Once in a while I experience myself ingesting a particular metaphor, or a quotation, or a line from a poem, or an image. The experience is one of inhaling it, and allowing it to circulate throughout my various life systems. Such is the case with lines from the poem The Layers, written by the late poet laureate Stanley Kunitz.
Live in the layers,
not on the litter.
It sounds so right to me, and so I hold it as truth. Yet I find myself continuing to live into its meaning. It’s alive to me, and the concept of layers itself is every bit as as layered as what it might mean to live in them.
As my husband Jim and I continue to expand our vegetable garden – literally deepening our roots – and as we build a porch on the front of the house so that we can sleep to the raucous songs of the peepers, I find that I am growing into this place, beginning to know a sense of place both inner and outer. Reading such remarkable writers as Wendell Berry, bell hooks, Scott Sanders, and Trebbe Johnson, I yearn to know my place as they know theirs, and I have begun to think in terms of layers.
I am going to try something new with this blogging site – to explore place in terms of layers. I imagine it as a several part series, and I want to begin with how we come to know place as children come to know place.
I am three months old, Harriet four. Our moms are sitting at a picnic table eating sandwiches. Harriet and I are in papoose like hammocks, hanging from a low branch of a tree. I don’t remember this; it’s what I am told.
I am five years old. My family has moved from the farmhouse to an old house with considerable acreage in rural Western Pennsylvania. Harriet is my best friend, and she lives – by car – four miles door to door; through the woods, about half a mile.
It is my first visit to Harriet’s house. Her mother is my godmother, and she scares me, tall, straight-backed, an elder even at the age of 30. My mom has agreed to walk with me through the meadow, through the gate onto Old Man Walter’s vegetable garden, to the macadam on the other side of his house, down the hill, around the corner, until the roof of Harriet’s house is visible over the tree line. My mom lets go of my hand and nudges me down the hill. I stand, rooted in the spot, overcome by terror. A minute passes, then another minute. Then I start yelling for my mom and running as fast as my five year old manage, back the way I had come, past Old Man Walter’s house, past the vegetable garden, through the gate and then the meadow, and finally I am home. My mom is cross and dismissive. It is the last time I am afraid in my own woods.
Fenced in. But the peas and pole beans are growing up the fence, through the fence, and over the fence. Whether I am on my way to Harriet’s house, or she to mine, we come with fists of green. The cherry tomatoes are easy for our eight year old hands through the gaps in the wire. The Beefsteaks however, are more of a challenge. My hand snakes through the fence and I twist the tomato off its stem, handing it up to Harriet’s hand six inches above mine. Again my hand, gently taking the tomato from Harriet’s hand, then hers again. Finally the tomato is ours and as we do everything, we share it. One bite for her, the next one for me, its juice and seeds coursing down our chins onto our T-shirts.
Trees and Caves
I’m a tree climber. The aging oaks and maples along the backside of our house are my hiding places. By jumping, I can reach the bottommost branches of all but one oak. For this one, my dad lifts me up, and I am carrying my new bow with two arrows. It’s a small bow, and the arrows are rubber tipped, but if I miss my sister on the first shot, I’ve got back-up. I am climbing with the confidence of one who knows every step, every branch, even one handed. From the crown of the oak, I survey my territory. I am higher than my sister’s bedroom window, and she is reading. No murder and mayhem tonight, it seems, and so I put my attention on what I think is a locust, clinging to the bark of the tree. It is cracked along it’s back, and peer as I do, I cannot see the resident. Maybe s/he’s flown away.
I pull back the string of my bow with one of the arrows, planning to shoot at short range, but I stop. I wonder if there is any life at all left inside that shell. I wonder if it hurts when it cracks open. I wonder whether I should think of it as a locust at all, anymore.
My dad has forgotten that I am in the tree, and the sky is growing double dark with rain and night. I thread my way down to the lowest branch and wonder if I dare jump. Yes. No. Yes. No. I am soggy. I shout towards the house, and shout again. Finally, my dad remembers, and comes to help me down.
I am a cave dweller. On our land are a series of rock formations that welcome me into the deepest of their secrets. I pack a lunch and sit on dried leaves, my back against the cool stone. I have taken off my shoes and I run my toes through the moss at the edge of a rivulet.
I am eleven, and in the sixth grade. A new girl has joined our class. She invites me to her house for grilled Hershey chocolate sandwiches on white bread. Her house is small, and there is only one bathroom for six people. My mom feels sorry for the girl and invites her to our house without asking me.
When I hear this news I race down the dirt road to stop the car as it starts up the big hill. With exaggerated politeness, I tell her mom that she can go, that I want to show the girl something special. Her mom says she’ll be back in two hours. We walk a path into the woods where the gazebo sits near a stream, and I tell the new girl that this is where I live.
“But where is everybody,?” she asks.
“But where’s your kitchen?”
I explain to her that not everybody has a kitchen. That we eat from the forest. I take her outside the gazebo toward the stream.
“We eat mushrooms and fiddleheads in the spring. We eat nuts and crabapples. We have to race the birds and squirrels to the blueberries and serviceberries.”
She wants to know where our bathroom is. I wave my hand in an expansive gesture.
“Anywhere we choose,” I tell her. What I am really telling her is that our house is too big.
Harriet and I decide to build a pulley system from my bedroom to hers, through the woods, using trees as telephone poles. We will run thin cotton rope over the pulleys and attach tin cans at several places along the track. We think we’re adapting the principles of laundry lines. When it’s finished, Harriet will pull on the string until a tin can reaches her window. She will put a note in it, like “you will wake up with a headache and tell your mom you can’t go to school. I’ll do the same. Maybe I’ll make it a stomach ache so if our moms talk to each other, they won’t get suspicious. I’ll meet you halfway, at Old Man Walton’s garden.”
We have yet to figure out that a successful pulley system needs a straight shot.
For her twelfth birthday, Harriet gets a camera. She takes me into the woods – fall, winter, spring, summer. It is early spring. There are pockets of snow, and the brown leaves are soggy and packed down. We are belly down, and Harriet has given me the camera for the first time. She is carrying the magnifying glass.
“What are we looking for?” I ask her.
“Sh-h-h-h. We don’t know yet.”
“Are you sure we don’t know?” I am soggy from outside in, and the cold is making me impatient and testy.
“We won’t know until we see it.”
And there it is, in front of our eyes. It’s a jet black beetle, threading its way sluggishly through the leaf pack, on its way to somewhere for some reason – it’s the only one who knows.
“Take the picture,” she says, and we’ll go home and figure out what it is.”
I take one picture,then another, just in case.
Writing, for me, is one way in which I come to understand what I know at my core. So in the weeks to come, I will continue writing about place through the metaphor of layers. If you who read this, would be kind enough to add to the layers, our on-line community will become ever richer.
This first layer, then, is about knowing place as a child. At the moment, I have about eight or nine more layers in mind, and I suspect that’s only the beginning.