*Photo taken in Devil’s Postpile National Park in California.
I grew up a child of nature. As young as two I would be left to my own devices outdoors, back in the 1970s when it was still considered acceptable for children to play alone outside. Maybe it was unwise of my parents to send me outside for hours on my own, but I never felt any fear about it. To me, the grassy yards of my childhood were a wonderland of activity, and kept me very busy. One of my early memories occurred in the back yard of an apartment building in Hamburg, NY, a suburb of Buffalo, and I distinctly remember one day opening the heavy steel door, through which I had passed so many times, to discover a miraculous transformation. The cement pad outside the door, a sort of square well which often filled with rain, was alive. Caterpillars crawled over literally every inch of the surface of the cement, their brown bodies wriggling like a living carpet. I was utterly fascinated by this sudden appearance of the creatures on my doorstep (because even though the building housed several apartments, few others ever used the back door, so I claimed it as my own). Where did they come from? Why were they there? The mystery remains, well over 40 years later. I don’t know how long they stayed. Only the filter of that miraculous moment remains: opening the door like a curtain to reveal that astonishing revelry of life burgeoning, beckoning me to come out to witness their departure. The oddness of their transit as they scrunched and stretched upon eraser-like stubby feet caused me to watch a long time. Later I learned they were wooly bears, and I recall stroking their backs in wonder at the softness as they undulated toward the grass.
For as long as I have been alive, I can remember being in love with the earth, even when I moved to cities for a time. Countless hours of my life have been spent lollygagging in the grass, digging in dirt, scrambling over immense rocks, climbing trees, splashing in streams, wandering through forests, watching clouds, enjoying storms, and eating the green things that grew in my yard. As children, my playmates and I would adventure the yards in a grand discovery of what was good to eat or do. We tasted the sweet ends of tall fronds of grass, plucked carefully from the crook of the stem, and the gentle sourness of clover when it’s young and bright. We found the touch-me-nots in summer to be an endless joy, the jewel weed bushes which grew on the property line of our Fillmore, NY home would produce fat seed pouches which would spring open when squeezed. It was like a game to pinch them and laugh as the seed pods would roll backward into curls after releasing the seed as a projectile. Even as a teen I loved the outdoors still—at a time when many youth my age were far more excited by MTV and experimenting with drugs and alcohol, I was terminally geeky and read books and played D&D—my brother and I often went to the park around the corner from our house, spent hours outside riding bikes or playing badminton, and we still sought out animal life to observe like self-appointed scientists.
Those were the early days of my teen years, and they didn’t last. I was riddled with misery as I aged, very self-absorbed, and quite depressed. I hated the town where I lived, school gave me stomach aches, and I became obsessed with fantasy as an escape. I thought I wanted to live in cities to experience all the fun of things to do in those hives devoid of wild magic, thinking perhaps that I would find some other kind of magic in its place. So I spent my college years testing out the life of a city girl. Eventually I came to realize the city didn’t nurture my true self, the child who grew up wandering barefoot outside, camping in several states and many places in Canada, and visiting state parks often for fun in all seasons. Still, even while I lived in the city, nature didn’t leave me completely. I remember living in Savannah, Georgia and being distressed by the lack of ability to see the stars. Even though Olean was a city, you could still see a few stars bright enough to compete with the street light pollution. And I will never forget living in a townhouse where I rented a room with a lovely balcony screened by a gigantic live oak tree. I used to relish sitting on that porch from my perch above the street, a sort of tree house away from the world. One day I came home to the scene of what felt like a murder: my beautiful old friend, that elderly, wizened oak was being cut down. I still can’t help but think of cutting trees with that same sense of utter loss for its life. To me they are sentient organisms, and I have felt so since I was young. Everywhere I go, I find at least one tree I grow particularly fond of, like a unique tree in Olean by the river where a trail meets the dikes. The tree there is an old, gnarled oak so massive that it would probably be difficult for two long-armed adults to touch hands around the trunk. I know I’m not the only person who feels this way about trees or animals, but few people will admit it out loud.
Wherever I lived as a child, my family always did two things: planted gardens in the yard, and frequented the nearby parks. I remember many of the homes where we lived through the lens of vegetation that grew on the property, and then by extension I grew to know the nearby state parks as friendly neighbors we would visit regularly. What comes to mind are the open, sunny grasses surrounding the apartment buildings in Hamburg, and the rough scratchy sensation of the crab grass on my skin. It usually left red marks on my arms and legs when I went out to play. Our home on Highview Parkway in Hamburg reminds me of the pale lavender and yellow bearded irises. They smelled faintly sweet, and fuzzy bumblebees would lazily enter the inner sanctum of the massive blooms, their heads weaving in the breeze. The bees would silence themselves during the reverent gathering of pollen, their legs rubbing the yellow fronds of the stamens, and then maneuvered out to the opening of the blossom as if standing on an extended tongue touching a chin, then once again taking to the air in a slow, meandering pattern. Our Fillmore home was my favorite yard, and it still saddens me that after we moved the entire yard was bulldozed in order to put in a new sewer system. For years I learned to love that yard, with the delicate dogwood at the edge of the flagstone courtyard, the forked birch at the center of a triangular field of ivy, the jack-in-the-pulpits beneath the birch, the orange spotted tiger lilies as tall as my child’s height where they grew next to the stacked stone wall, the pine tree taller than my house which became my first teacher in overcoming fear of heights, the patch of rhubarb under the log fence, the patch of raspberries behind the barn where the dark pink berries would grow as big as my thumbs, the vegetable garden where my brother and I often snacked on green beans or tomatoes or peas, and then finally the apple tree where I was first stung by a yellow jacket as I picked up a fallen apple in the grass. Other things, splendid and scary, happened in that apple tree, too.
My father attempted to build me a tree house in that tree, but it was a terrible disappointment to me. He labored to place several boards across a pair of branches, boards he retrieved from the barn, possibly as old as the barn itself, and then placed several smaller slats up the trunk so I could climb up to the crooked platform. Because the “fort” was so disappointing, I didn’t spend much time up there, which probably disappointed my father in turn, but I don’t remember him saying anything about it. What I had wanted was more of a house with a roof and windows, a protected place which could offer privacy, much like the balcony I so enjoyed in Savannah. Instead I got a platform which only served to sit me up in the low branches of the old tree, quite visible from all sides. Later my cousin came to visit and we ventured up to the treehouse, where I had left a few items long forgotten. She upended a container and out skittered a large-eyed field mouse that scared me more than it should have, but I believe now that I learned a fear of mice from my mother, who often got upset about them getting into the house. Still, that apple tree produced more apples than we ever used, many of which hung from the upper branches unpicked, and then would later fall, rotten, to the ground. It seems a waste to think of it now, and I thought it even as a child. With a bit of resourcefulness, we could have learned how to nurture the tree to help the fruit to grow healthier, and then we could have either sold or shared the apples with our neighbors. It would have been a bounty for anyone who wanted them, and I’m sorry I didn’t think of it back then, for the tree is long gone and its days of bearing usefulness of any kind are far in the past.
After Fillmore, our first Olean house had a comparatively small yard dominated by forsythia bushes in back, and ugly evergreens in front. My mother planted tulips under the evergreens. Two old cedar trees grew right behind the house and were easy to climb up to the roof which allowed us entrance through the window of the bathroom. Whenever we were locked out (which wasn’t often—we usually didn’t bother to lock the doors back then), my brother or I would climb one of the trees and open the window to gain entry to the house. In each of these homes comes also a wash of memories of all the parks we frequented. In Hamburg, we visited Chestnut Ridge, where I remember one particular day of sledding, hot cocoa, and a warm fire at a lodge with a large group of families. Deep in my memories I can recall picnics there in warmer weather, but I was young then, and the memories are dim. In Fillmore, we drove to Letchworth, by far my favorite of any state park I ever visited, a utopia of natural beauty and history. I loved Letchworth, and came to know it almost as well as my own back yard. It was filled with the sweetness of playing in cool creeks with our pants rolled up, our shoes and socks tossed on the bank; of wandering the paths next to the rushing river which fed the misty set of falls; enjoying picnics at Wolf Creek, which was my favorite place of all because of the cascading falls and the footpath nearby; on special occasions eating at the fancy Glen Iris Inn and watching the fountain at the pond; being thrilled and terrified by the dizzying depths of the massive gorges; and dreaming about the history behind the old cabins of the Seneca Tribal Council and Mary Jemison (a hero to me), or the museum which still houses the bones of a mastodon which was originally dug from the ground of a nearby farm in Pike, NY. When we lived in Olean, we went to Allegany State Park, and typically picnicked near either Red House or Quaker Lake, where we could either swim or canoe. Lots of spots at the park became sites of family events like birthdays or weddings. The stone tower, Thunder Rocks, and the various trails all became frequent places to explore.
So much of the natural world informed my spirit about how to be a good human. Without ever meaning to, I fell in love with the trees, who became my staunch and reliable protectors. I fell in love with the food I could pluck from the gardens, nourishing me when I was peckish. I fell in love with the blossoms which rose up mysteriously, but without fail, every season, often scenting the air with perfume both heavy and light. I fell in love with thunder storms crackling across the hills, pouring sheets of hammering water on everything it touched, and left the clean fragrance of ozone and hot earth in their wake. I fell in love with waterways where they swirled both rapid and lazy, clear and cool over stony beds full of secretive gray crayfish, darting silver minnows, awkwardly graceful frogs, and darkly elegant snakes. I learned how to skip stones on the streams of Western New York. My body remembers all the seasons, embedded in my cells which are still informed by the redolence of coming weather on the breeze, the color of the sky, the rise and fall of the sun’s hours of the day. When the wind barrels through the woods, I still feel excited, as if in expectation of something spectacular about to happen. The damp, mineral-heavy aroma of lichen-spotted boulders still fills me with a sense of adventure. A path leading into the woods always tugs me forward with a desire to discover where it will lead.
My heart is magnetized by love for this earth. Mary Oliver has just reminded me of it more desperately, more deeply, along with several Ted Talks about climate change and oceanic health. Once I became a mother, I did my best to gingerly open my palms to gift to my children the same serene pleasure of exploring outdoors. We walked daily and often visited nearby playgrounds, sometimes walking along the river or having meals outside. We went camping nearly every summer, many times returning to Fish Creek Pond in the Adirondacks, usually a whole week in which we parents insisted they put down the electronics and enjoy the woods and rivers and ponds. Those days were glorious love affairs of pine-scented walks, hushed canoe rides in the unspoiled wilderness, and reading in a hammock tied between two trees. We played cards in a screenhouse erected over the picnic table or later in the camper my parents bought, and toasted marshmallows over a roaring fire my brother often enjoyed building. As my son got older, he developed a love for building a good fire, too. Stars glittered in a vast light show overhead, a reminder of our remoteness in the rapidly spinning galaxy. I did my best to water the germinated seeds of love for the earth in the hearts of my children, but only time will reveal whether or not I succeeded. My son, at least, seems to appreciate the wilderness. He has always been a willing camper, even joining his step father and I for a backpacking trip once. I hope to do it many more times while my body allows it. My daughter, sadly, seems less enamored with outdoor interests, and is far more content to live her life indoors. But when I was her age, I was somewhat like that, too. At that age I was convinced I was more interested in what excitement cities had to offer, until I finally came back to the center of my compass of the natural, wild world again. Maybe she will, too.
Within the starry nights, the sun-studded afternoons, the fog-shrouded mornings, or the purple-hued evenings, our bodies have a way of remembering our legacy. If we give ourselves time to sit, walk, or paddle within the wild places, the green spaces, that dormant love can be rekindled, even after generations of life in tall buildings which battle the wildness tooth and nail. The fire of old memories from our ancestors can light up pathways in our biology like a trail of gasoline touched by a match. Is it the mitochondria at work? I don’t know, but some ancient knowledge still chants deep in our physical forms, hidden in the ladders of our DNA and waiting to be unlatched from its moors. Release the river of your love if you can. Look at the quality of the sunlight while you walk from your car to the door: is it the wan light of late autumn or the hopeful energy of lime-green spring? Is summer filtering leafy patterns on the path ahead, or is winter creating a cross-hatch of branches over the road? Be present. Cultivate your awareness of the aroma swiftly carried from far places, the scent of rain or snow, the encroachment of grass at the edge of the driveway, or the unexpected and sudden flourish of the yard popping with colors overnight. Notice the wildness of nature rushing against you, nudging like a cat against your leg as you open the door. The earth suffers us unconditionally; our symbiosis, however, is temporary. At any moment, earth can deliver herself of us entirely if she wishes, and we would have little to say or do about it.
Volcanoes, floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, tidal waves, forest fires, draughts—any of these choices are hers to employ, and despite our tyranny on her oceans, forests, rivers, lakes, ice floes, and alpine spaces, she endures us with patience. For how long is uncertain now. She has been warning us for a while that the balance is upset. The animals rush up to heaven and down into the depths of the soil with rapid and frightening numbers of merciless extinction. Garbage even fills the space surrounding the planet, floating in the finite gravity of earth’s orbit and becoming a hazard to the eventual hope of expansion to new worlds, if we ever get the chance. We who still love the earth can still use our voices, our pens, and our hands to communicate this love to the rest of humanity. Do not wait to balloon with boldness; it isn’t boldness that will reach out with a golden finger of perspective or trust. Rather, nurture the wildness of your heart, the crisp apple of your youth, the rich amber sap on your hands, the dirt and grass on your knees, even the burrs on your jacket when you returned from your adventures in the yard, the park, the forest, the desert, the field. Let it enter through your throat and thunder in your chest. Climb the lofty branches of your childhood and sway in the height of your mastery, from the security of the branch, that tree which lovingly supported your weight and made you fearless. Give that to the people you know. Carry them in your boat in the silent slip of waterways. Walk with them under the open skies of birds. Bring them to see the curious rock cairns carefully stacked by willing hands which love the paths into the wild as much as you. Let the wildness spring from your eyes when your heart melts for what you see and know is disappearing. You are the messenger of love now. Be a good missionary of nature’s temple, go forth with flowers as gifts, and watch the joy blossom on the faces you love.