I’ve often wondered where I got my love of nature from, for mine were no great pastoral beginnings. I entered this world via a poor couple who lived in a small second-floor three-room apartment on a side street in a mill town in southern Maine, where about the only green thing that grew were the weeds that managed to poke their way up through the street’s ancient pavement. From there, we eventually moved one building up; and from there yet again, we were to move one last time and back again to the original building that had since been repurposed into two side-by-side duplex apartments.
All of a sudden we had a backyard that amounted to more than tall dry grass and broken bottles. And beyond that, divided only by a shabby fence, lay a forgotten parcel completely given over to wild asters, thistle, and Japanese knotweed, which eventually became the jungle that I, and several other neighborhood kids, appropriated for ourselves. From there, we could see all of our back doors and hear all of our mothers calling us home for supper. And from those back doors and porches, our mothers could hear us chortle “Five more minutes!” which we always seemed to be afforded while supper sat simmering on the back of the oil stove.
Which brings me to my mother, the tallish slim brunette that my oldish father had once found too irresistible not to marry. And she just happened to have spent several years on the small farm her own father had started on the outskirts of that same mill town along the river in southern Maine. She spoke often of her days on that farm, from helping her father clear the land and pull all the stumps with a team of horses to euthanizing a cat once that had gotten caught in the hay rake. Even then after all those years, her eyes filled at the thought of it.
And then one day, it dawned on me. Of course! My love of nature…it’s from her, from my mother, the girl who eventually grew into a lovely young woman but who never forgot the smell of soil or hay and who had gotten her hands dirty more than once to help her father earn a living off it. It certainly wasn’t from my own mill-worker father, whose own beginnings as a boy of the streets of the mill town to which he would devote his entire life didn’t include rolling in fields or walking in the woods.
I remember walks with my mother, long excursions on hot summer days that I was told back then would be “something fun to do.” Was she really doing it for us–my sister and me–or was it her attempt to return to her own beloved idyllic world of woods and fields, where she had known the happiest moments of her life?
“Here, try some,” she’d say while handing me a wintergreen leaf. Or, “look how the seeds fly away,” as she blew, childlike herself, on a cloven milkweed pod.
I remember standing with her many years later overlooking my wooded property and commenting on how I should not cut down that old bare leafless oak trunk. “It provides contrast,” she’d said, unaware of the new measure of awe and respect for her she’d instilled in me that day, this woman who hadn’t gotten past the eighth grade but who knew about such things as dying cats and woodland contrasts.
I never walk in the woods now without feeling her at my side, and no walk is ever complete without a taste of wintergreen, or checkerberry, as she called it.
She would like that.