Once upon a time, before the boy, I lived on a country road just outside a medium-sized town in Western Pennsylvania. Our family lived on an acre of land–huge-seeming to a child–with two maples, a crabapple, a line of pines (with one fabulous Douglas fir), a few leftover plum and pear trees from an ancient orchard, and a huge garden between the pines and the woods. The property to the north was flanked by a lovely apple orchard and the fence separating the two lots was braided with grape vines. Our ranch house was bordered on every side with some kind of intentional vegetation, including a small plot on the south side I claimed for myself, without having to ask or anyone minding, for the purpose of nurturing perennials, to which I was partial over my parents’ annuals at the front of the house (my classmates smoked to rebel. I planted perennials.). From the time I was eight and a half until the day we drove out of the driveway in a moving truck when I was seventeen, this yard was where I spent most of my time out of school. Sometimes I played basketball and football with the neighborhood kids, but mostly I spent that time alone outside, feeling at home, rooted. We could see every kind of weather from the large picture window in the living room that looked to the west, and the mile of woods that separated our road from the development that marked the beginning of the town. When I wasn’t in the yard, perched in my spot in the crabapple tree (where I wonder if J hearts R is still inscribed…) I was in those woods, walking the path that overlooked the ravine, redirecting water that filled up the channels made by logging trucks, mapping the clumps of trees with names and purposes, and breathing. I managed to acquire an old camera at that time and started taking pictures of every place and every angle of light I loved. I loved every sort of weather, especially the temperamental days when the wind would take my breath away or when the rain seemed to be desperate to wash our house down the hill (or mountain, as it would appear to an Iowan!). The snow sparkled on a sunny day in that place, and if the wind got to be too much in winter there was always the hollowed-out shelter of the huge old pine tree made by removing a few dead branches. There is no better shelter in this world than the base of an evergreen when a winter storm is moving in.
When I got to be a little older and the woods became smaller to my now-adolescent eyes, I started four-mile walks on the country roads further east of town, past farm houses and fields, and mainly on late spring days.
It was near the end of that time that I met a boy who loved the outdoors every bit as me, maybe more. Somehow my passion for the incredible weight of the earth merged with my passion for this person that understood me even when I was saying nothing more than breathing. We met in school but fell in love while sledding in the winter, hiking in the spring and fall, and canoeing in the summer. This boy, a budding geologist, took me to the national forest and taught me about rock formations and river basins and about towns that had been washed away for not paying attention. And the cliches are all true: colors were brighter and every rock, tree, and stream was richer, deeper.
Yesterday–or two days ago I see now, as the hour is getting late–it went off like a bomb: I forgot in that time to preserve my own private, spiritual connection with the earth. I transferred it to my relationship, and when that relationship ended, I let it die. Not all the way, but in a way that I couldn’t mourn without mourning the boy. And now, even after all this time, I have been trying to live my life without that connection and rootedness that went so far beyond both the physical earth and my inner spiritual life. No wonder I’ve felt depressed, rootless, and lonely, even as outwardly my life has become a success.
I don’t know how it could not have happened. I learned early to let myself die to boys. When I dated Robby, I loved saxaphone music; when I dated the boy, I listened to Mahler. In my age I’ve learned to let Attic Man’s interestsinspire rather than overtake me, and I’ll be forever indebted to him for introducing me to live jam band music and rather black brand of humor. But I need to recover the me that predates boys. And the me I most want to return to is the me that sits in a crabapple tree at sunset, singing a hymn.
I’m no fool–I can’t erase that boy nor that time in my history, and I wouldn’t if I could–but it is possible to recover some of that rootedness in a way that will feed me now and allow me to be what I yearn to be for myself and for other people. I’m not sure where to go with it, but I think I might start just by being outdoors as much as possible, giving up some housework for long walks (or as we did the other day, tree-communining in our lovely park) and shooting for a hike every weekend, when possible. I also need to consider more seriously our more permanent home, when those jobs finally materialize, and where it would be best to live for my health. I need mountains, baby, and TREES.
What should have happened, what the boy would have liked to have happened–because I know him that well–is for that time to have deepened what was already there, not forever wedded it only to him. It took thirteen years, but it’s time. Now.