I am not, what you would call, outdoorsy. But chaperones can’t be choosy.
[N]oticing… is required to know the landscape. – Anna Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World
I am astonished in my teaching to find how many poets are nearly blind to the physical world. – Linda Gregg, “The Art of Finding”
Residents of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex can’t be too choosy if they want to experience nature. The metropolitan area spans over 9,000 square miles of urban sprawl with 7.5 million people (fourth most in the U.S.) crammed into almost every inch of that space. I grew up amidst this sprawl and then, 25 years later, began teaching a new generation born of concrete. We are people connected not by the land itself but by the many intersecting highways snaking throughout. From above, the city is beautiful—awe-inspiring, maybe—a garden of indiscriminate lights proving fruitful the march of progress. However, as an instructor at a little private school in Lewisville, Texas, a city of 100,000 or so in the greater metropolis, my goal was not to attune my students to the city streets that raised them but to the trees and grass perhaps hidden beyond that pavement.
Over the course of the school year, our principal threatened many times that she wanted to “get these kids outside!” She had recently returned from a trip to the Sahara Desert, and now, whenever she got the chance, she bemoaned how unattached we all were from our environment. Several times, she told me, “You must visit Africa” to better understand my culture, but I hadn’t the heart to tell her that I hadn’t the slightest idea which of those arbitrarily drawn borders contained my family lineage. She could easily track her more recently and electively immigrated roots back to the region and, as the owner of the school, with an anesthesiologist for a husband, could afford to send her children to find themselves in Morocco.
Me, I simply nodded along as she talked about the wide, wild desert as it unfolded from the backs of their rented camels. Likely, I imagined Aladdin, my closest point of reference. “Our students should get to know this area like they do in Morocco,” she’d say. “The public schools aren’t getting them outdoors, but we can!” Eventually, she followed up on her threat. Early in May, the teachers were handing out permission slips for a weekend camping trip to Lake Lewisville, approximately 30 miles north of Dallas but just a few miles from our school.
I don’t know what it means to ‘know this landscape,’ and yet I can’t deny that I am made of it.
I had been all over this metroplex, lived and worked in many of its ever-expanding suburbs, and so believed myself intimately familiar with its landscapes. However, I had never gone camping here or anywhere. In her essay, “The Art of Finding,” poet Linda Gregg asserts that she is “made of” the landscape where she grew up, meaning, in her case, her father’s “uninhabited mountain… with the live oak trees, the stillness, the tall grass, the dry smell of the hot summer air where the red-tailed hawks turned slowly up high.” By that metric, I am made of my father’s driveway with its broken South Dallas concrete, telephone poles with basketball sneakers hanging over telephone wires in the hot and humid air, and roadkill raccoons with outstretched arms animated only by North Texas winds. It is easy to become blind to this space with its industrious skyscrapers rather than, say, majestic redwoods. These impressive feats of human engineering quickly become commonplace if you walk those streets constant enough and drunk enough. Still, I felt at home here. I delighted in riding the light rail into the city, then hopping buses as we moved from one air-conditioned bar to the next. I am not, what you would call, outdoorsy. But chaperones can’t be choosy.
And so, I found myself pitching tents at a campsite near Lake Lewisville. Thankfully, I was not expected to camp myself—only to help set up, monitor kids until nightfall, and then return in the morning to monitor kids until teardown. Although, since we were only a short drive away from the school and their homes, it’s hard to call what the students were doing “camping,” tents notwithstanding. The principal and her children slept in an RV which loomed over the tents with all the might of industry. All hail the Winnebago, Grand Duke of Machinery.
We could see our cars from the parking lot which ran right up to the edge of the campsites. When we arrived, the principal shoved an envelope of cash into a metal box that allowed her, me, and Christina, the other unlucky young teacher chosen as chaperone, to park our cars without harassment from the park manager. Cars trickled in and out all evening long, with a few other groups setting up tents for the night and many more driving in for a quick picnic.
Neither Christina nor I had ever set up a tent before, and so we flipped through instructions which read like hieroglyphics until, eventually, we just told the students to turn it into an engineering challenge. “Figure out where these poles go, and you win a candy bar,” she told them. I nodded behind her. Prior to her command, one of the students remarked that the tent pole, when unassembled, looked like “a really long nunchuck,” and sure enough, he dragged the long, threaded stick behind him, trying to whack his brother with the end. After Christina made it a challenge, however, the students set to studying the instructions, bickering with one another about how they interpreted particular images.
“You’re supposed to put the long nunchuck on the top of the tent!” a student said as he laid it atop the sad, wilted tent body splayed on the grass. Every now and then, the tent lifted with the ever-present North Texas wind, and so a student, frustrated by the actual engineering part of the task, elected himself in charge of sitting on it so that it wouldn’t fly away.
Eventually, the students gave the tent shape and stability. The class clown delighted in hammering the stakes into the ground, swinging with all the force of John Henry racing the machine. Christina and I winced as we watched, but thankfully, he spared his own fingers. Even with the tent raised, this was more a mirage of camping, what we knew from Very Special Episodes of sitcoms in which the characters left the set and told stories around a campfire. Later in the evening, however, we’d tell stories around the charcoal grill, a workaround to the perpetual burn bans in North Texas.
The hot, sticky moisture and the itchy brush of tall grass reminded me why I hated the romantic poets.
I don’t know what it means to “know this landscape,” and yet I can’t deny that I am made of it. Not any African country from which some great ancestor was stolen nor its vast, wild deserts. No, I am composed of the municipal water drawn from the lake where we camped. Lake Lewisville became a water supply for Dallas in the late 1950s, almost 40 years before my parents moved to the area. It remains one of the six reservoirs from which Dallas, and its surrounding cities and suburbs, sources its drinking water. I have lived in the city itself and several of its suburbs, and up to that point, I had lived nowhere else. Our bodies are 70 percent water, and I have spent most of my life drinking from Lake Lewisville.
In 2015, the Lake Lewisville Dam became the subject of national attention when record-breaking spring rainfall turned the dam from the Army Corps of Engineer’s eighth-most-hazardous in the country to “critically near failure,” according to the Fort Worth District. 431,000 people were in the potential flood path, our school included. The local news—print, online, radio, and television—gave regular updates on the status of the Lewisville Dam, warning us it could burst any minute, but TheDallas Morning News’s report, “The Dam Called Trouble,” provided graphics which haunted my commute—a map of that beautifully sprawled city stained with a blood red key indicating the possible floodway. Seepage under the dam’s foundation had created what the reporters called a “sand boil,” which “looked like a small whirlpool spinning and spouting from underground.” This whirlpool, if unpatched, could lead to rupture.
I couldn’t help but envision the flood in biblical proportions. Every weekday, I drove over the bridge that separated my home, just north of the lake, to the little school that would be swept up in the tsunami-like wave. We—the unchoosy residents of the metroplex—all continued forth, driving down I-35 as if it couldn’t someday become the highway to Atlantis. Such is the call of the urban landscape that even when faced with apocalyptic precarity, the mechanisms of capital turn ever onward.
So, camping just a little over five months after TheDallas Morning News broke the news of our breaking dam, I stood at the banks of that potential-apocalypse, disturbing its still water with stones found along the shoreline.
The campsite was up a hill, a few feet behind us. Looking down, our principal must’ve watched as her students became one with the water from which they were made. If she were the smiling type, she might’ve grinned. The middle schoolers ran all around, disturbing the water with the bodies of smaller kids who could easily be tossed while still making a sizeable splash.
“What emerges in damaged landscapes,” asks Anna Tsing in The Mushroom at the End of the World, “beyond the call of industrial promise and ruin?” We do, I suppose. We become the places where we walk, work, and play. We become the water we drink. What we do after emerging, however, plagues my anxiety. Do we just become the fleshy tools of industry? The arbiters of ruin? As an educator, I’ve always thought my role was to teach students how to navigate this broken earth and—maybe—even help to mend it, though I’d preferred to do so indoors. Indeed, any teacher of language arts, at our most hopeful, might consider themselves a guide to damaged landscapes.
The lake water was brown and murky, the trash-littered beach washing inward. Still, our students splashed about as if we were at a waterpark. I trailed slowly about, making sure their play was wholesome and inclusive, and not mean-spirited. Most often, however, splashing meant a middle schooler had tossed a first-, second-, or third-grader into the ocean like I did rocks from the beach. As their guide, should I have informed them that the water, in which they played so violently would later be filtered through their sinks, ice machines, and toilets? Should I, as an older body molded from that water, have helped them find the poetry in that damaged landscape?
Of course, theory and practice are not always aligned. I never tried to teach the middle schoolers Linda Gregg’s “Art of Finding” because I once taught it to a high school class. I had the students close their eyes, put their heads down, and picture a memory that resonated with them. We sat aligned in a beige, brick-walled classroom that called to mind the dreariness of a run-down bed and breakfast. I paced about that boring room and asked the students, their faces buried in the crooks of folded arms, to imagine, say, your childhood bedroom.
“I am a child, Mr. Enfield!” a teenage voice shot up from a desk.
“When you were younger,” I told them. And not so hormonal, I thought to myself. Walk around the space, I instructed, what do you smell? what do you hear? how does the air feel? More than half the class fell asleep. When I asked the class, just moments later, to record what they experienced, the overwhelming response was that they couldn’t remember—neither their childhood homes nor what they had experienced just moments prior.
And so, no, that next morning when I returned to the campsite and the principal asked me to lead that class on a walk, I gave them no guide to navigating that broken space. I didn’t trust they’d take it seriously, but maybe I sold them short. Who knows what they might’ve realized with the right charge? They, after all, had figured out the tent.
I just wanted to get through the morning. The cloud of gnats, hovering in the trees along our path, reminded me why I preferred the concrete parts of these landscapes. And so, I watched as the students took off wild before me.
Perhaps something beyond industry and ruin could emerge from a damaged landscape if its residents could see that space like a poet, could conceive of it wholly, could find beauty in that city we sometimes want to escape.
A little way from the campsite, I noticed the five-year-old, the principal’s youngest who was also entrusted to my care, had set out in flip flops. His feet were stuck all over with thorns and stickers, though I was more bothered by the sight than he. He even giggled as he plucked them. Once the thorns were out, I hoisted him onto my shoulders and told him to reach for the sun. Soon, my back ached. The afflicting weight giggled overheard and wiggled as he maneuvered to point out birds beyond my field of view. Meanwhile, the rest of the hiking group ventured almost out of sight.
As their English teacher, was it my job to teach them the meanings of the words, “hold on, everybody”? I told the little guy upstairs, changing the curvature of my spine, to duck out of the way of branches and to stop putting leaves in my afro as I set off into the wilderness, searching for pre-teens. The hot, sticky moisture and the itchy brush of tall grass reminded me why I hated the romantic poets. Eliot was right. April is the cruelest month; May, a close second.
The pre-teens emerged from the thickets of woods, bearing sticks and physically bringing each other closer to nature over and over again. We were at the site of potential ruin, as I could have helped them see. Notice here: seepage into the ground, water building up and applying pressure to the dam a few months away from the patch job that would further delay disaster. Notice here: the 90-degree day in the middle of May, leading its way into another summer of record-breaking heat. Notice here: the five-year-old shouted, “Squirrel!” and the students all sprinted after nature. Their teacher trailed behind, distracted briefly from ruin as we made our way back toward the parking lot. Truthfully, we were never that far away, but enough trees can obscure anything. A car drove slowly past.
I averted my attention back to the students, then retreating from the road back to the woods, and set the five-year-old down because he spotted a ladybug. Where does the give-and-take of landscape and bodies begin? Where does it end? Typically, a camping trip is supposed to provide an escape from the humdrum of urban living. Campers claim to be rejuvenated by the fresh air and whatnot, and here we were with tents pitched just a few miles from I-35, pollution coloring the sky with shades of candy corn. If we do emerge from our landscapes, then camping near the city’s reservoir is like returning to the womb. Re-emerging, then, would confuse more than rejuvenate. I understand why the principal chose this reservoir though, as absurd as a façade of nature as it was; there’s justification alone in making sure the students didn’t grow up to be another 25-year-old city slicker who couldn’t pitch a tent, and yet still, I thought we were teaching our students to notice the wrong aspects of our environment.
Our environment isn’t an uninhabited mountainside with lush and tranquil vistas. Getting to know this landscape, instead, is to contend with the ways in which we’ve forever altered it. We have no ancestral land, no countryside. This kind of camping, then, teaches us that the so-called natural world is something separate from the environment that we call home when, in truth, those divides are as fragile as our troubled dam. Perhaps something beyond industry and ruin could emerge from a damaged landscape if its residents could see that space like a poet, could conceive of it wholly, could find beauty in that city we sometimes want to escape.
America’s is a restless and rootless history. Someday, I would leave Dallas. Yet I notice how quickly I still call it “home,” though home has never been easily defined in this country. It’s not that I love Dallas or even that my immediate family still lives within its sprawl, but that the memories made there follow me like the ancestors I claim to lack. As a Black man, I know that if the dam broke, even that biblical flood could not level this country; the rich suburbs would just turn the flood path into a community pool. But also, as a Black man, I’ve learned from other Black Americans how to salvage a landscape in which the governing powers actively disrupt your belonging. “maybe ain’t no home,” writes poet Nate Marshall, “except for how your beloveds cuss or pray or pronounce.” Rootless, maybe, but resourceful—we find ways to love our landscapes through our people.
There, beside me at the campsite, the five-year-old sticks his finger in the dirt. His back is bent, with his knees tucked under, and his gaze is transfixed by a ladybug, cooing at it as if it were a cat. Eventually, though, it spirals up his finger, and he arches slightly to hold it up in the sunlight.
Two decades prior, I hunched atop the cracked concrete leading up to my childhood home in the city proper. Eyelashes brushing the dirt off the pavement, I used my fingertips to scoop roly polies out of the driveway’s trenches. Behind me, my sisters combed the concrete for bugs of their own. I smiled whenever one curled onto my fingertip and held the bug up for my sisters to see. “Look, Mr. Sean,” the five-year-old exclaimed as the ladybug took flight from his finger and into the air.
Lewisville dam has yet to break. It retains its water. The city has pledged $150 million, over an eight- to ten-year timespan, for repairs which would—hopefully—mitigate potential ruin. Though whenever the city suffers abnormal rainfall, the local news ponders if maybe this time the dam will break. For the time being, I hoist the five-year-old back onto my shoulder, steer the adventuring pre-teens back toward the campsite, and wonder what weight might someday replace existential ruin.
Sean Enfield is a writer and educator from Dallas, Texas and recently received his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. His work has been published in or is forthcoming
in Hayden’s Ferry, Tahoma Literary Review, and The Rumpus, among others, and he was the 2020 recipient of the Fourth Genre’s Steinberg Memorial Essay Prize. Currently, Sean tends to a community garden in the golden heart of Alaska. His work can be found at seanenfield.com.
Header photo of Lewisville Lake by MaryAnne Campbell, courtesy Shutterstock.