Imprinting on nature

Our family photo albums are like a lot of family photo albums, I suppose: pictures of birthday parties, babies in the bathtub, Christmas with the grandparents, etc. But one thing sets my parents’ snapshots apart: the vast majority of them were taken outside. As soon after my February birth as it became possible, I was taken out to explore.

on the lake shore, 1966

Of course, it wasn’t unusual for kids to play outside back in the 60s and 70s. But since my parents never bought a TV, we had even less reason than most kids to stay indoors.

Here I am with my younger brother Mark in 1971, in the yard of our place in Maine.

with Mark in Maine yard, 1971

We moved to Maine when I was one and left when I was five and a half. I imprinted deeply on that landscape of dark, coniferous woods, pastures dotted with low juniper and lots of bare granite. Steve was two years older and a born leader; I was his shadow.

with Steve at the upper edge of the old pasture in Maine

To this day, whenever I visit the north woods, I feel a certain pang. It’s hard to explain.

with Steve at Paddy's Pond, 1971

Our property included some shoreline along a large lake called Paddy’s Pond. (Mainers are fond of understatement.) We spent a lot of time there, and to this day I’m drawn to water despite being a reluctant swimmer. The latter might be the result of a certain trauma caused by the lake’s abundant leeches.

with Steve, exploring pond, 1971

There was also an actual pond, an old farm pond below the house. We used to play there unsupervised quite a bit, because that’s the way parents were back then. I think Mom kept an eye on us through the kitchen window.

going insect collecting with Steve, 1971

In the summer of 1971, knowing we’d be leaving this place we loved so much and moving to central Pennsylvania that August, the parents hired a local photographer friend to take a bunch of pictures. He captured Steve and me setting off to collect insects, which has become a life-long passion for Steve.

examining an insect with Steve, 1971

I’m not sure what we found, but it was evidently pretty engrossing.

Although I was a bit of a problem child, adept at making myself and others miserable, Mom says I always became quiet when she took me into the woods (in contrast to Steve, who enthused loudly about everything). Possibly as a consequence, she took me for walks in the woods a lot.

discovering a ruffed grouse nest, June 1970

I was never particularly observant, but according to the caption in the photo album, this is me discovering a ruffed grouse nest at the age of four.

camping in Canada, 1970

That same summer, we went on an epic camping trip as a family — the first of many. We had two big canvas tents, one for the parents and one for us kids, as well as a Coleman stove, sleeping bags, air mattresses and a few other essentials, all of which fit handily into our red VW microbus. Hey, it was 1970. My parents weren’t hippies, just back-to-the-landers, so there were no peace signs or flowers painted on the side of the bus. (That said, I’m told we did march in at least one anti-war demonstration when I was four or five.)

with Steve at Niagra Falls, 1970

We drove all around eastern Canada and came back (?) by way of Niagara Falls.

5th birthday plane ride, 1971

One very cool thing my parents did when each of us turned five was to take us on an airplane flight for our birthday.

flying a kite, 1972

A little over a year later, and I was trying (and probably failing) to fly a kite in the field at our new place in Pennsylvania. My first Appalachian spring — a much less rushed affair than spring in the north woods — was about to unfold. Forty-four years later, it’s something I have yet to tire of.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

12 Comments


  1. Wonderful memoir-with-photos. I recall those canvas tents vividly, and with some dismay (ours always seemed to be leaking). I love the photo of you and your brother captivated with the insect or whatever it was.

    I have been thinking about “key images” from childhood in relation to “poetic voice” (re: Stanley Kunitz) and your post resonates with that idea somehow.

    Hey, btw–you look alright without a beard. ;)

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  2. Thanks for the comments. I’m glad that what seemed to me like an excessively self-indulgent post still resonated with people.

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  3. I love these photos, Dave, and all that they call forth. Not in the least self-indulgent!
    It looks like an ideal childhood but maybe you didn’t experience it entirely like that.
    Your Dad in the plaid jacket looks just like you now…or rather you look like him.

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  4. In retrospect, it was pretty damn idyllic.

    I definitely inherited my Dad’s fashion sense, as well as some of his features.

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  5. “I was never particularly observant . . .” – what? Maybe in comparison to Steve?

    I love this post. It made me wistful, though perhaps for the outdoor portion of my own upbringing. I didn’t know that you spent your first five years in Maine.

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    1. Glad you liked the post. It’s true, I was a chronic daydreamer.

      My parents, by contrast, both grew up in NJ regularly visiting their relatives in eastern Pennsylvania, and met at Bucknell University in Lewisburg where they spent a lot of time exploring central PA by motor scooter, so Mom has written that when we moved here it felt very much like coming home.

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  6. Aren’t some of these images exhibited in a short-film? I can’t recall the title of it…”Super-8 Mom”, I found it. If not, check that out, it has a similar premise coincidentally.

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    1. I don’t see how. They’re just photos from the family album which have never been digitized before, as far as I know.

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