Leave No Trace
Rievi and I sit on rocks near the shallow stream, the water cascading over tangles of rocks, branches, and fallen tree trunks, seeking its way, as water always does, to the lowest point. We eat the food we brought along. I take a hotdog and a container of sautéed liver from my black plastic bag, which I got at Mechel’s Takeout on Route 59. Rievi has a sandwich his mother packed for him and a water bottle.
It is only Rievi and me. I had taken the train earlier from Penn Station to Suffern, where my friend Aron Yidel picked me up and whose car I borrowed for the evening. I stopped at a photo store in Monsey to print pictures of the boys taken on our previous outing, in the intermediate days of Passover, at Bear Mountain Park. Outside the photo store I stood having a smoke as the photos were being printed, and out of nowhere Yoely, my former-brother-in-law and now Chief Intermediary and General Pain in the Ass, appeared. He looked astonished, as I must’ve looked too. He smiled warmly. “Amazing to meet you here,” he said. “I’d been meaning to call you, except I have three cell phones, none of which are working.”
I waited for him to continue about the call, but he went on about how amazing it is that he bumped into me here. Eventually he got to the point.
“I’d wanted to tell you before you left, just so you’d know, that Burich doesn’t want to go along. I thought you might want to make other plans, but since you’re here already I guess it doesn’t matter.”
It doesn’t matter? Does anything matter then? “Why—Why not?” I ask, the message by now only like a blunt knife scraping against my skin, causing a minor cut, a bruise at most, annoying but bearable; I’d heard it so many times before about one or the other.
“I’m—I’m not sure,” he stammered, avoiding eye contact. “He had a wedding last night—Zeldy thinks he’s just tired—I’m not really sure.”
It’s been six weeks since I last saw the boys. Thirteen weeks since I last saw Chaya Leah’le. Thirteen months since I last saw Tziri and Freidy, I can hardly believe it’s been more than a year, although occasionally I wonder whether they look different, whether Tziri, going on sixteen, now sports a new hairstyle, how she looks in beige stockings – which the boys told me she now wears since she entered high school. I wonder how Freidy did in the school play she talked about last time I saw her, and whether she still enjoys scrapbooking. One by one, each decided they no longer wished to see me, speak to me, and now, the latest, is Burich. Only Rievi still calls, his sweet old self, always agreeable, bravely putting up a cheerful face even though I know it’s not always easy.
I suggested a hike in the woods to see the waterfalls a mile along the Pine Meadow Trail, off Seven Lakes Drive in Harriman State Park. We’d walked along the trail, Rievi eagerly pointing out the blazes of red circles on white rectangles, jumping over knobby tree roots that brazenly rose twelve inches or more above ground, most likely due to the erosion of soil by the thousands who’ve hiked there before, one of the most popular trails in the park.
As we eat, I point out the beauty of nature, although I was never good at identifying species of flaura or fauna. I don’t know an oak from a pine, a poplar from an evergreen, a cedar from a redwood. Instead I explain the history of the trails, the early hikers who, in the early part of the last century, mapped out the hundreds of miles of crisscrossing trails. I answer his questions about who puts the blazes on the trees, builds bridges over streams, and cuts away fallen tree trunks from blocking the trails. I make him sit still and listen to the sounds of the forest, the chirping of birds, branches swaying in the wind, the rustling shrrrrip shrrrrip of a deer taking off at the sight of us, the sounds of water rushing in the stream alongside the trail.
“Leave No Trace,” is the environmentally conscious hiker’s motto, and after we eat, I tell Rievi to take the trash back to the car.
“Why?” he asks.
“Because we shouldn’t leave trash in the woods,” I tell him. “There is no one to clean up after us.”
“So?” he asks. “It’s only the woods. Who cares if there’s trash?”
“We don’t want to spoil nature,” I tell him.
“Why not? Who cares?”
“Because animals live here. And if we enjoy their habitat, we must respect it.”
He doesn’t seem to understand. It’s not a value he’s heard or entertained before. Just as I hadn’t for most of my life. Hasidim are unsentimental about the environment. Preserving the environment for practical purposes might have value, but few worry about the threatened extinction of the North American Condor or the dangers the logging industry poses to gorillas in the African jungles.
I tell Rievi that we want to preserve the beauty and natural balance of our surroundings. He keeps asking why, in innocence, with no agenda, simply, why? It’s hard to answer a question whose answer you take for granted. I find it hard to explain to a ten-year-old in a few words how much damage can be done to an ecosystem by a few careless acts. More importantly, the child-like wonder forces you to think about things carefully. To a child, concepts must be made simple, but simple answers can be elusive, accustomed as we are to thinking in adult-like, overly complex, overly politicized processes. But I try. I use endangered species as an example he might relate to.
“What if all the jungles of Africa were cut down to use trees to build houses and to make paper? What if all of the African deserts were to become inhabited by people? Where would the lions, the tigers, the elephants, and the giraffes go?”
“In the zoo!” he says with a laugh, although I suspect he really thinks it’s a feasible solution. Is that not what zoos are for?
I tell him of long extinct species, the saber-toothed tiger, the wooly North American mammoth, the dodo, how sad it would be if we didn’t pay more attention to the currently endangered ones.
“I don’t really care,” he says with a shrug. But his expression is bashful, as if he’s ashamed to admit it – perhaps only because he knows his apathy would displease me.
He stops asking, appears to have tentatively accepted the value I’m preaching, or he’s grown tired of expecting a satisfying answer. But his acquiescence isn’t understanding, only blind acceptance. He’s tired of challenging the notion, tired of wielding the power of simple questions, in the same way that he doesn’t challenge other ideas, like God’s existence, the gemara as the fiery word of God passed down to Moses at Sinai, the saintliness of the rebbe, the fact that he must go to school every morning and that he shouldn’t dirty his pants. Some things, a child learns instinctively, aren’t worth arguing about. The adult will always win. They won’t necessarily explain, only insist. It makes me wonder about the values of society in general, and how much we accept blindly because questioning a given orthodoxy is too tiring, too political, perhaps because we don’t think about the issues but adhere to fashionable ideas simply because they’re, well, fashionable.
We trek back the mile or so to the parking lot, where a vending machine stands and I tell him I want to buy a soda. He observes the machine with hungry curiosity. “Can I put in the money?” he asks. I hand him a dollar bill, but the machine doesn’t take it. “Haha,” he laughs. “It’s spitting it out.” I give him another bill, a crisp one, explaining that the first may have been creased, or worn out. The second bill takes, and he pushes my hand away from making my selection. “Let me press it,” he begs with the innocence of a child to whom a soda vending machine is a novelty, pressing the button inducing the magic of the soda-can going plop! in the bin below.
We drive home on the Palisades Parkway. He speaks eagerly, without the reticence of some of his siblings, cheerfully babbling about school trips and neighborhood news, content now with the simple enjoyments of a hike in the woods with his father, and now, sitting in the front seat (illegally), just the two of us. He notes the speed on the speedometer, 70 mph, and then the 55 mph sign. He asks about the RPM gauge, and I explain about tire rotations, although I know little about it. “Farchap yeneh car,” he says, and points to a blue Honda Civic ahead of us. He delights as I press down on the gas and switch lanes, while I wonder if I’m setting a good example.
As we get off the exit ramp I take the envelope with the pictures laying near the gear stick, and as I wait for the light to turn green I remove the pictures. “I want to look at these again,” I tell him, and he leans over to my side, stretching his seatbelt, and looks at them with me. We laugh together at the fun and crazy poses he and Burich did for the camera. The light turns green, and I put the pictures on my lap.
“Are you going to look at the rest at the next light?” he asks. The next light is the last before we turn into New Square.
“If it’s red,” I say. He points as we pass the parking lot of the New Square wedding hall at the side of Route 45.
“You can park in there to look at them,” he says. His concern is obvious. He doesn’t want me lingering in front of the house.
I tell him I’ll pull over near the bus garage, right after the turn at the traffic light.
“Ok,” he says. I sense relief, but I wonder whether I project too much anxiety on him, imagining how I would feel in his place.
“Where should I drop you off?” I ask. “At the Breuers’ or at home?”
The Breuers are cousins, living only one block away. For reasons I am unclear about, that’s the place the children chose for pick-ups.
“Doesn’t matter,” he says, “whatever’s easier.” Then he says, “Near home, at the corner is fine.”
He says it as if he doesn’t want to trouble me; in truth, he probably doesn’t want the ever-present band of yentas to stare. But as we approach the corner his expression shows sudden anxiety, almost fear. A group of neighbors are at the corner chatting, mothers in turbans and housedresses with baby carriages and young children at their sides. The Yenta Club, it appears, has shifted to the corner.
“Better at the house,” he says nervously, eyes fixed on those who might see him with his non-Hasidic father.
At the house he grabs the bag that held his sandwich and the envelope with the pictures and hurriedly fumbles for the door latch. “Bye,” he says quickly without looking at me, eyes scanning for passerby. He closes the door and steps onto the curb, glances back at me quickly, unsmiling, as I wave to him. I watch him run up the pathway. The door slams shut behind him.
I pull away, stepping lightly on the gas, and I see a familiar blur passing behind a car parked upward on the road alongside the curb. The blur comes past the car, and it’s Burich on his bike, zooming down Reagan Road with all the energy of an eight-year-old, oblivious to my presence. I think to honk, but before I have a chance he’s zoomed past. I see him in the rearview mirror, still going full-speed down the sidewalk. I drive ahead a short distance and make a u-turn. I come back down Reagan Road looking for the familiar round shape of his head, the payess trailing behind struggling to keep up, arms in an outward swagger, with which I’d seen him grip the handlebars so many times before. He’s not outside the house, nor do I see his bike at the door, which means he didn’t go inside. At the corner, a group of boys of various ages rest on their bikes and huddle around in conversation. I scan their faces for Burich. He isn’t among them. He isn’t around anywhere. He was here a moment ago, and now he is gone.Printable Version