Dear Me, 1974,
Growing older, I feel as if time is piling up beneath me, a mountain of years and decades lifting me to ever and ever thinner and colder air, a snow-capped Everest of time where dangerous storms blast without warning from clear skies.
And way down below, so far away it’s barely visible, stands my youth, with its certainties and ecstasies and easy pleasures. I need a telescope to see it.
I think about you. The path that led from you to me is amazingly direct. I/you/we concluded at seven or eight years old that we’d grow up to be a veterinarian. And we started writing short stories. At eleven, we learned from reading Ernest Thompson Seton that we could aspire to be naturalists, and a couple years later we discovered zoology. And we continued writing short stories. And now here I am, decades later, a professional conservationist with degrees in zoology and journalism, an editor/writer. I have written books that drew upon knowledge accrued when I was in my teens--earlier even, when I was nine. Think of that.
I recall certain of your traits that I most like. Long before you were twenty-five you developed a fondness for talking with the elderly. They know so much. You eschewed the dictum of never trusting anyone over thirty, but you might have adopted a credo of never trusting anyone under eighty.
You developed a respect for learning for its own sake. To the extent that one’s curiosity is a measure of one’s respect for Life, I’m glad that you’re curious and that your search for knowledge goes on and on like the gnawing of a mouse, as someone once said--you know the quote, it’s in a notebook you started in high school. Knowledge, as fact-based as you can make it, is what you have instead of religion. But I don’t have to tell you that. Because of the amazing consistency of your/my life, we are as alike as if we were, well, one person. The sameness of you and I, despite forty years elapsing, is complete, and yet without stagnation.
Consider: Pinned to a bulletin board by your desk is a postcard with a line drawing of a robed and bearded man studying a globe, and the words “You’ll never get anywhere else if you don’t leave where you are now.” That card, now in a cheap black frame, sits on my desk as I write this letter. Maybe I need to throw that card far away and get some[any]where else. Maybe I need to change.
I’m not sure you do. So I won’t advise. What if I did? What if I rolled some major revelation your way, and it changed your future? Where would I be then? To tamper with you is to tamper with me. Just possibly to eradicate myself. I don’t think I’ll buy into that equation. I won’t school you. I’ve too much respect for your own insights and experiences to tell you that life will caress you one day and torment you another. You’ve known already the enchantment of love and the unrelenting sorrow rendered by sudden visitations of death.
So no, my letter to you will say no more than this: Don’t pursue happiness--the definition of happiness changes constantly, like weather, so that once you have it, it has become something else that still lies beyond your reach. Instead, seek satisfaction, which you may achieve by approaching everything you do, even humor, with an earnestness of purpose and by refining every detail of your work to the full extent of your abilities until you can say, This is the best I can do. I know that you, like me, think you can take on anything--you never worry about carrying it on, seeing it through. Maybe try worrying a bit, maybe try escaping the idea that you can do what needs to be done, maybe trust yourself a little less. Examine everything you do one more time--or ten--before you call it finished.
That’s all I’ll say.
What I want is a letter from you. I want you to advise me. I want you to remind me of things I’ve forgotten. I want you to remind me that work may be joyful, but play is more so. To remind me of the pleasure of dropping a dry fly into foaming water; to recall for me the satisfaction of honing your body until it is a powerful engine for long bicycle rides; to restore to me the idea that life is a party and that you don’t lament it because, like all parties, it must end, no--you enjoy it for all its worth.
I want you to remind me of the conviction that we can restore damaged wild places and protect dwindling species, that human lives may be worth saving. Remind me of the pleasure of intense passions. Remind me that melancholy memories of past loves are a measure not of loss but of the joy those loves brought to life. Remind me of the pleasure of a scented evening breeze moving across a summer prairie, moving over tall grass so that the whole landscape looks like a rolling green sea; remind me of the pleasure of living in places where night skies are dark enough to reveal countless stars, where the heavens aren’t washed out by the machinations of human illumination. Remind me of the pleasure of a horse moving under me, a mourning dove calling at dusk, nighthawks pirouetting overhead. Remind me of the comforts wrought by the bonds of family. Remind me of the joy of feeling at home and among friends. Write to me often. You have a lot to teach me.