I have never in my adult life been what I think of as a Nature Girl. I hate camping, and anything that involves jumping across slimy stones in the middle of moving water while other people wait with increasing impatience. My role models, during my formative years, tended to be snarky urbanites like Woody Allen, Fran Lebowitz and Dorothy Parker. For a long time, it suited me to affect a kind of Urban Sophisticate persona so that the whole outdoors thing was simply out of the question. I liked unfiltered Camels, black clothing, oysters and indie films. I was not a person one would invite to spend a few days rappelling, spelunking, kayaking, or portaging. I had no desire to use a compass to find my way out of anything, ever. Until recently, I was even terrified of dealing with my own small, rapidly decompensating yard.
Then, for many reasons, I began to change. There was, inside me, the little girl who had had a shelf of books about seashells, reptiles and amphibians, stars, and flowers. That little girl made fairy houses in the woods, knew a cicada from a katydid, and made daisy chains. She climbed trees, tried to reconstruct ruined anthills, and brought garden snakes, toads and frogs into the house in an attempt to make them pets. She swam like a fish, collected rocks, shells, acorns, birch bark and feathers, and lay at the end of a dock in Maine watching the Perseid Meteor Shower put on a show in the hot, night sky. She read “Rascal” 800 times, and wanted a pet raccoon. She went to Camp Discovery at a nearby nature preserve and wept, inconsolably, when she learned that the day’s project was not just to catch butterflies but to kill them in a chemical-filled jar and pin their wings to a board.
Like a princess under an enchantment, I woke up to find myself in a sanitized, glamorized, chemical-filled world where there was no place for the cry of a mourning dove or the miraculous appearance of a sand dollar tossed from the depths of the ocean. I remembered, but it would take some work to reconnect with that wild child running through the woods with sticks and wilting flowers stuck into her frizzy brown hair.
First it was about food – how could it not be better to eat produce that was uncontaminated by chemicals, dairy free from hormones, and fish caught in the wild? How interesting would it be to be a forager, urban or otherwise, learning to identify the mushrooms and plants that would make a satisfying dinner without killing anyone? I thought about hunting animals, and the balance of things, and how I would not choose to hunt, but hunting spared local deer a slow, agonizing death. And how did things get that way? Was it a natural evolution of predator and prey, or had we built so many strip malls and subdivisions that the deer were placed at an entirely unnatural disadvantage?
Then there were things celestial. I remembered childhood nights in the backyard with my father as he showed me the constellations, telling me the story of Orion, and the Pleiades. Night after night we went out, noting that we saw the stars and planets in different places as the earth moved, discussing the phases of the moon, shooting stars, and meteor showers. I knew, then, and I never forgot that there would be a meteor shower in the middle of August. If we were in Maine, where the sky was free from competing light, we watched the show over the treeless lake, and it was magic. If we were home in Michigan it was less clear, but we could still take blankets into the yard, lie on our backs and watch. It was thrilling to be outside so late, grass smells all around, swatting mosquitos and willing my eyes to scan the sky with only brief blinking so that I wouldn’t miss the streaks of bright light.
Later, other things came back. My parents were bird watchers, and I grew up knowing my common chickadees from my Cedar Waxwings. When there was a truly exciting visitor, like a Flicker, it was reason to run to the kitchen window and watch as the bird, unaware of his celebrity status, blithely consumed sunflower seeds. I put up a bird feeder last winter, and felt the old thrill every time I looked out the window to see that a Blue jay or a Cardinal had come to my yard to dine on seed. I wanted to see a hummingbird again, and maybe, if I was really lucky, a Flicker.
How could I have forgotten this, that I lived in a world of tiny toads that hopped around manically in the days after they grew legs and left their watery lives as tadpoles, spider webs glistening with dew, and bulbs storing energy beneath the hard, cold ground until the first tickle of sunlight penetrated their hiding places? I began to read about herbs, to cook with them, to grow them, and to study their traditional, medicinal uses. I walked bravely through my own, small yard wondering how so many oak leaves and acorns littered the ground when all the trees I could see were maples. I thought about making a place for myself in that overgrown yard, raking up the dead leaves and adding them to my compost bin, filling a Radio Flyer wagon with pots of herbs and a tomato or two that I could move to sunny spots during the summer. I imagined lying on my back in my own yard, looking into the August sky, watching the Perseus put on their show.
Yesterday, as I gathered sticks from the ground, I contemplated making a couple of raised beds in the front yard. A butterfly, not a Monarch, but a creature of impossibly bright red and black, fluttered around me and seemed to follow me as the cat and I traversed the yard. Telepathically, I promise it some flowers if it would check back in a few weeks, once the danger of frost had fully passed. I thought of bees, the helpful, maligned fleets of them that did us so much good while we bombed them with pesticides and sent them reeling back to their hives. I saw, in my head, an entire Peaceable Kingdom on the small piece of land where I was privileged to coexist with nature. Worms turning earth, bees collecting pollen, and birds pecking for tasty insects in the trees.
This morning, a single mallard duck appeared in our front yard. I think he was an omen. He didn’t stay long, stopping only to look at us and give an obliging “quack” before waddling purposefully down the street. I think he heard there was going to be some nature going on around here.