Growing up in an apartment in Brooklyn, NY, it was not always easy to be in touch with nature. Sure, there were the billowing roses that a neighbor let us smell on the walk to school, there were the summers spent in “the country”—(actually New Jersey)—where hour after hour was passed creating magical worlds and stories as we romped unattended over steep paths and through tall grasses. Closer to home, there were Sundays spent in the rolling green grass of Prospect Park and the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens.
But for me, I can honestly say that a simple book from my childhood led me on a path to eventually appreciate the world around us in a way I never had before. That book, was Henry and Ribsy by Beverly Cleary. When Henry carried Ribsy home in a cardboard box (I’m sure it was recyclable) that read, Don’t let ‘em call you baldy, I was sure I had met my soul mate. Oh that lucky Henry— if only I could have a dog follow at my heels like he did.
Fast forward to nearly 20 years ago when after living in a small village outside of NYC for over a decade, I wrote my first story about a young girl and a small yellow puppy who loves nothing more than to follow at the heels of his owner, no matter where their adventures take them. Of course, I couldn’t let my character have all the fun, so I convinced my not-so-sure husband and my totally-on-board children that we should rescue a pup of our own. Huckleberry, a loving Chocolate Labrador Retriever, thrust me into the heart of the natural world with all four enthusiastic paws. His energy and love of the outdoors brought us to a quiet woods near my home where we would walk, no exaggeration, 365 mornings a year. How, I wondered, had I not walked these trails before?
In the fall, I discovered the awesomeness of the foliage as Huckleberry romped through a carpet of gold and yellow leaves from birch, hickory, and poplar trees, the red and maroon leaves of the red oak, dogwood, ash, sweet maples and sumacs, and my favorite, the glorious orange stars of the Japanese maple.
When the snow and ice fell, I strapped on my “Yak Trax” and headed over the hills and paths. As Huckleberry gleefully discovered the joys of stepping out onto the frozen pond and rolling with abandon in the snow, I noted the tracks of squirrels, raccoons, deer, and the occasional quiet trickle of water running over the rocks. I learned that metamorphosed gneiss with bands of quartz were brought into the area during the Wisconsin glacier, some 10,00 to 13,000 years ago.
In the spring we sat at ponds edge and listened to the song of the migratory birds—okay so Huckleberry did go for a splash and a swim every now and then with the ducklings! We admired the brilliant yellow forsythia, the tulip trees and the sweet cherry trees. And in the summer, we visited the now dry Vernal Pond, where the deer stood silently, looking at their once full watering spot, and the summer hare sat quietly nibbling in the grass.
Day after day, year after year, we walked through over one hundred species of trees, ferns, grasses, herbs, sedges, and rushes. Why hadn’t I walked these trails before? It didn’t really matter. I was walking them now, with Huckleberry, or I should say, thanks to Huckleberry, most joyfully at my heels.
People often say that writers are observers, and I believe that is true. And whether watching a chrysalis miraculously cling to a leaf somehow becomes a story of a dancing duck cast in the recital as a caterpillar who emerges as a spring butterfly, or a stray cat passed on a walk becomes an “alphabet of cats” rescued by a woman with a very big heart, well…you get the idea. In some way, every day is Earth Day for this author. We just have to discover our place in its wondrous story. And it’s never too late.
Alyssa Satin Capucilli is the author of two beloved children’s book series: the romping Biscuit, (with 17 million copies in print) and the dancing Katy Duck. Alyssa herself was a professional dancer and her love of movement shows in joyful frolicking of her characters. Follow the author and her books at alyssacapucilli.com