The World Beneath My Feet

         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”


Seed pods

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.

Mossy rock.jpg



26 thoughts on “The World Beneath My Feet

  1. Sharon

    I have been in your childhood back yard and could see all you described . Many awesome memories of days spent with the Kirst family. Love reading your stories…..a book please!!!!

  2. Sue

    ~this was a most welcome bit of nostalgia with terrific imagery, Pam, especially on this 20° morning as I watch the light snowflakes fall & listen to the scraping of the plow blades, as the trucks pass by sanding the road!
    Your childhood descriptions took me back to memories of picking dried weed pods & scraping the inside seeds into a coffee can, pretending they were grounds & catching evening fireflies in glass mason jars~so many things simply can’t be duplicated on today’s cellphone/iPod screens…more of today’s Kids need to take out a piece of that string!

    1. We woke up to snow today, too, Sue; not enough to plow, but enough to make spirits dip a bit! Soon, soon, soon…

      Love the seed pod and firefly memories. We DO need to entice kids away from screens and out into nature, where imaginations soar….

  3. Another wonderful to read post Pam. It’s as if, while sharing your memories so elequently told in your writings, you open doorways and gateways to the readers own, different memories of those times in any lifetime that have universal commonality. I love how much I learn from you too, especially regarding American cultural unknowns, such as wiffleball (maybe similar to our rounders games) and bocce games – i can’t imagine how to correctly pronounce that, botchy, maybe. From looking that up I learnt that games similar to boules might be called petanque (with an accent) if played in the Provence region of France. Seeing your photos too, your moss looks very different to our common garden moss in the Midlands of England. I’m trying to pay more attention to our natural environment too. I have some quite rarely seen native wild plants in my own small patch of garden to protect. Unbelievable that local authority environmental health officers might insist a fine will be issued if things aren’t razed to the ground, at least on the front garden where they can be seen from the street. The back yard’s too dark and damp for most of them to grow and other delightful plant life grows there. Sorry, i’m rambling on again! Hope the snowfall is nothing too severe and that Spring arrives strong and safe for you all.

    1. I always enjoy your rambles, and appreciate that you enjoy mine! You’re right on target with the pronunciation of bocce. Wiffle ball is like baseball, but the bat and ball are plastic. The ball often has holes in it, kind of Swiss cheesy. I love the detail about petanque!

      I am in the ‘big city’ of Columbus, Ohio, this week for a five-day training; the program meets on the 9th floor of one building and my room is on the 16th floor of another. I am missing my outdoor connection!!! It will be great to get home on Friday (we are supposed to get a sunny, 70-degree day, too…)

      Dark yards are a challenge, aren’t they? My answer has been impatiens in the past, but I have discovered that, in this neighborhood, they are fast food for the burgeoning deer population!

      1. Hope you enjoy the experience and not missing home too much. The sixteenth floor sounds wonderful, assuming you have interesting views from so high. i lived in a high-rise once but only on the first floor as they wouldn’t put families with babies and toddlers higher than that, i was very disappointed.

      2. The sunrise was amazing over the cityscape this morning…and I confess to enjoying some time to myself every once in a while!

        I guess they were trying to be kind by not making you tote kids and equipment to upper floors in the high rise??? But I enjoy being lofty for a few days!!!

  4. Those first days of Spring are memorable and as always your stories make me think of many things. I remember wearing a light sweater and heading out the door. The lilacs blooming! They are so gorgeous! Thanks for your writing, as always it is meaningful and powerful!

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