When my childhood house went cold—not the oxygen and nitrogen, but the mood, the atmosphere around my parents—when that froze into stasis, into wariness, into step-lightly-quietly-invisibly, I would retreat outside where I could breathe without inhaling daggers of ice. I could walk, exhale, stand still and let the fluid air move past me, that river-wind, the water-breeze. To the river I walked to watch geese waddle, fish jump, crayfish snap. I climb my tree. I sink into her branches, her cradling limbs; this bough won’t break. I follow the turbulence of the waves as the river tumbles past boulders and semi-submerged logs. Ripple, spiral, swirl: the action and ease of flowing water. Too soon the earth turns away from the sun and I can’t stay by the river forever, so I tuck the images inside me, nestle the sights and smells into the nooks of my body. I nurture that river within and carry her with me: to school the next day, to my home when it grows chill again. I carry those river experiences all the way into the future to draw upon when needed. This river never runs dry.
The path between two houses was clear. It did not seem to belong to either house. Tucked on the far side of a small cul-de-sac, the asphalt path led down a hill. Would I be trespassing? Would someone see me? Where did this path lead? The last question tipped the scale in favor and I strolled down the path.
I followed the curve to the right. Buckthorn was so thick, the view of the lake was obscured. The path led to the water’s edge and a wide vista opened up. Sun shining off the lake surface, trees on the other side.
My breathing slowed. I opened my palms out to catch the lake breeze, so it could sweep my angst, my anxiety, my concerns away for a moment. I basked.
When I turned back up the path, I noticed the asphalt trailed into the thicket. Overgrown buckthorn clogged the trail, but a hint of path remained. I followed, the twigs grabbed at my coat and hair. I swept the spider webs aside with a broken branch I picked up. I followed. Bits and chunks of tar and asphalt poked through the soil and leaves. Where had this trail come from? Why was it uncared for? Why had it been allowed to become nearly impassable? How far did it go?
A few steps further on, there was an opening at the shore. I sat on the leafy trail. A muskrat swam away, the fur of her head wet and sleek. A heron at the other shore took flight. I didn’t mean to disturb these creatures. I felt I had stumbled upon a secret place, a hidden, long-untouched place.
After years of living in my house, I discovered this side of Red Rock Lake, two blocks from my house.
This February we hung two bird feeders outside our kitchen table window. The feeders, one star-shaped made of safflower seeds and one typical feeder with two little perches, hung under the eaves and over the deck. During the winter while we ate breakfast or supper, we enjoyed our Chickadee TV.
The little black-capped chickadees were the first birds to find the feeder. They swooped in from the trees towards the window and landed lightly upon the perch. While the house finches that discovered the feeders later would lounge at the perch, crunching seed after seed, chickadees don’t linger. Instead they grab a seed and fly off to the crabapple trees to munch while other chickadees fly in for their turn.
A pair of cardinals, downy woodpeckers and nuthatches continue to frequent the feeders, especially after we added a larger feeder that the bigger birds could land on. Blue jays, red-bellied woodpeckers, and house finches continue to bring us to the windows to ooh and ahh.
In the spring, the kids delighted in identifying new visitors to the feeder: migrating warblers and white-throated sparrows. Recently this fall, juncos joined the bird feeder jamboree.
The feeders of course brought squirrels. Gray ones, red ones, baby ones, ones who climbed the roof to sit atop or in the feeder to feast. Young red squirrels dashed across the deck to grab fallen seeds then rushed back to munch the seeds in the shade of our potted tomato plants. Only occasionally burying those seeds in the pots.
One red squirrel and I maintained eye contact through the window. Neither of us moving; not frozen, fearful non-movement, but respectful stillness just watching each other. This stillness I learned at a young age outside with my mom and sister and Pelican Lake. This stillness I nurture in my own children. This stillness that I have no idea how to nurture other than taking my kids outside and being around wildlife.
One day, Alex sprinkled seed on the deck ledge. Then he sat outside still and quiet waiting for the birds to arrive.
In the bright morning sun and cool breeze, Mike put-puttered the rental pontoon away from the dock and steered toward the middle of Shagawa Lake. Our family—Mike and I, our two kids Alex and Amy, and our dog named Foster— settled in for a lounge on the water after a week of exploring Ely, MN, our summer road trip destination.
“I want to go on an island,” Amy, age 11, announced.
“You’ll have to swim to it because we can’t get too close with the pontoon,” I said. Small rocky bumps and large pine-covered islands dotted the lake. Sharp, shallow rocks ringed those islands, like anti-moats.
Zipping on her life vest, Amy beamed. Clearly the swim was not a problem and with the vest on she could go on her own.
When we were several pontoon lengths from a pair of islands, Mike lowered the anchor off the bow. Amy stepped down the pontoon ladder into the water and swam for a rock island. Alex, age 13, remained indecisive about joining her.
As I watched Amy swim, I felt that familiar feeling of wanting to make sure she was safe, to send someone with her. My joyful, curious daughter glanced back to smile before focusing again on her destination and I said nothing.
She didn’t need us to be anywhere other than standing on that anchored pontoon.
Amy climbed onto the smooth, sun-warmed chunk of bedrock. She glowed, standing tall, raising her arms and sticking her tongue out the side of her mouth in her usual goofy pose for the camera.
“I’m going to the island, too,” said Alex. As both kids swam for the island, I turned to Mike, “I was tempted to ask you to go with them, but they don’t really need us out there, do they?”
“Nope,” he said and I leaned into his shoulder. Amy and Alex were well on their way to not needing us, a fact that both delighted and distressed me. I wondered what they would find at the island of mossy rocks and scraggly pines.
Barely two barefoot steps onto the island, Amy howled, “Ow! Something stung me! I stepped on a bee!”
In mere seconds, I cycled through a blur of reactions. Crud, there goes our relaxing afternoon…I need to dive in, fully clothed, to rescue her! What if she has an allergic reaction like my dad did when he swallowed a bee and had to be rushed to the emergency room?!
“It hurts!” Amy yelled from the island that now seemed miles away. In a long-practiced adaptation of mine to balance the emotional scales, I became calm and focused.
“You have to swim back. You need to get in the water and swim back to the pontoon.”
Amy grimaced, but reentered the lake, pulling herself through the water with her arms, her right leg dragging behind. “It hurts when I move my leg.”
“Just keep swimming, honey. You’re almost here. You’re doing great.”
She wouldn’t step on the ladder, so Mike and I grabbed her hands to pull her up until I could reach under her arms, hugging her soaking wet body to mine and lifting her onto the pontoon. That’s when the tears started. Big gasping sobs.
She sat and lifted her foot. There, on the soft pad of the bottom of her right foot dangled the bee stinger and its gooey venom sac. I scraped it out. A piece of the stinger remained in her skin, the spot hot, red and swollen.
“Are you breathing okay?” I asked. She nodded. I checked for hives and found none, meaning no crazed hospital dash at pontoon top speed.
“I want Foster!” she wept. Since Foster was a puppy, she’s licked the tears from Amy’s face. As I dug through our bags for something to extract the last bit of stinger, Foster licked her cheeks, nose and chin and Amy’s crying slowed.
Alex found his Swiss army knife that had tweezers and he even had a band-aid in his waterproof hiking kit. I removed the last of the stinger and had Amy dangle her feet in the water, the coldest available substance.
After a few minutes, we dried her feet, applied the band-aid and Amy stretched out on the pontoon bench seat. I draped her big pink beach towel across her and handed her The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, one of her favorite books. Still in pain and understandably grumpy, Amy retreated into her book while we pulled up the anchor to relocate away from Bee Sting Island. Over the next two hours, we snacked on cheese and crackers while watching two loons, one adult and one juvenile, diving and emerging. They called back and forth to an adult loon further away. We never knew where the loons would come up next, but we looked and looked and pointed excitedly when they bobbed to the surface.
By the time we returned to shore, Amy was walking with no problem.
“Will you still explore islands, Amy?”
“Yeah. Of course. But I’m gonna wear shoes next time.”
And next time life stabs her with a barbed stinger, whether I’m there or not, I hope she’ll remember to find comfort in doggie kisses, a beloved book, and the joy of gazing across the water to see where the loons will surface.
In the building of the many forts, I hope my children are learning that you don’t need all the stuff that society and consumerism does and will continue to tell them they need: electronics, devices, a bazillion friends, stuff to do the work for you. I want them to learn to use what is at hand. Think of and create solutions rather than buying solutions. Make do. Be content once in a while rather than always wanting, wanting more stuff. Determine their own needs and wants, don’t let marketers determine for you, because they will. They will happily inform you your entire life of what you need.
I consider one of my main jobs as a parent is to teach my children to ignore advertising: on tv (glad for Netflix), on the radio (turn the station), in the mail (straight into the recycling bin), in magazines (flip on past), online, on billboards, on Kindles, on clothing. Everywhere. Ignore that shit. In high school, I took a mass media class because it was offered by one of my favorite teachers. This class, so valuable, taught me how advertising works, how it pulls at emotions and convinces you you’re not good enough unless you have their product, tells you what you need and what will happen if you don’t buy their product. Alex and Amy are learning to sort through and identify what they need, what is important to them, what they want and what they can let go of: squinkies, planet inflatables, etc. Advertising sells happiness: you’ll only be happy if you buy our product and everyone is, especially beautiful people. You too will be beautiful if you buy what they’re selling. I want my kids to locate their worth within, by who they are and how they interact with people. Do not let marketing or consumer culture or groups of other people determine your worth, because I guarantee that society, marketing, advertising will always tell you you’re not enough. Will always tell you that you don’t have enough. You need this and this and that, in at least two colors. This is the pervasive message in our culture.
I have not been immune to this message, but I am decidedly less influenced by cultural norms than seems the norm. Why? I don’t know for sure, but I suspect all the time I spent outdoors as a kid (which was still a fraction of the time my parents likely spent outside as kids) had a protective effect on me. As a stay-at-home mom, as a writer and editor, as an artist, my worthiness as calculated in dollars by insurance companies and society in general is low. Add to that the fact of a depression diagnosis and my $ value nearly bottoms out. I’m not fishing for reassurance though years ago I would have been. I am immensely lucky that I have learned to identify my worth. I am immensely lucky to be surrounded by a husband and children and other family and friends who know my worth. The devaluing of creating a home, raising children, and learning a craft is so ingrained and ubiquitous in our current society that there were many times I found it difficult to stay the course. But when that happened, when I was ready to just find paying work outside my home, I checked in with myself. What did I need? What did I think? How did I want to live my life? How did I want to raise my children? In answering those questions, I would return, renewed, to my non-paying work of raising my children, maintaining a home, volunteering in my community and writing.
The white mulberry is a tree that keeps on giving. They grow in odd spots around my yard, along fences, shooting up through the middle of bushes. The lobbed leaves look like hands catching sun. In autumn, I choose several to lop down to the ground, but don’t apply poison to kill the stump or dig the roots out. Some of the mulberry trees have three or more little stumps; new growth continues to find a way. We’ve found it useful to have trees that sprout out slender trunks from below the cuts and reach skyward year after year.
We pile the cut mulberry trees and other trimmed branches next to the kids’ stick fort under the spruce tree in the front yard. Mulberry leaves blanket a section of the fort where this spring my son and daughter twined the young, flexible trunks among the dead sticks. The stick fort is an ongoing project started two years ago in the backyard during my son’s 11th birthday party.
A walk at Edenbrook Conservation Area planted the seed of the idea. During that walk, on a sunny September afternoon, I spotted a large stick fort set back in the woods. How wonderful that kids muck about in the woods to build a shelter together. I had been thinking about birthday party activities and realized building stick forts would be perfect. We had our own branches from recent tree trimming and the party could be in our backyard.
My son loved the idea and helped us gather all the branches together and fetch more from the woods behind our neighbor’s house. One day on a walk around our block with my husband and dog, we saw a woman lopping branches of the maple trees lining the boulevard. Beautiful autumn maple boughs.
“Do you have plans for these branches? Can we have some?” I asked, “We are having the kids build stick forts at our son’s birthday party.”
“Sure. Take as much as you want. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with them,” she said. We walked home, dropped our dog off, grabbed a tarp, and hustled back to pile the branches on the tarp. Brilliant red, orange leaves. Like treasure. Long branches two inches in diameter, sturdy yet pliable. We carried our treasure home and stacked them in the backyard with the rest of the sticks.
On the day of my son’s birthday party, ten kids gathered in our yard. Building the forts was their job, but we wanted to give them some framework to start. My husband used twine to bind three or four of the thicker, longer branches together in teepee shapes. He made three of those. We needn’t have bothered. While the kids started on those, ultimately they took them apart and built one long low fort across the backyard, draping burlap and blue curtains around the outside.
For more than an hour, the children ages 4 to 11 worked together on the fort, leaning and weaving branches. “This is the best birthday party ever!” exclaimed one of my son’s friends. We enjoyed cake, ice cream and presents before everyone headed home.
That evening I stood in my yard pondering the stick fort, remembering the natural forts of my youth and wondering how long it would last.
“I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.” Anne of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery
Outdoor work in October is one of life’s great joys. The leaves are changing green to bronze, gold and rust red. The air smells better than ever. What is it about October air that smells so good, that feels so good on my arms? The sun is warm, the air is crisp. I’m not disturbed by the knowledge of the impending winter, because I love these days with my whole being. The plants and animals grow quieter, though more urgent. I pause in my yanking out thistles to watch the bustle of the squirrels as they hunt and gather and hide acorns. The tomato plants die back. The black walnut tree loses its leaves and a million slender twigs litter the ground creating a zone where the grass stops growing because of the toxic juglone from the fallen leaves leaching into the ground. In the spring the grass will return.
Yesterday two young deer galloped into my yard. These suburban deer looked alarmed but only trotted past my house when I backed my car out of the driveway. They’ve learned they don’t need to bolt back into the woods across the street. These could be the same two deer that wandered up between houses further down my street while I chatted with a neighbor, each of us with our leashed dogs. We paused in our conversation to watch the slender animals with their tall, pricked ears who saw us, rightly perceived no threat and returned to nibbling the grass. I know the deer munch in veggie gardens and devour plantings, but I love having them here. Their presence, their grace, their adapting to this suburbia of roads and leaf blowers we’ve built around them.
I stroll my yard with loppers to prune dead branches, insistent buckthorn, and leafy burdock that has spread. My daughter gathers the slew of dog toys strewn across the yard and sprays the mud off them with the hose. My son picks up the boards and bricks and ramps of his obstacle course. My husband mows and returns garden tools and pots to the garage. We carry armfuls of branches and vines to the stick fort under the pine tree. We share our discoveries of slugs and centipedes and the prettiest red leaf ever. For two hours, we work together outside and it’s these memories I hope settle deep in the souls of my children, for I think it’s necessary for their survival.
Due to summer frenzy (much of it spent outside), there will be no posts for August. Two posts per month will resume in September after the kids return to school.
We ride in the car, one that won’t break
Over these roads. Four of us: three from my life now
And me, then and now.
Over roads I traveled as a teenager uncountable times,
Swigging pop to stay awake in the early morning
After work on summer nights
Driving back to my home in a rusty Jeep Wagoneer.
Down the dirt road, past the corn field
to my splintered home.
But that was years ago, not now.
“It’s beautiful here,” they say.
I shrug and am blind to it.
It’s too littered with words and scenes.
In each brown shriveled leaf and curve of road
I see a sharp, searing moment.
One Minnesota winter, the snow and ice settled thick on our deck steps making it a hazardous trip to the compost bin near our garden. Not wanting to toss perfectly compostable veggie peels into the garbage, but not eager to spend thirty minutes in the freezing cold to shovel and chisel the steps clear, we stuck a tall garbage bin on the deck and called it good enough.
We opened the deck door a crack and tossed into the bucket our potato skins, banana peels, and lettuce lost to the back of the crisper finally found. No shoes, hats, or mittens needed. I wondered why more people didn’t have their compost bucket right outside their door for the winter.
“Mama! What’s dat?” said Alex, our 4-year-old asked. I turned to see Alex and Amy, our 2-year-old, standing near the deck door. Just on the other side of the deck door balanced atop the compost bin sat a large, pink-snouted, rat-tailed creature. The furry hulk disappeared into the bin.
“It’s a possum! Mike, come look!” I called to my husband, who joined us gawking out the door. I picked up Amy to help her see into the bin. She smushed her nose against the glass. I hauled Alex up on my other hip and the four of us stared, silent and still, as the opossum dined on squash peels and apple cores. After a time, Mike and I returned to making dinner, but Alex and Amy stayed to watch until the possum climbed out and ambled away.
Over the next month, the possum returned several evenings to feast in our compost bin. Each time, Alex and Amy delighted in the big snout and the white furry face that would turn to look at them. They chattered softly about the long hairless tail and the big black eyes.
Eventually, the snow melted and it seemed wise to redirect the compost to its usual bin, so the opossum stopping visiting our deck. We didn’t see possums before our winter compost bin and we haven’t seen them since. I’m tempted to put the scrap bin on the deck this winter to see their long faces peering into my house again. The kids are almost teenagers now, but I bet their possum joy is still there.