Friday, March 17, 2017

Green gifts

I moved around a lot as a kid, so when we finally settled in Davis in 2004 and got a house in a cul-de-sac surrounded by other houses in other cul-de-sacs, the concept of suburbia was very new to me. I remember watching a movie when I was a kid that pivoted on the horror of suburbia, of cookie-cutter houses, of cookie-cutter lives. I didn't get it, even though the blueprint for my house was only one of a dozen blueprints for houses in my neighborhood. One of my best friend's houses was the same as my house, but flipped. When I walked into my own house, the stairs near the door climbed to the left. When I walked into hers, her stairs climbed to the right. Her room in her house was my brother's room in my house. But I never thought for a moment that those similarities were something to dislike, or something to be horrified by. Maybe it's because I was friends with kids who were Polish, and Indian, and Chinese, and Cuban, and although the outsides of our houses might look the same, the inside of our pantries very much did not. Or maybe it's because I just didn't spend much time inside at all. I was either lost in a book or lost outside. The architecture of someone's house wasn't really a factor when I had my mind on fantasies or grasshoppers or the fantasies of grasshoppers.

My bird of suburbia: the Northern Mockingbird. October 27, 2012.

When I was outside, I never paid much attention to the horizon. There were too many things to look at underfoot and overhead to waste time looking straight ahead. Why be eye-level for a human when you could be eye-level for a slug, or a robin? If you wanted to find me, you had to look under bushes, in creeks, in trees. The first two spots that I fell in love with in my cul-de-sac were both at its tail, where it butted up against a greenbelt that all the neighborhood kids ran down and biked around and whooped along in the summertime, and I explored by myself in the wintertime.

One of my favorite hide-aways was a tall conifer whose head leaned just the slightest bit over the sidewalk. My neighbor, a boy my age, was the first one to show us that it could be climbed. He and my brother would scale up into it and yell down at me and the littler kids, crowing about how tall they were. I remember staring up at them and hesitating, caught between jealousy, curiosity, and fear, until curiosity finally won and I crawled up, shaking and whining the whole time. The first few times, I only climbed up when they were already at the top, so I had to stop when I reached their feet halfway up. Eventually I gathered my pint-sized courage and climbed up alone, and discovered the adrenaline of being high enough off the ground for it to hurt if I fell. I would look up at the sky until I got dizzy with the sheer depth of it, then look down at the ground until I gave myself vertigo, then just close my eyes and sway with my tree's weight. When I finally climbed back down, my hands would be icky sticky black with sap, the kind of sticky that didn't come off for at least a day. One winter, an even stormier winter than usual, a particularly powerful gust ripped the tree right off of its stump. I walked outside the next morning and saw the men of the cul-de-sac discussing how to chop it up and realized immediately that I would never feel that same dizzy vertigo again. For years, I climbed every tree that I could find. I've never found one that made me feel like I was rooted right into its xylem and phloem like that one did.

My other favorite spot was a hole underneath the bushes opposite my favorite tree. Only a small kid could crawl under the outer bushes and into the clearing inside, so all the small kids did. It was hard to sit comfortably, but if you could find a way to sit without puncturing yourself on a branch, the whole world shrank down to just that little airy dome. The light that filtered down through the top layer of the bush dyed everything green. As interesting as it was to look around and examine all the little twigs and leaves and breaks in the bushes, it was even more interesting to listen. Here, I could hear all of the birds and bugs shuffling around me. I've never been much calmed by silence. I've always found more solace in the noises of tiny creatures scrabbling in dirt for their breakfasts, and wind ruffling leaves. Maybe I left a little part of myself in that tiny hiding spot, just listening, and breathing. I haven't tried to climb back into it in years. I don't think it would be right to try. That's a spot for kids to learn that although dragons and fairies might not be real, there are things that are even better in the bushes outside. It would be rude to try and learn that lesson again. One mustn't test the limits of the gifts that one has been given. After all, I already know what's in the bushes: sparrows, and lizards, and little kids hungrily searching for magic.

White-crowned Sparrow. January 7, 2014.

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