Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Of Cherry Blossoms, Horse Pastures and Fish Eggs

I grew up in what I realize now was an unusual housing situation. Not because I lived with my mom after my dad left -- lots of kids experienced that, especially in the 70s -- but because I lived in one of six four-plexes built off a dirt road on a ranch in Tacoma, Washington.

Furthermore, the units were filled with single moms raising their kids in this loosely dependent little community -- because the landlords were rancher-jewelers with tremendously good hearts and wanted these moms and kids to be able to afford to live.

Most of the kids were boys. For five years (maybe more?) my best friends were these boys. I had best little girlfriends at school with whom I coordinated dress-wearing and Leia buns so we could play Star Wars on the playground, but at home I was all about ripped jeans, ratty tennies, a hooded sweatshirt, and pitch in my hair.

My afternoons and weekends were spent climbing the fir trees that lined Pipeline Road, tree sap gumming my braids and my fingers, as the boys and I raced to the tops, higher than the power lines. I'd go in at dark, smelling of bark and needles and dirt. I'd also smell of dust and hay and machinery oil.

The landlords had a barn. They kept a few horses that roamed the hillsides fenced strategically around the backs of our four-plexes, and we were free to roam the fields since the horses never seemed to mind us, chomping lazily uphill from us, silent as sedated patrons in a cocktail lounge.

We'd run through the fields, breathless and dusty, tripping on mounds and holes in the uneven earth, rolling in the weeds -- dandelions, daisies, thistles -- alternately tumbling out of our falls like expert gymnasts, or flying and landing flat as pancakes, stunned by the hardness of the ground and the sense of our internal organs flattening into mush in the shells that were our bodies.

Once, at one of my younger points in the fields, I ran through a patch of the most lovely green and furry looking bushes I'd ever seen. It was a hot summer day and I was sure they'd cool me, refresh me, like cherry blossoms on thick branches in the spring, like deep puddles I could ride my bike through in the fall. In fact, I convinced my visiting cousins to run through with me, and, yes, of course you already know this: they were nettles. They were biting, stinging, piercing nettles that lit every inch of our bare skin on fire, which was a lot, since we were in shorts and t-shirts. We ran down the hillside ablaze, only to find no real cure at home, except maybe a skin-washing. I had to just sit around and feel it, along with my cousins' piercing scowls.

That's what Earth Day is to me. It's that reminder that we should be outdoors, getting into mischief with our friends. Feeling the sun, the sap, even the nettles on our skin. Viewing the world from treetops, hilltops and barns.

I've barely mentioned the barn.

Our landlords used to let us roam freely among the oily, dusty machinery and crates, stored for decades in their big red barn. We could hide, climb, creak around on the ground floor or in the loft, cobwebs stretching sticky across our foreheads, stamping horses snorting warm breath up our way when we'd lower straw into their troughs.

Earth Day is all those senses and more. It's community and discovery and time and curiosity and dreaming and play. It's what I hope my kids have when I open the storage shed and let them grab rakes and shovels and trowels, and set them to digging along the side of the house -- between the grape vines and our neighbors' flowering pear tree. I want them to dig in their half-inch increments, discovering clay-rich soil, perfect for carving out army trenches, moon craters, and a route to China. I love hearing them out there at 7 a.m. on a Saturday, their first thought not having gone to cartoons and TV (because we don't have that) but to what in the world were they going to discover that day. Their voices are husky, rushed, companionable: "You dig there and I'll dig here! Let's see if we can make our tunnels meet!" And the scraping, scratching, toiling begins.

It's why I want my son to come limping in after he's discovered a certain kind of branch is too weak after he's fallen from up high in the cherry blossoms, onto the wood fence and into the neighbor's yard. Of course I don't want injury. And I don't want unnecessary risk. But I do want exploration and discovery, and a kinetic understanding of nature. The more you figure out, the more you've been in it, the more you feel at home in it.

Which leads, of course, to taking care of it. It means understanding we should walk or bike to school and all other nearby destinations, not polluting the air with exhaust, not digging up mountainsides for coal, or drilling coastal reefs never before touched by human hands. It means turning off lights and machines when not using them -- and using them less by being outdoors -- so we can dam fewer rivers, allowing ancient (yes, ancient) species of salmon to make their ancient treks from ocean to river source as their ancestors have done before them.

When I think of those salmon, I think of my children, who started as little fish babies in my womb. I want them to take the treks I've taken, and our ancestors before us have taken: the romps in the fields, the swims in clean rivers, the falls from tall trees. I want them to come into shelter at night, smelling of earth and air and bark, layered in grime and sweat and cherry blossoms, and live like they care about everything that exists on this planet.


Anonymous said...

Very nice post, Anj. Growing up on a farm I feel much the same way. Really enjoyed it. I think Ashland is a very nice fit that way. We are feeling the same way about where we are in Spokane. Hope all's well.


KUrlie said...

You're totally raising your kids to appreciate our world and environment - they love being in it everyday, and are both very thoughtful regarding their impact on it. It's so good to see this philosophy pass onto next generations. It gives them increased awareness and sets them up to make such better choices than we and those before us made. Awesome - hope today is loads of fun!

Anonymous said...

Anjie! I am so not a reader.... I wish I was but I am not. I have a hard time finding books that keep my attention. I get all excited about a book and 2 chapters in I am lost and either need to start over or toss it aside. But I LOVE to read your writings. Your blogs. When you write your first book, be sure to send me a copy! I know it will hold my attention!
Oh, and I know living with just one parent wasn't ideal but your life on the farm sounds fantastic. I wanted to be there!

Anonymous said...

Beautiful expressions, Anj...I could smell the dirt, hay, horses.
I loved the pictures you used. I just spent three afternoons digging away. Love being outside.

PS I't buy a copy of your fiest book too. Get crackin'

Shanana said...

Thank you for your beautifully articulated sentiments and vivid childhood memories.

Great post!

Cyrus and Annie said...

Have you ever wondered what people have against taking care of and not wasting our beautiful earth? I do.