I began life by supposing, as all children do, that my home ground was the world.
—Scott Russell Sanders, “Beneath the Smooth Skin of America”
I walk the dog down to the street, and we navigate around seed pods, prickly little spheres that look like they spring from the imagination of Dr. Seuss. The sweet gum tree in the front yard is loaded with them. They drop into the yard and into the street. They are hard, and they are no fun at all to step on.
Last weekend, I scraped them out of the street with the metal rake, which squawked and wailed as I worked it, sending shivers up my back. Mark got the leaf-blower out and corralled the fallen pods in the yard into two large piles. I shoved the pods from the street into a sturdy green bag; it was, maybe, filled a fourth of the way. And then rain started to fall. We tucked the bag next to the brick front stairs, and, looking around the newly cleaned yard, said we’d shovel up the pod piles later.
The bag and the pods remain, a job for tomorrow, maybe, if it doesn’t snow.
But the yard’s no longer clean. A changeable weather week brought a little bit of everything, and, Wednesday, strong gusts shook the tree. Sweet gum pods rained down, on the grass, in the street, rolling into the neighbors’ yards.
“I don’t think,” I said to Mark, “There’s ever been so many of them in one year. Has there?”
We contemplated. I couldn’t remember having this many pods to clean up in years past. Maybe there’s a sweet gum cycle, I thought—maybe they are extra abundant every couple of years. I looked up sweet gum trees on line. There were posts about crafts one can make with the pods. A blogger recommended using them as mulch or churning them into hard-packed dirt to aerate it. I learned that the pods are not sweet at all, that the seeds have high concentrates of the main ingredient in Tamiflu, the anti-influenza medication.
I browsed through five or six sweet gum tree sites, and not one mentioned anything about high-production cycles. We must have had the same number of pods in the yard last year, and the year before.
It upsets me that I don’t remember that. Why am I not more in tune with the land that surrounds me, every day?
I waited for spring, as a child, because spring meant being outdoors. And outdoors meant exploring. There was all of the back yard, with its base paths worn from nightly games of wiffleball and kickball. Those games began as soon as it was warm enough to go outside with light jackets or sweaters; they began as soon as the base paths were packed dirt and not squelching mud. They lasted until late fall brought the first deep snow. The grass never, ever, had a chance to grow back.
At the very furthest part of the back yard, a stand of lilacs marched up next to the old garage—we called it the barn—and in the lilacs’ shade, my father built us a sand box. It was huge and strong, made of sturdy wooden boards thick enough to sit on, or to drive a fleet of toy trucks on. Every year, Dad would go down to one of the Lake Erie beaches near the power plant where he worked, and he would fill cardboard boxes with sand. He’d heave those boxes into the trunk of whatever big Buick he was driving and bring them home.
My brothers would help him lug the heavy cartons into the corner of the yard by the sandbox. Dad would angle a big, wood-framed window screen on two walls of the sandbox, and then he would lift each box of sand and pour it through. Soft, clean sand sieved into the sand box. Pebbles, beach glass, and fragile little shells remained on the screen, treasures to scrape into an old glass jar and keep on a window sill.
By the time each box of sand had been filtered, the sandbox was full after a winter’s depletion. Then it was ready for imaginations to transform it.
We built villages and landscapes in that enclosed world. My brothers brought out their green army men and had full-scale battles, plastic tanks cresting molded sand hills and plowing down whole troops of plastic infantry. Sometimes we brought out tubs of water and wet the sand so it was as malleable as clay. We would push all the sand into the center and shape it into a tall volcano. If my mother was in a very good mood, she would let us bring out baking soda and vinegar, and lava would pour down the volcano’s steep sides, and we would help tiny tropical inhabitants scurry off to safety.
Sometimes we made hard-packed roads and brought out toy cars and raced them around the network of highways, squealing on the turns.
I loved it when the lilacs bloomed, and tiny purple blossoms would drift into the sand. The whole yard was perfumed with lilac-scent; the spring sun would dapple through the branches of the trees, patterning the sand, teasing me with the possibility of what that blank and sandy slate could become.
The backyard was the wiffle ball field, and the lilac trees, the sandbox and the front wall of the old garage. It was the prickly row of tea roses that bordered the yard along the driveway we shared with the Jeffreys’. For three seasons of the year, my mother would open the door in the morning and send us all out to play, and we would have to be harangued in for lunch. When I fell in love with books, I had a favorite reading spot, an old metal chair back by the lilac bank. And in winter, Dad and my brothers would sometimes make a big ice rink, filling clothes-pole boundaries with water from the garden hose. Then, we’d spend long parts of winter days out there, too.
I knew the backyard: its shady spots, and where the dog, Buttons, had dug deep, ankle-twisting holes, and where puddles gathered after the rain. The lilacs and the roses wove their budding and blooming and the drooping of their petals into my knowing.
Behind the garage was the way-back-yard; beyond that was a broad field, big enough to play real baseball on. My favorite spot in the way, way back was a place we called The Island. There was no water—but I imagined that there had been, once,—and a little mesa-shaped hill rose out of pebbly ground. Thick, strong grass grew there. My friends and I tried to weave it into mats; we brought out old plates and found bent silverware, bits of cloth, pieces of wood to make rock-legged tables, and wobbling chairs. We marked off boundaries and created, mostly in our imaginations, a house that was populated with wonderful people having wonderful adventures.
Beyond The Island was The Little Woods, which led to the Big Woods. The Valones, who were big boys, had a camp in the Big Woods. My brother John regularly planned to walk all the way through the Little Woods and the Big Woods, all the way to whatever was beyond. It seemed a frightening trek to me, a huge journey into lands unknown where strangers, and maybe mean dogs, lurked.
But we knew the lands in our little universe. We knew where the rabbit holes were, and where the baby bird had fallen from its nest in the cigar tree, and why the earth was matted down where the deer—much shyer then—slept when the woods fell dark.
I lived in that world, in the only home I could remember, until I was ten. And then I got used to moving.
Moving tears up roots, and I don’t get to know the land that supports me. Flower beds in the new house seem like someone else’s vision, a vision I feel honor-bound to try, at least, to maintain. So it is that, six years after moving into this house, I am looking around and wondering about the double-lot that is my new outdoor universe.
There is a spot that just begs for two wooden Adirondack chairs and a low table that would support two glasses, clinking with ice on a hot summer’s night.
There is one long, flat patch that could play host to bocce games if we would pull up the leathery ground cover and start again with soft, soft grass.
There is a big old log, the center beginning to gentle into mulch, where shy, shady flowers could grow if we could persuade the deer not to eat them.
There are spongy beds of pine needles that could join the sweet gum pods in making home-grown mulch.
There are six or seven different kinds of daffodil, just beginning to bloom.
There is ivy, strong and invasive, that pops up throughout the yard.
Every year I vow I will spend more time in the yards, on my knees pulling weeds, in a tucked-away chair, reading a book in the morning or evening cool. I will rake and dig and learn the land I live on. I will shatter beloved ceramics, chipped and broken into pieces, and lay them in cement, creating mosaics that frame the firepit. I will live in my space, I think firmly; I will know it.
Many years ago, when I was teaching middle school, I came across an outdoor exercise. Give each student a length of string, the book said, and take them outside to a grassy place. Have them scribe a circle with that length of string. Everything inside it is their world. Have them lay on their bellies and watch that little space. Let them see what grows there. Let them count the rocks and pebbles; let them note what crawls up from the ground, what flitters down through the air. Help them realize that, in that tiny, string-enclosed space, there’s a universe.
Perhaps it’s time to circle my string and do that myself.
We grow, and our awareness turns outward. This is good. We learn about a vast and diverse world. We become aware of other power, other sufferings, other voices. Other beauty. We meet new people, read amazing new books, and our focus shifts. There’s a long horizon, far away, and there are things between it and us that we need to strive to reach.
But there’s a wisdom in childhood, too, when we know so firmly that the amazing patch of land on which we plant our feet is a vast and fascinating world. We set out each day with curiosity and a sense of wonder to learn the parameters and the inhabitants of that world, and to settle joyfully into our place within it.
Snow is falling tonight, snow on April 6th, hard, peckly, stubborn snow, but spring is coming. Forsythia blooms and leaves flare out on the scrubby bushes beneath the trees. When I take the dog out in the dawning day, birdsong swells. I notice, suddenly, how the rock by the front flowerbed is almost completely covered with moss, and I draw my sight back inward in a little. The wind has blown a plastic flowerpot up against the crook in the fence out back; there are fragile buds on the blueberry bush. A rabbit dashes into the shrubs.
Inside the borders of my yards, a universe pulses: an amazing microcosm of a world. My little world. Time to explore it; time to live, for long chunks of refreshing time, within the string.