The Call of the Wild

Where I grew up the natural world had only just been tamed; it still had its wild side. I spent my childhood weaving in and out of forests, tromping through marshy rivers and boggy backyards with a troupe of neighborhood kids. The woods were full of ferny kingdoms and gigantic rocks left behind by glaciers centuries before. The tall trees created a canopy over an idyllic play land of nature. We used to climb branches hanging out over a little stream and dream big. We felt like this world belonged to us and us to it. Brambles, briars, and bees were all a part of the beauty.

Now I live on a busy street, down the coast, on Cape Ann, Massachusetts. Our little house has been here for two centuries. There are seafood restaurants well within walking distance and delivery trucks that rumble to a stop in front of the business across the street daily. The house backs up to Gods green acres though. Behind us is a woodland paradise. Tall pines have formed a canopy over a small ferny kingdom again and the big rocks live here too. Past that woodland is another street with houses, though too many acres are between us and them to give us any idea of who they are or what they do. Past that is the Atlantic Ocean.

The houses on that road seem to be carved out of the woods. Some were summer cottages that just grew over the years. A good portion of them seem to be occupied with the holdouts – those who have not sold out to the hordes of developers that stalk this part of Massachusetts. Although I suspect some are now occupied by yuppies with big plans. Right now they are beautiful for what they’re not -four bedroom McMansions sitting on a clear cut lot. No one is trying to grow a golf-worthy yard out there. In fact, from the little street that runs through that last section of forest before the marshes, there are stretches where you can only tell that houses are back there by the signs posted with the last names of their owners.

There’s a farm back there as well. And its pastures are something to see at twilight. Our spot is too cluttered and full of trees to see a decent sunset, so when I have a chance I walk that back road at sundown. The sun slowly sets over the pastures and lights the sky on fire. It’s so majestic in such a homey way that I find myself breathing deeply, trying to soak it all in. I want to fold it up and put it in my pocket and open it later at home.

I have been a nature groupie since early childhood. It was the seventies and my little town had just paved the road we lived on. Our parents opened the back door after breakfast and yelled “Git outta here.” And out we went, gone into the paradise of winter, spring, summer, and fall. There wasn’t a season that didn’t have a game. Boys Chase Girls, Kick the Can and the always popular, War.

War was best played in winter or fall. We would build these elaborate forts by taking down broken limbs and half-fallen birch trees. We’d stake them into the ground in a rough square and host sieges for hours. I remember looking up at the skinny logs with the sharpened points that the older boys carved out of the ends. They seemed so tall. Night would begin to fall and we could hear Mr. M- whistle for his kids to come home for dinner. He had a loud whistle and my mom would rely on my sister and I knowing that when he called, we better get our backsides home.

Now of course, that kind of freedom is almost criminal. I can’t imagine just turning my kids loose in our wood. There are coyotes for pity’s sake! Child molesters! Kidnappers! Deer ticks! Disease-carrying mosquitoes! It’s hard to know if this is my fear talking or my common sense. Were there not child molesters then? The kidnappers took a decade off? Lyme disease wasn’t invented? Or were we just blessed?

I don’t want to romanticize my youth. It wasn’t spent in a haze of firefly summers and hot cocoa winters. Those were just the moments I lived for. As we all get older, those days of play end. There’s that moment, maybe its twelve, maybe older, when you lose your ability to just play. Some people keep a seed of it in their souls, squirrelled away like a treasure, but the vast majority of us see impending adulthood and all its charms and are happy to let that innocence die.

I am reminded of that when I walk the dog at night. Where I once would’ve loved the woods at twilight, now I keep an eye out. I periodically pop out an earbud and listen to what’s out there, making sure I’m not missing some impending danger. I walk with more trepidation than anticipation. Brambles, bees, and briars are accursed enemies instead of the price of an epic day in the outdoors.

I wonder if it’s motherhood and all its hormones and instincts that have driven me away from my love of the wild. Sometimes I think the moment I signed the mortgage for my little house and its third of an acre somehow I became nature’s enemy. My house has sat on this earth for nearly three centuries, but it’s been a constant battle with nature. Nature wants it back, leaning out with her vines and critters to dig and snare its old beams and boards. The mice gnaw their way in and the birds peck at the eaves as if to reclaim their territory. It’s a endless struggle to keep the wild at bay. Deer poop in the back yard and raccoons the size of small dogs rummaging through the garbage are regular occurrences.

I still mourn when I see nature tamed, but now I better understand why. While suburban sprawl seems senseless and wrong to me, I still stand in my backyard with the weed whacker full throttle and cut the life out of the brush trying to retake my yard. I savage the sumac, eviscerate the ivy, and blast the bittersweet. What I once saw as a fairy land of foliage and flowers I now see as weeds, usurpers, evil.

My friend Trudy looks out into the bramble patch of her side yard filled with nettles and vines and says “It’s just sin.” And maybe it is a kind of amoral vegetation. As sin sometimes invades my soul, so does it invade my yard. I battle them back season after season.

We are still remodeling our little house into something we can live with. For years now we have put off doing something serious with the back yard. This may be the year we hire some nice bright yellow equipment to tame our third of an acre into something my husband can put his Wiffle Ball field of dreams on. Maybe.

For now I am out there with my loppers, whacker, and muttered curses attacking the sin threatening my raised beds of saintly tomatoes. The wild raspberry vines that would have thrilled girl now die before the woman protecting her English roses. Down goes the Queen Anne’s lace. Down go the dandelions. Die, wildness, die. But just in my back yard.


(orig. posted on my old blog.  Edited it a bit.  Interesting to see how my writing has changed over the years.)

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