falls to sip nectar from the delicate yellow blossoms. I pointed out the unusual plant to my comrades. They replied, “That’s nice, but let’s focus on the rocks.” Their singleness of purpose allowed me to enjoy my discovery uninterrupted.
Hikers frolicked in the pool’s waters below the falls at the trail's end. Some had the foresight to wear swimsuits, but others would later experience the discomfort of walking out in wet clothes.
Dogs had accompanied the humans to the pool, and they, too, enjoyed the refreshing waters of Falls Creek. Of course, the dogs left the water to approach and greet every person seated or standing on the rocks. Along with Ogden Nash, I pondered why the “wet dog is the lovingest.”
Aside from the dogs, the rocks near the falls are perpetually wet. Liverworts cover them, not the wildflower hepatica, but the green relatives of mosses that only grow on wet boulders. These I did not point out to my rockhound companions.
I started the return trip to the bluff above before the main party, knowing that the pain in my knees would slow me down. I paced myself, frequently resting along the trail. At the top, a tourist asked me if the hike to the bottom was challenging. I replied, “No, but the hike back up will do you in.”
]In January of Dad’s final year, pneumonia laid him low. Strong antibiotics brought him back briefly, but he relapsed in April. The blockage of blood flow through the carotid arteries to his brain was nearly complete, and his body shut down.
He awoke to take meals with limited regularity, but feeding remained a slow and challenging process. He sometimes aspirated food rather than swallowing it, aggravating his respiratory problems. As his dementia progressed, he slept more hours each day.
I sat with him for extended periods, abbreviating my work schedule to be there. He slipped into a coma on a Sunday morning. I held his hand and prayed over four days, as I had on previous visits. I stayed with him through those days, reassuring him of my love and God’s love. I was preparing him for the journey ahead.
Through this trial, neither hope, faith, nor even the light at the end of the tunnel sustained me. Duty saw me through my father’s care during the last few months. Eventually, he no longer responded to his name. His eyes flickered with only faint recognition when I entered the room.
My trip to Fall Creek Falls was a forgotten set of entries in my journal when Dad passed. My ability to grieve returned. I cried for myself and my long-departed mother. I prayed for greater strength than my own. I walked through a dreamscape, but I was not alone. My church, three closest friends, and the larger community supported me. A spiritual strength held me up from within and from without.
One friend who appeared among those I greeted at the visitation had searched for the funeral home and nearly gave up. Then he looked up and saw a double rainbow directly above the building. He called me outside to see it, a perfect rainbow. The second rainbow was a mirror image with the colors reversed.
Although I have never paid heed to “signs and wonders,” I have pondered that rainbow for years. A sentimental friend said that the rainbow was my father sending me a message, telling me “Goodbye.” My ego wants to say that it was God’s smile—blessing me for a job well done, telling me that this trial had ended, and handing my life back to me. My Germanic ancestors might regard it as the rainbow bridge awaiting the passage of a fallen warrior into Valhalla.
This last image fits the scripture I read at my father’s funeral. To celebrate his long and vigorous life, I read Isaiah 40:28-31, in part, “They shall rise up with wings like eagles.”
I picture my father rising on eagle’s wings above the double rainbow and flying homeward. Soaring is a fitting tribute to a man who overcame his upbringing in an orphanage to survive combat in the European Theater of World War Two and work two jobs most of his life. He found time for his hobbies—hunting, fishing, and gardening.
Military honors were essential to Dad, symbolizing his survival and recognition from the country he had served. The special salute used at a military funeral is slow and deliberate but only a prelude to the twenty-one-gun salute, taps played on the bugle, and the folding and presenting of the flag. I sat up straight, accepted the flag, and thought only of the honor paid to my dad. Soldiers paying tribute to a deceased comrade have an unmatched air of dignity.