Goodbye and Thank You Dad!
28 November 2017
My dad, Andy Larsen, died a couple of months ago and last week we had a 'celebration' to honor his life. My mom and my sister made all the arrangements. They did an incredible job. Obviously, it was a sad day, but it was also great to see so many people who my dad touched. He was an incredible man. Complicated. Like we all are. But inspirational as well. And really smart.
My mom arranged for a variety of people from my dad's life to share their thoughts. I wanted to post what I wrote now - not that I think you should read it but more because it matters to me to have part of his story out there. So without further adieu...
There was an University of Wisconsin extension professor, Dr. Hole was his name. He was a soil scientist who I guess came out to Riveredge from time to time to teach classes. He would bring his violin and sing songs about the soil... He classified all things into two categories: SOIL or T.N.S. (Temporarily Not Soil).
I wanted to take this opportunity to comment on the brief history in the span of the universe where Gilbert Andrew 'Andy' Larsen (my dad) was T.N.S. Temporarily Not Soil the time period from March 25th, 1939 to September 22nd, 2017.
My dad was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease when I was 17. He never talked about his condition even though it became one of the defining components of our family. It was a disease that took eventually away much of who my dad was - although he fought it bravely until the end.
He never talked about his condition much, and as it progressed, I never got the chance to better understand him and his life.
Just last week, I wondered out loud to my wife Maria about the origin of my dad's environmental passion (he was the executive director of Riveredge Nature Center in Wisconsin). It must have been some pivotal component of his childhood, I surmised, as both him and his sister, pursued and achieved successful careers in environmental science, my Aunt becoming a professor at UNH.
Then, this passage came in email forwarded by a friend, written by Erika Lang from the Bayfield Regional Conservancy in Northern Wisconsin.
It was something that my dad, Andy, had written about his own father, Gil.
"I am unsure of the origin of my dad's sense of stewardship, which railed against the deforestation and destruction of the land. Gil Larsen left the earth in better condition then he had found it, trees grow where he planted them, the soil around their roots is secure, and the water that runs from the land is fresh and clean. That is a legacy to be proud of. "
Besides the eerily similarity of this statement, the other thing that struck me is my dad's writing style. He wrote a weekly column for the Milwaukee Journal called 'The Nature of Things' for many years and in it there are many examples of his far reaching insights. Often times, however, he spoke and wrote in broad generalizations and platitudes. You were either concerned about the environment or... well, there was nothing else for him. He looked at life through a singular lens.
His focus was overwhelming at times and I sought to differentiate myself, but it wasn't easy. At a certain point, we all become or parents in one way or another
One of my earliest memories of my dad wasn't a specific moment but from a variety of camping trips. Waking up in the morning and eating breakfast around the camp fire or in our Bayfield camp, we were often regaled with stories of the previous night's bear encounter. I can remember three or four specific bear stories -- the climax of the anecdote focused around my dad chasing away an unruly bear in his underwear. The two components of the story were always 'bear' and 'underwear'.
Fast forward to sometime in the late 90's camping with my parents in northern Wisconsin. Both my dad and I woke at a sound in our camp kitchen. A bear had eaten some of the food. We walked through our lean-to and found a young cub in a tree. We shined our lights upwards at the cub while trying to process the situation. 'Where did this cub come from?' Suddenly from outside the circle of light, we heard a loud, 'woof'. The mother bear. We both raced backwards. Somewhat farther away, I looked at my dad standing there in his underwear. Then at myself. Also in my underwear. The apple, or in this case underwear, doesn't fall far from the tree.
When I was in 5th grade... there was a January deepfreeze that settled over Wisconsin. I had spent the night at a friend's who lived in the old Ozaukee Bank building across from Aldai Horn park. The cold was intense and the entire city of Cedarburg shut down. Cars wouldn't start. The pipes burst in my elementary and flooded some of the building.
My dad walked down to Chris's house and and arrived in his big red down jacket carrying a Duluth pack of clothes for me. He proceeded me to layer me up, layer after layer after layer. We walked back to our house side by side comfortably warm despite the -20 temperatures.
If there was ever a time that I looked at my dad as larger than life, this was it. And it is no surprise to me how this moment affected my future career choice... which as you may know, is somewhat focused on the cold.
To spend time with my dad meant spending time at Riveredge, the nature center where he worked. The best way that I can describe my time at Riveredge with my dad is like when toddlers engage in 'parallel play'. Not that we were toddlers but I didn't necessarily go out to Riveredge to spend time with my dad. I went out to Riveredge to enjoy all the activities and experiences that Riveredge offered.... just like my dad.
While we may not have connected at his work, his job also gave me some some of the most influential figures in my life who became important role models and mentors: Charlie Mayhew, Don Gilmore, Nancy Siegel, David Borneman, Julie Tubbs are just a few of the many names of people who provided a life's worth of guidance, understanding and friendship. Even today, I look at this as one of my dad's greatest gifts to me.
In all my youth, there were thousands of moments at Riveredge where we were simultaneously enjoyed the same things.
One day. we were banding birds near the Milwaukee River. It was a slow morning and we talked about closing the mist nets and going home. Then, the wind shifted as a front moved in and with it a wave of migrating warblers. We spent the next several hours engaged in a pitched battle of removing birds from the nets, banding and then releasing them. It was one of the stories that my dad recounted regularly and filled me with pride knowing that I was a part of.
We both very much enjoyed making maple syrup although my dad's responsibilities as director took him away from the evaporator. As a 9 or 10 year old kid, I was often left to operate the evaporator while Don and other volunteers would go collect sap. In between fire stoking, I would run off in the woods and look for owl pellets, then dissect them later.
In one of the pellets, I found a bird band still around the digested leg bone of a black capped chickadee, a bird that my dad had banded a year or two previously. For my dad, that was a joyous moment. 'I never knew that an owl would eat a chickadee', he said. Equally important to him was that his son had found it.
It was hard to reconcile, at times, my two different lives in one in Cedarburg and one at Riveredge. For my dad's part, there was never an issue. While he may have been the executive director of a nature center, he saw himself as a teacher first and foremost.
Never did this become more apparent to me than me career day at my grade school. We were instructed to bring in some items from my our father's work. I'm not sure who it was whose father brought in a series of cans in various stages of production. My classmates and I were fascinated by how the aluminum was shaped in the various stages. This was clearly an impressive career and we all felt that we would sign on as can makers.
When I asked to bring in some of my dad's equipment from his job, he handed me a small laminated piece of paper. Inside was a bird bone and a small aluminum band. That's how he was. It wasn't about the tools of his trade. It was about teaching others about nature.
At Riveredge, I think he often looked at the 300 plus acres of land as his own personal playground. As executive director, he adamantly enforced the rules of the perserve. No dogs, stay on the trails, etc... there were many occasions where I watched him admonish vistors for one infraction or another.
For his part, the rules didn't always apply. On hot Sunday afternoons, we would come out with our dog and swim in the farm pond. He also let me fish in the pond where all we needed to do was throw a hook, unbaited and we would instantly have a bass or bluegill on the line.
He was continually interested in scientific inquiry and tried to get me to tag and catalog the fish I caught. I just wanted to fish - the experience of being outside and casting a line provided more than enough enjoyment. Still, I appreciated his effort to foster my interests.
My dad was continually trying to measure the natural world. Even his daily commute to Newburg was an opportunity to better understand the nature and man's role in it. For many years, he kept a database of road kill hoping to gain insight into both the movement of wildlife and its distribution.
He was a hard, serious man, much of the time and never felt like a nurturing influence. My mom fulfilled that role. Still, he helped me nearly every weekend haul the heavy Sunday papers along my paper route. And when I saved enough money, he took me to buy my first bike.
He also introduced me to Bill Pence from Grafton Ski and Cyclery and suggested I apply for a job there. Bill would become my employer, mentor and friend. To this day, bicycles have been one of the defining components of my life and something that has provided both personal and professional joy.
There are so many other things I want to tell you about my dad. Not because they are part of some bigger ideology, but because they are part of who my dad was and of this of all days they are worth remembering.
He liked to watch James Bond movies, football and boxing. He was an incredible wood worker and cabinet maker building a loom for my mom and a series of dove-tailed cabinets for our house.
He was a maniacal wood cutter both in Cedarburg and Bayfield and my sister libby and I benefited (in the bad way) from his penchant for chainsawing. We stacked wood, it seemed, for our entire childhood - our only reprieve being when the saw ran out of gas.
He liked ice cream and root beer floats which he called black cows. And for as long as I can remember he drank Pepsi and would often follow it up by a milk poured over the same ice cubes. He smoked cigars, Swisher Sweets, only when camping. He was a morning person often waking up at 4:30 am.
He always had time for the quirky and weird. He loved fireworks and and campfires, especially bonfires. There was always a palpable pride when I told him that I had lit a campfire with only one match - or better yet no matches, stoking embers from the previous night.
When I think about becoming my own man, I feel that I have chosen my own path. But then I look down at my hands. They look just like my dad's. My voice, at times, sounds exactly like my dad's. I have an infinite amount of time for the abstract. I am serious and singularly focused on my career goals.
In saying that I don't know my dad, that's not really accurate. I know myself and in doing so have an intimate understanding of all that my dad held dear.
There is a picture of my dad from when he was 4 or 5 and he looks EXACTLY like my son. The resemblance is uncanny. The reason for this is due to something called genetic (chromosomal) crossover where chromosomes cross the first generation then back again in the second generation. Sometimes, they exchange genetic information in exactly the same way.
My dad was fond of saying that 'everything is becoming something else.' And while he personally is returning back to the soil and water of the land that he loved and revered so much, his genes, his philosophy, his quirks, his memory and the impact that he had on so many will continue long into the future.
Good luck, dad. I love you.