A grandfather teaches his granddaughter of nature's delicacy with a poem about sea otters.
After walking hand in hand along a half-mile trail, Gabby and her grandfather arrived at the neighborhood pond. Oval in shape and of considerable size, residents of rural Ruby Falls visited daily. Dawn and dusk were the more popular times except on Saturday and Sunday when the early afternoons prevailed. Citizens either walked the elliptical path around it, picnicked on the green bank sloped toward it, rested on the benches beside it, or nourished the ducks who swam it. On weekends, no one visited more often than Gabby and Grandpa Daniels. Each had unsuccessfully tried to skip flat stones across it. Grandpa Daniels came closest. He sidearmed one that took flight seven times before it disappeared to the bottom among pebbles and grasses only feet from shore.
From their green wooden bench, the water shimmered in late afternoon light. Fiery red maple trees lit up the opposite side of the pond, and red leaves drifted across the water's surface. Some of the leaves stopped against yellowish-green lily pads near shore. Earlier, a line of thunderstorms moved through and left behind not only soft blue sky but exceedingly fresh air as well. Gabby, who was nine, often came alive with questions at the pond. “Where does fresh air come from, Grandpa?” she asked.
The grandfather hesitated several seconds before he replied with his own question. “Have you learned about Odin the Otter yet?”
“Odin the Otter?”
“Or Yelden the Olden?” he continued.
“What are you talking about, Grandpa?” Gabby felt the pull of wool over her eyes. Her grandfather would often do just that.
“Or Odin's good wife, Miah, or his son Jedidiah, or the daughter of the otter,” and here he paused until completing the long question with, “Jambaliah?”
“You're making this up, right?”
“No, I am not making it up,” he insisted. “They live in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Washington.”
Gabby raised her hand waving it in the air. “I know where Washington is!”
“In the far northwest, a long ways from Tennessee!”
“So school has discovered Washington for you, but nothing of Odin?”
“I guess not.”
“Well, maybe I shouldn't teach you about him either.”
“No, Grandpa! I want to learn about Odin.” Her crossed ankles swung beneath the bench.
“I see. Have you studied photosynthesis yet?” The timing of the question could not have been any more perfect. The prior week, Gabby's fourth grade class at St. Anne had their first science lesson on the subject.
“Mrs. Anz just started teaching us about it.”
A flock of geese flew in above the treeline and strategically descended toward the pond. As their feet skimmed the top, white water splashed all around them until they came to rest. Then they drifted with the leaves. Gabby removed the green tie from a loaf of bread on her lap.
“So where does our oxygen come from?” asked Grandpa Daniels.
“From plants and trees.”
“And what do they need to make that happen?”
“Carbon dioxide, water, and sunlight.”
“Very good, Gabby!” He nodded his approval.
"What's this have to do with Odin?” she asked.
“Odin lives in a forest.”
She scrunched her brow slightly. “Sea otters live in the ocean, G-Pa, not in forests. Forests are on land!”
“Forests are in the ocean, too,” explained the grandfather .
“I knew you were making this up!”
“No, Biscuit, there are forests of kelp in the ocean.”
The students had not studied kelp forests yet. A puzzled look overcame Gabby's face. “What do you mean?”
She listened to her grandfather explain all about kelp. How columns of it grow along the Pacific coastline, thousands of gold-leafed poles that sway side by side in cold currents of filtered light. How each column begins attached to a rock on the seafloor and can grow two feet a day as long as sunlight penetrates the waves.
“And what might kelp do?” he asked.
“Release oxygen,” she answered.
“Yes. A great deal of it.”
A strong gust of wind rose from the north and sent ripples across the pond. The geese lifted off and disappeared over the treeline as more leaves swirled down. Low clouds began to roll in and block out the blue sky.
“But what does this have to do with Odin?” asked Gabby.
“Patience, my child, patience,” said Grandpa Daniels, mimicking W.C. Fields. They had recently watched one of the great comedian's pictures. “Otters refer to their forest canopy as the Golden — ”
“Otters can't talk, Grandpa!”
“And why's that?”
“Because they're animals!” she pointed out as a matter of fact.
“Oh, really. What about when Bosco wants to jump on your lap, doesn't he ask first?” Bosco was the family's black and white collie.
“Those are sounds Grandpa, not words.”
“May I continue with the canopy?”
“If you tell the truth. What's a canopy?”
“All the treetops together in a forest.” He continued, “In the Pacific it's the gold leaves of kelp floating on top of the water and the otters wrap themselves in it.”
“Well, they sleep like babies in the sun and don't want to drift away in swirling currents! Oh, and a mother wraps her pup in it while she hunts for food.”
Gabby wondered about the reliability of kelp. “Does it always hold them in place?”
“Good question. No. So guess what they do?”
“Sea otter families hold hands. That way, if they drift off, at least they're together.”
“That's it. I'm done listening! Otters don't hold hands.”
“Why, child, you cut me to the quick!” he said, this time sounding like the Wizard of Oz. “Maybe otters can't speak, but I assure you they do hold hands.”
“I don't know if I should believe you or not.”
“Just look up sea otters in the encyclopedia at home.”
After a pause in the conversation, she asked, “What does Odin look like?”
Grandpa Daniels pondered the question for a few seconds. “Well, he's the teddy bear of the ocean so he looks a lot like Papa Bear in the pool.” Gabby loved the small swimming pool her father set up in their backyard. One foot high boards framed the pool's circular sky-blue wall, and Mr. Daniels had shoveled soft sand beneath it. She often took her stuffed bear swimming. Papa Bear's grayish-white whiskers always got wet.
“Does Odin eat a lot?”
“Yes, very much. About one-fourth his weight a day.”
“How much does he weigh?”
“Around seventy-five pounds.”
“Wow! He must eat a lot each day.”
“He does, but it's what he eats that is important.”
The sun had dipped below the horizon, and the temperature followed in step with the autumn evening. Low strands of cloud turned pinkish-orange.
“Well, they like crabs, clams, and prawns, but their favorite food is the sea urchin.”
“What's a sea urchin?”
“He's purple and round, about the size of a tennis ball, and has spikes all over him.”
“How can they eat something with spikes?”
“Otters are very smart, Gabby. They use flat stones to crack open the urchins.”
She did not respond and instead chose to glare at him as if another part of the tale was being made up. Grandpa Daniels reacted to the look saying, “Just read your encyclopedia!” Then he shivered. Most of the leaves had drifted up against the bank to their far right. “It's getting a little cold, Biscuit. I think we better head for home.”
“But you didn't tell me why it's important what Odin eats.”
“You know what,” he said, standing, “I have a poem at home that will explain it all.”
“Who wrote it?”
“I'm not sure.”
“What's the name of it?”
The grandfather thought a few moments. “Let's see ... oh, yes ... Tale of the Juan de Fuca Strait!” He spoke it with a hint of pride, having recalled the title.
“What's the Juan de Fuca Strait?”
“It's a body of water between Washington and Canada and something heroic happened there.”
“The poem will explain all.”
“Come on, Grandpa!”
As they started down the pebbled path, he realized he would have to share some of the story. “All right. A group of otters swim up the Washington coast and enter the Juan de Fuca Strait to save a kelp forest. And guess who leads the way?”
“Along with ...?”
“Very good, young lady.”
“What do you mean, save the kelp forest?”
“Sounds like we need to read this poem.”
“Let's read it when we get home, Grandpa!”
“Well, Sweet Pea, dinner will be ready and I have some paperwork to go through after supper. Let's read it here in the morning.”
“All right,” she said, receptive to the idea. Gabby always enjoyed visiting the pond and feeding the ducks.
The rest of the way home, Grandpa Daniels heard all about his granddaughter outrunning Linda Birch at school the day before. Everyone considered Linda Birch to be the fastest girl at St. Anne; she could outrace several of the boys. He remained attentive as possible, nodding his head every so often. Other thoughts, however, occupied his mind; namely, the writing of a sea poem.