Tag Archives: Walden pond

Castle in the Woods

November 3, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Henry David Thoreau had Walden Pond. Yogi and Boo-Boo had Jellystone Park. Mary and Alex Graeve have Hitchcock Nature Center.

Their backyard is the 1,270-acre preserve located just five miles north of Crescent, Iowa. Mary and Alex are the children of Amy and Chad Graeve. Chad is the park ranger and natural resource specialist for the land situated in the heart of the Loess Hills.

The unique geological formation was created after the last Ice Age when glacial flooding receded along the Missouri River basin. Much of the remaining sediment was swept away by winds and settled in layer upon layer to form the steep, rugged terrain that is known for its sometimes challenging hiking trails. The park is also a Mecca for area birders, especially because of its position along what is called “Hawk Highway,” a major migratory path for birds of prey that will remain particularly active through December.

“I grew up in the country,” says Amy, a substitute teacher in the Lewis Central Community School District, “and this, to me, is the only way to live.”

The park is not only a place of great natural beauty, it’s a place of romance. The couple met when Amy brought her students to Hitchcock on a field trip.

“I had a habit of flirting with all the prettiest teachers,” Chad says with a wry grin.

Chad is also a wild-land firefighter, which means he may be called away with only hours notice to hop a plane at Eppley Airfield. His most recent assignment had him battling a blaze in Montana last August. Amy worries about the perilous work, and the lingering stench of smoke that forever permeates his firefighting gear is a constant reminder of danger.

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The park has not always been the pristine, densely wooded landscape familiar to campers, birders, and hikers today. The campground, for example, was built over a junkyard.

“That’s where we go to find stuff,” says Mary. A raised eyebrow and questioning look is all it takes for Alex to chime in. “You know…stuff…a wagon wheel, an old high chair,” he says. “The best, coolest stuff.” The Graeve kids are natural-born archeologists when it comes to excavating the flotsam and jetsam of what to them are relics on an ancient civilization.

“We call it treasure,” Mary says. “The highchair is our throne, and we have a castle in the woods,” she says in describing a primitive shelter they erected near another of their hidden get-aways, a double-super-secret treehouse.

Imaginations in Hitchcock park, it would appear, run as wild as the surroundings.

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Living in the woods may seem a barrier to socialization for the kids, but Amy believes they have struck a nice balance. Mary and Alex make instant—if temporary—friends with the children of families staying in the nearby campground. They have robust school, extracurricular, and sports lives. And the children frequently host fireside sleepovers.

“We instill in our kids that, first and foremost, they should be the best of friends because they do spend so much time together,” Amy says. “This is our little place—our family place—and the way we live ensures that family comes first.”

If family comes first with the Graeves, a deep respect for nature isn’t far behind.

“My role is to be a steward of the land—to take care of it, to help it heal,” Chad explains. “Introducing people to that concept of stewardship and helping them to connect with nature,” he says, is one of the most rewarding parts of his job.

“Hitchcock is a very special place,” he continues, “and I have the special privilege of doing my part to keep it that way.”

Visit pottcoconservation.com to learn more.

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The Masons

August 3, 2015 by
Photography by Sarah Lemke

This article appears in August 2015 Her Family.

It seems like the stereotypically idyllic life of a poet: a gravel path leading to a house in the woods, one that calls to mind Walden Pond and literary greats such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Poet Matt Mason and his wife, poet Sarah McKinstry-Brown, share that home with daughters Sophia Mason, 11, Lucia Mason, 7, and rescue dog Max. Their lives are as busy and hectic as those of any other working parents—even if they do revolve around words and the constant effort to construct them into something profound and beautiful.

“Being two poets seems like this really romantic existence,” explains McKinstry-Brown, “but it’s a lot of hard work and love, sweat, tears, and making time for the kids. Sometimes I wish people would have more of an understanding of how hard it is.”

The couple’s professional achievements speak to exactly how hard, especially in terms of how hard each poet works. Mason, 46, is executive director of the Nebraska Writers Collective. He won a Pushcart Prize and served as a cultural envoy for the U.S. State Department to Botswana, Nepal, and Belarus. McKinstry-Brown, 38, leads literary workshops and garnered the Academy of American Poets Prize as well as a Blue Light Book Award for her full-length collection of poetry, Cradling Monsoons. Each has received Nebraska Books Awards, and they are influential members of Omaha’s flourishing poetry slam scene, a scene that Mason was instrumental in creating.

The poets met in 2002, when McKinstry-Brown appeared at a poetry slam in Omaha. “I announced on stage that it was my birthday, and Matt ordered me a piece of cheesecake,” the mother of two remembers. “It was carrot cake,” Mason interjects. “No, it was cheesecake,” responds McKinstry-Brown. “Carrot cake,” insists Mason.

While poetry drew Mason and McKinstry-Brown together, Sophia and Lucia, who both attend St. Philip Neri Catholic School, remain nonplussed about what their father and mother do for a living. When asked what they think about their parents’ jobs, they shrug their shoulders.

“It’s funny,” remarks McKinstry-Brown. “It makes you realize how much your idea of normal is and how it’s shaped. Sophia’s asked a few times if everyone has a photograph on the back of a book. They’ve grown up going to a lot of readings. It’s their normal, and they’re very blasé about it.”

Indeed, rather than talk about their parents, the sisters are focused on Max’s affectionate antics and the next door neighbor’s puppy, which is staring plaintively into the living room window hoping to gain entry. “Don’t let the puppy in—we’ll never get rid of him!” exclaims McKinstry-Brown. The girls exchange mischievous glances as if trying to figure out how to get around this order without getting into trouble.

Each girl has a personality that mirrors one parent. Sophia, who sports a pixie cut and wears a t-shirt and shorts, is serious and introspective like her father. A Minecraft enthusiast, she loves the different worlds she can build. “There are so many things in it,” Sophia explains. “You can build absolutely anything. You can build a castle. I’ve gone really far.”

Lucia, despite being laid low with a cough, is outgoing like her mother and sprawls comfortably across the floor in a white sparkly dress. She loves to cook and is competitive with her sister in developing recipes. “Sophia likes gross stuff,” she observes with an impish grin before rattling off some of the ingredients for one of her sandwiches. “It had bread, yogurt, and chocolate sauce,” she recounts.

Even so, what Mason and McKinstry-Brown do for a living has influenced their daughters. At a young age, the sisters set up poetry slams, performing to audiences of stuffed animals seated around the living room couch. Sophia is interested in writing a children’s book with her mother titled Max at the Window, which would imagine the family pet’s fanciful daydreams while the the girls are at school. “I was thinking that for ‘about the author’ we should put something about Max and put glasses on him for his photo,” she suggests.

While the girls may not always be aware of the challenges facing full-time poets, Mason is keenly so, indicating they’ve just returned from Disneyland. “It was our first real family vacation,” he says. “You look at how everyone lives very different lives from us, and there is a certain attraction to that.”

“Like everyone else, it’s figuring out what’s sustainable,” McKinstry-Brown adds. “It’s more challenging because of the path we’ve chosen. The girls have given us so much of our art and how we see the world. They have given us so much insight. I’m really, really proud of us.”

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