by Sarah Golden
In a suburb built on the bones of Apricot orchards, teasing distance from rolling hills of live oak, my mother tells stories of her childhood before the orchards were razed. She tells of the sharp-notched tin can on a broomstick that she and her brother picked the fruit with; how they collected snakes and robin eggs, built forts under pepper trees, trapped bees in hollyhocks, and listed constellations. When small, my brother and I conducted archeological digs in Grandma's garden, thrilled with our warped marble relics and shotgun shells, and mystified by these shards of evidence of a country childhood we couldn't properly imagine. Then, our mother's stories seemed remote; simply a version of the ten-mile walk to school. But she was undeniably alienated in our boxy house, and I could often catch her sad face fixed on a slant of autumn light or a gray squirrel, precarious on a wire.
Unable to imagine "the country," for me there was only one choice as I reached college age: The City. It reigned half an hour away, grand and glittering in its peaks and spires. Sometimes driving there at night, I'd blur my eyes and move into a liminal state, feeling the dense city-light calling my name. It was a sensual pull; magic would happen there, I was sure. I projected onto the city an authenticity I sensed life must hold, for in the suburbs my imagination lay fallow under the crushing blandness of malls and subdivisions. But in a more "authentic" context, I surmised, I would be initiated into the true pleasures and mysteries of life.
Finally, after a series of other cities, I came to be living in Dublin, Ireland, suffering the quivering of my "soul's sap." As I battled the depression brought on by endless dark days, and as we rounded the bend toward spring, I began to notice something. Each morning in January, as I walked toward St. Stephen's Green and crossed the canal, I could see the sun grimly rising down the muddy water to the east, and each afternoon, on my way back home, I could watch the bravely emitting sun slip back away. And then, as the season progressed, and the time between the two moments protracted, I began to repeat a little sustaining mantra to myself: "Today is the longest day of the year." Chanting for summer, in my own urban sun dance, I'd voice my mantra to friends, "Today is the longest day of the year!" And they'd look at me as if I were mad. But technically it was, so far, and I stuck to my guns.
Captive to the lengthening days, the buds and returning birds, I grew obsessed with this notion of longest, as though the perennial rite and riot of spring were freshly minted, worthy of superlatives. With the sun’s return, I was jolted awake by the novelty of the intrinsic. Might this be access to that authentic world of my childhood intuition? Nature’s insistence—unruly weeds rebelling in otherwise manicured parks, a feral cat thieving a dove's egg from the nest outside my downtown window—unharnessed my desire. "The longest day of the year" became code for my optimism and hope; a code for the beauty revealed between the lines of bitter human facts.
In the city, I began to see the value of my mother's country stories. Her childhood world, densely populated with the mess and magnificence of natural objects and events, stimulated the incalculable: gave her a power to turn what she saw into possibility and imagination, which is something the malls and houses-all-the-same had killed in me. Walking with my mother in the city or country is an exercise in patience. Everything fascinates her. She lingers constantly, naming and fingering weeds, pocketing stones and seeds and shards of slate; her grasp of geological formations and architecture is impressive and her categories of knowledge will always surpass mine; I fear I may never completely wash the suburban film from my eyes. But I try. And so for me, a generation away from my mother’s less mediated experience of life, the city became my laboratory for seeing; the country my "real thing.” When I learned to look, extra-human life in the city was mindfully and violently overflowing, just like in the country. The flock of downtown robins gorging on over ripe berries and stumbling drunk through my yard brought the same awe as the ground squirrel burrowing under my tent on the tundra. The joy and fascination I began to find in the minutiae of what unfolded against a backdrop of the mundane was the power and promise I sought as a child.
I live in a new city now, where the days lengthen more subtly. The park adjacent to my apartment is a wholly constructed maze of hundreds of imported plant species, including a redwood grove, and I daily walk among pigeons and herons there, occasionally stumbling upon a zoo-escapee in the form of a peacock or parrot, or that most invidious of immigrants, the starling. I ponder in my ambles the distinction between “wild” and “domestic;” and a whole history of human intervention and “improvements.” Sometimes a fat squirrel will race up to me, paws choir boy-crossed at his breast, begging a scrap of food, and I feel in that quickening moment of interspecies contact a tangle of emotions.
I recently saw a movie wherein a planet of giant arachnids threatened to wipe out the earth in response to our mindless destruction of their ecosystem. The huge bugs brutally attacked the arrogant human infantry sent in to destroy them, and it took me a moment to understand what I was finding so unnerving about the scene: animals don't attack us with malice, despite their justification in doing so. It is among animals that I often feel most safe and at home, albeit often guilty. Even when I carelessly drive my tent stake into a ground squirrel's larder, she whistles a bit, eyes me sideways, and hobbles off to excavate a back entrance.
Stumbling clumsily once into the danger zone between a black bear and her cub, I initially felt more thrilled by the photo opportunity than the requisite fear. I immediately checked my response, did all the appropriate things like making myself tall and cooing soothing conversation, and the two scurried into the brush. I can't help wondering if my response wasn't informed by a tradition of commodifying bears into cuddly toys, because when I found myself accidentally face to face with a coral snake in the Panamanian jungle, I was so paralyzed with fear that I was unable to do all the "appropriate things." I was hypnotized; caught in the evil gaze of the demonic serpent, my life surely leaking out of me with each thunderous beat of my heart. Teddy bear, and Satan himself: I seem pathetically unable to distinguish cultural representations of animals from my knowledge of their behaviors and relative dangers.
Animals however—in the country and the city—seem oblivious to my acculturated madness, and after a few days in their environment, the muffled voice of kinship between us grows louder. I worked once on a research vessel in the Bahamas, and each afternoon at about three, a pod of dolphins surrounded the boat, enjoining us to come play. We'd leap in to swim with the grinning, clacking group, and I remember palpably the gratitude I felt that they would deign to spend their time with us. I felt I carried with me all the crimes of my species, but that each afternoon at three I was absolved.
The work of reconciling my call to the wild with my workaday city life continues. Sometimes, lying in bed in my apartment, desperately burrowed under pillows to mitigate the cacophony of sirens and jackhammers and low flying jets, I marvel at the birds' insistence on singing. Are they oblivious to the noises that cause me such angst? Perhaps. But I can't believe it is only an acculturated response that I am tormented by "city noise" and charmed by birdsong. As Paul Fussell says, speaking of soldiers moved by larks at the front in World War I, "[The birds] were evidence that ecstasy was still an active motif in the universe." I stick to my guns. There are some phenomena more beautiful and more inspiring than others: rivers sound lovelier to me than freeways, larks more lyrical than bombs.
As a teenager, in order to sleep, I had to pretend that the roar from the major thoroughfare outside my window was the ocean. But that the urgent ululation of the ocean itself is a soothing lullaby across the oceans of culture, suggests a deeper consanguinity with the natural world, human and non-human, than we might suspect. One night an opossum climbed stealthily up the persimmon tree out my kitchen window and neatly devoured a fleshy orange globe, bathed her dripping chops and settled down for a snooze as the neighbors blasted Gloria Gaynor at their barbecue. When I opened the window to lean out and get a closer look, she sniffed blindly in my direction, (she was no more than three feet away) and then settled down again, her primitive heart blithely beating to 70's disco. I confess I felt more charitable towards her than towards the shrieking neighbors, but her composure did much to diffuse my irritation. If “city” and “wilderness” are conceived not as polar extremes, but rather as points on a continuum of how we both influence and receive the world, therein may lie the promise for a more sustainable and benevolent kind of human behavior. When we come to regard our intervention upon the natural world neither as evil fallings from grace nor as necessary improvements, we might begin to imagine ways of interacting with and experiencing nature that don’t alienate quite so much.
For, sadly, alienation isn’t limited to our species. One dawn I was awakened to a rhythmic knocking on the kitchen window, and arose to discover my backyard mockingbird smashing repeatedly into the glass on a crazed suicide mission. I taped up newspapers thinking he was attacking his reflection, but I shouldn't have sold him short-- he kept pounding there, and moved on to other windows. For 24 nerve-racking hours he bombarded every window in the house, including the bathroom skylight, and I huddled inside in Hitchcockian siege, terrified he would break his lovely neck. He didn't, and the momentary foray into "crime" or "drugs" (was it the pyrocantha berries he'd been steadily imbibing for days prior to his lunacy?) passed. He has now returned to his usual lookout atop the pepper tree, calm and noble as before his brief descent into madness, and I feel our bond all the stronger. I, too, often crash against what stands in my way, and then retreat exhausted to the stoicism that society requires. I love that bird more than I could ever love a dog that loved me. His display of passion and intent, his steadfastness not swayed by a biscuit, soothes my own restless soul.
The child who blurred her eyes on drives to San Francisco so that the light would envelop her, would take her in, has since been taken in by another, more permanent magic. The insistent rhythmic renewal that continues despite us; the accommodations that our fellow creatures make in the face of our well-intentioned bumbling, our very revolutions around the sun, write the poem I sought. For, a walk in a park or in the open country can be a poem. Finding a semblance of "truth" in the woods, we race home before the rush wears off to scribble it down, pen flailing, words failing, the heat up, the city homefire melting the little bits of Truth and snowflake that cling to the collar. I think the rhythm of spaces where we are only a part of the grander scheme is the rhythm we crave. And when these subtle flows creep in to what we obfuscate with our engines and hurry—i.e. the city—or when they are dulled by what we control and deaden—i.e. the suburbs—we crave them all the more. Our recognition of the familiar in wild things and wild things amongst the familiar, speaks of that poignant craving for simple moments of grace, and a hunger for the gorgeous, fleeting, universal patterns of life.
I recently received a survey from the National Parks Conservation Association, and was stopped short by one of the questions: Do you believe that in 25 years our National Parks will be a) better off than now, b) the same as now, or c) worse off than now.
How could I answer? Was I being asked to express the depth of my faith in my fellow man? Was I being asked to prognosticate or to state my own desire?
I thought of Edward Abbey, who believed that there should be no roads in parks; that the elderly had had their chance and that children would have theirs, and so only those who can walk in should have access. I thought of the bemused blond grizzly out my bus window in Denali. She wasn't much bothered by the bus, but the distance between us was too uneven; I shouldn’t have felt so safe so close. I am not cynical, and I would like to say that the sixty odd bird species we have nearly driven to extinction in our short stay on the continent doesn't count. But it counts, and the flow of our destruction doesn't falter; it flows ever oceanward.
In the end, I could only do all three: I have a muted faith in people to do what is good and right; I anticipate a future of struggle and destruction; and my desire is that all living things have the comfort and beauty of a spacious communal home. In the end, I could only answer "b) the same as now."
For what we have now is the eternal drive of the imagination to configure our humanity against a backdrop of horrors and of natural splendor: for every loss we suffer, there is the long awaited rain, the delight a backyard birdfeeder can bring, an osprey pressing red strips of flesh into her fledglings' red gullets atop a telephone pole, or our silent reverence in a forest cathedral, that make all of us believers.
Or, as my Alaskan hiking partner puts it when confronted by a scene of ineffable beauty, "It's good to be alive." My wish is that my mother's pockets, and her granddaughter's too, may continue to overflow with the bits and pieces of our complicated and cluttered world; that each day may unfold longer in wisdom than the day before it.
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