My Dad, Who Made the World Better, Take 4

Father’s Day. Let me tell you about my dad, if you didn’t know him.

My dad loved all things plant. Out on a walk, he’d look down, the better to identify the plants at his feet. During his social worker years, he spent as much of his off hours as possible outdoors, tending his raspberry beds, vegetable garden, and native plantings. As a retiree he had time to participate in all kinds of projects that fit his passion, and he was never happier.

One of the pleasures of being the daughter of such a man is introducing myself as “Donovan’s daughter” to his many friends and co-conspirators. Recently I interviewed a “FOD” (friend of Dad) for an article I was writing. I knew Dad had done some volunteer work with this organization, Central Indiana Land Trust. At the end of the phone conversation I mentioned Dad’s name.

The response in my earpiece was immediate. Cliff Chapman, the organization’s executive director, said, “Oh, Donovan! I loved Donovan!”

He started to tell me stories. How Dad was the only one who came out for the first volunteer work day at a nature preserve called Oliver’s Woods. With two feet of snow on the ground, Dad and Cliff together tackled the first bush honeysuckle (an invasive plant that kills off native plants). It was “the size of a VW beetle,” Cliff said.

Since then over 1500 volunteers have cleared a dozen acres of bush honeysuckle. They used to have to wield a hedge trimmers just to be able to drive up the lane. Now native plants are starting to flourish there. Though the site is not open to the public yet, it is on its way.

Cliff still remembers that very first cut that started everything off.

He told me another story that is just so Dad:

“One of the things he had me do—it was when he was in home hospice care and I went to see him—he said, ‘Hey there’s this plant I’ve planted, it’s got a whole bunch of seeds, and I’d love to see these seeds go to good use.’ So I got a big old bag and collected the seeds and went back in and showed him, and told him I would scatter them somewhere special.”

Chapman planted the seeds—sea oats—along the White River at Oliver’s Woods. He started another stand of sea oats from plugs under a big tree along the lane. He says he always thinks of my dad when he sees those grasses waving.

“Some people are different than other people,” he told me. “He really cared about those things, like he really wanted those seeds to be planted.”

Here is a clump of sea oats in my yard that (if memory serves) originated from Dad. Sometime soon I hope to visit Oliver’s Woods, but in the meantime I will find him near at hand, and be grateful.

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My Dad, Who Made the World Better, Take 3

Tomorrow, Feb. 2, used to be just Groundhog Day to me. Once I keyed into the seasonal festival days celebrated in ancient times, I knew Feb. 2 as Imbolc—a day to take a walk and look for the first signs of spring.

But now it’s forever associated with my dad, who left this world on Feb. 2, 2012. On that day the snowdrops bloomed and the sandhill cranes flew low. I like to think that his spirit took stock of those harbingers of spring—and that they released him to fly away.

It broke Dad’s heart to leave us, and he hated to leave all his wonderful volunteer work behind. Since his retirement he’d launched all kinds of projects. Possibly the hardest thing to give up was his connection with schoolchildren.

You can't see Dad but you can see how the kids looked at him.

You can’t see Dad but you can see how the kids looked at him.

It all started when he began tending the grounds of Cold Spring School, the environmental education magnet, just because it looked like somebody ought to.

Dad doing what came naturally.

Dad doing what came naturally.

Because he took an interest, he eventually found himself in stewardship of the school’s greenhouse. This was a dream come true for him. (I remember many times in my childhood, he would talk about his dream of putting up a greenhouse.) His passion made it easy to engage the classes who came in for units on seeds, soil, and other such things.

Dad showing grade schoolers the wonders of aloe in the greenhouse.

Dad showing grade schoolers the wonders of aloe in the greenhouse.

After he got sick, when confronted with kudos for his volunteering, Dad liked to say, “I was just having fun.”

Having fun on a wet day at Cold Spring School.

Having fun on a wet day at Cold Spring School.

Just looking at these photos again, I’m swamped with sadness.

No one can fill the void he left. But maybe by having our own brand of fun, we can each take up a tiny spot of it. As the days get imperceptibly longer, what can we bring to the earth, to each other?

Photos courtesy of Friends of Cold Spring School.