October 05, 2008

Strawberry fields forever

When Aunt Seashell was dying, she talked often about childhood summers playing with her sister and her cousin at the shore. The landscape of Aunt Seashell's childhood, the beaches and ocean waves, the boardwalk with its splinters and the sandy porch with its wooden rocking chairs, the lunches of chicken noodle soup and pumpernickel bread, was more real to her than the cold winters here, where she'd been living for those last few years. The shore was still the place she felt most connected to, the landscape she held in her mind. I've heard that immigrants as they get older and nearer to death will begin talking about the landscape of their childhood, even if it's far across the ocean.

My earliest childhood memories include playing outside with my sisters, my brother, and Show-off Neighbor Boy. We'd pick wild strawberries, those tiny little berries, for hours in the hot sun in the field east of the house. We'd play in the old apple orchard, stepping across rotting fruit that squished under our feet and swinging up onto the low, crooked branches. The apples were small and blemished, but when you took a bite, the tartness was worth the risk of eating a worm. We'd picnic in the woods and fields, eating our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on an old blanket and picking daisies to bring back for the vase on the kitchen table.

Outdoor Girl and I explored the woods when we were older, making a fort in two trees that were covered with vines. We'd grasp the vines with both hands and climb as high as we could, sometimes falling dramatically to the ground when a vine would rip away from the tangled web. We had a huge fight with Show-off Neighbor Boy when he threatened to chop one of the trees down, saying that it was on his parents' land.

During the years when we kept a horse behind the house, we'd take turns galloping across the big meadow, on the hard path that ran between chest-high grasses. We shared the land with other creatures, of course. From my bedroom window, I could see white-tailed deer, grazing in the early morning. The raccoons and rabbits made themselves known in the garden, and the snakes loved to curl up on the manure pile to warm themselves.

I didn't move away from that landscape: I live only a few miles from the house where my parents live. My father still wakes up early each morning to take a walk, and he'll take photos to send over the family email list. And yet, though I still live here, the landscape of my childhood exists now mostly only in memories. It's disappeared gradually, one field or grove of trees at a time.

The process is sadly familiar. First, come the wooden stakes with the pink or orange surveyor ribbons. Next comes the equipment, big yellow machines, roaring so loud that conversation with the humans atop them is quite impossible. Then comes the muddy road, the fallen trees. The building begins, an office building usually. Soon the land is paved over, covered with asphalt and parked cars, or perhaps a smooth green lawn with no wildflowers at all.

The fields where I picked wild strawberries disappeared under a highway, a road that came so close to my parents' house that the state need to seize some of their land. The mountain of dirt, higher than the house even, separated us from our neighbors on the other end of our rural road; we kids never really saw those neighbor kids again. The meadow where we rode our horse holds an office park now, buildings filled with shiny windows and parking lots filled with cars. The highest hill near us was sliced, made smaller, to accommodate a new wide road for an auto parts plant. The trees near the corner were cut down to make room for a convenience store, where workers from the auto parts plant eat their lunch. The field where we used to cross-country ski, stopping in the old barn to rest and eat oranges, is a neatly mowed lawn now, with square buildings and a long paved parking lot. The marsh that lay below the FamilyofEight's house was filled in for a mall.

Bit by bit, the wild fringes of land, the pieces left between the developed areas, are shrinking. Friday, my father went for his morning walk, hoping to walk through the trails that wound through the old apple orchard, the overgrown field that was left. Instead, he found surveyor sticks, a muddy road, and a huge clearing. The trees had been bulldozed, left in piles. Yellow equipment stood by the road, waiting. The worst part, for my father, was seeing in the mud the tracks of the deer and fawn he'd been watching for the last few weeks. "Where will they go now?" he asked.

I wonder when I come to die, what stories I will tell my grandchildren about the landscape of my childhood. Perhaps I'll tell them about picking wild strawberries, that frustratingly tedious search for bits of sweetness. Perhaps I'll talk about galloping a horse across a wild meadow or cross-country skiing through the woods. But I won't be talking about a landscape far across the ocean or in another state. I'll be describing the landscape of Snowstorm Region, where I still live. And yet, most of it is already gone.


Songbird said...


AF said...

Puts a lump in my throat because I know it too well. Will the day ever come when we will no longer allow this?

joanna said...

After having spent the weekend in Western New York State, I am overwhelmed with how crisply beautiful the area is--an apple cider kind of day. I'm sorry to hear that it is also turning to developments and strip malls.

Anonymous said...

Some days my childhood feels like it belongs to another era. I basically grew up in the suburbs, but they were older ones, ones where you could run wild among culverts and brambles and make forts among the oak trees and mudpies along the railroad tracks. My brother and I and our friends were largely unsupervised, free to get muddy and full of splinters and to bring home buckets full of toads.

I worry that this is no longer possible, that this kind of feral childhood is increasingly rare, both because of the sort of declining wild space - even the little wild places that grow up between the civilized parts - and because we have forgotten to trust children's ability to make their own way.

I want any children I have to have a childhood like that - but my childhood seems to have so much more in common with the childhoods of my parents and their parents than any of the children's lives I see today - even among those of my friends who feel as I do.

I wonder, sometimes, if I - at age 38 - am the last of a generation of Americans who remembers such wild, empty, and unstructured time, of places where you could be alone with the dust and the birds and not see a new development just over the ridge.

I guess this is why I enjoy studying the 1920s and 1930s - people enough like us to be familiar, in a world empty enough to allow room for growing.

(Australia's still a bit like that, in the western parts...)

Tie-Dye Brother-in-law said...

They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot. - Joni Mitchell (no relation to Show-off Neighbor Boy)

kathy a. said...

i grew up in a suburban area of los angeles, so our main "open space" was a good-sized back yard and some local parks. when i returned to visit with my kids, they thought i was nuts, though, pointing out all the changes in the area since my youth. i can see whole landscapes that are gone now, "new and improved."

your personal story, though, reflects the larger push all over the country to build build build, pave pave pave.

we are lucky enough now to be right next to a dedicated nature area, and near several huge open parks and spaces. that these open areas exist is no accident; it is the result of many decades of efforts to protect beautiful open parkland in the middle of a major metropolitan area.

it is probably fair to give a lot of the credit to john muir, who made his home in my county and began preservation efforts in our state well over 100 years ago.

Anonymous said...

It's happening everywhere. It feels like it won't stop until everything is paved. EVERYTHING. :(

BlackenedBoy said...

I don't think you realize how truly, amazingly talented you are. This piece was heartwarming, heartbreaking, and a relevant social commentary, all at the same time.

As with several other things you've written, I will print this off to show to other people.

I think this is one of my favorites from you.

Also, I feel proud of myself because I actually, thanks to "Across the Universe," got the reference in the title.

Anonymous said...

what a fabulous story! thanks, as always, for sharing, jo(e)!

KathyR said...

I suppose it will be better to ruminate about that to your grandchildren than to describe all of the naked photoshoots for your blog.


To those of us who aren't real estate speculators (and there are probably fewer of those working than there were this time last year -- possibly the only upside to the whole mess), there doesn't seem to be much rhyme or reason to it. Which area will become some other area's bedroom community? Which places will remain open space?

Anonymous said...

I'm so sorry. I can't imagine how heartbreaking it must be to see your childhood disappearing before your eyes. It was, as usual, a beautifully written and evocative piece.

jo(e) said...

I appreciate all the thoughtful comments.

Tie-dye Brother-in-law: I did think of that song, but I DIDN'T ever think about Joni Mitchell having the same last name as Show-Off Neighbor Boy. That's too funny.

ScienceWoman said...

This is so sad.

But I couldn't help think about the old saying "'tis better to have loved and lost..." Think about all those kids growing up in the new developments and then going to work in the office parks, never knowing a connection to the natural world around them.

Essays like yours just firm up my commitment to get Minnow immersed in the outdoors as much as possible, despite our antiseptic suburban neighborhood.

nimiecat said...

They've done the same to the northern VA, too. Farms, fields and woods turn in to office parks, shopping centers and housing developments faster than you can blink.

Though, I'm lucky that the area I grew up is now protected. You can't build on lots smaller than 5 acres. So, while some of the farms are now big mansions, at least most of the landscape is still the same. But I was hurt to the core when the house that my Great Grandmother grew up in burned to ground.

BerryBird said...

This is such a sad story, Jo(e), repeating itself far too often. I grew up in a small town in your region, and it is horrifying to me whenever I go there and see the "progress." These old little villages with their own unique histories are getting swallowed up by the sprawling mushrooms of sterile bedroom subdivisions. People spend all their time commuting to the cities for work, while the housing in the cities crumbles abandoned.

Everyone wants to live in the country, but if that happens there will be no country left. I chose to buy my house in the city to fight this trend, but I am a drop in the bucket and nothing is changing.

Jody said...

I grew up in the Twin Cities, and this happens with horrifying regularity there. What used to be farms is endless suburbs now.

It's so easy for us to forget one of the main engines of this (I mean, I forget it too, and can't figure out why the world of my childhood is so absolutely gone, when I'm only 38 years old) --

1950 US population: 151 million
1960: 179 million
1970: 203 Million
1980: 226 Million
1990: 248 Million
2000: 281 Million

And we passed 300 million in 2007.

It's astonishing, when you stop to think about it.

(Although -- it doesn't really explain why they're bulldozing your fields, because you live in a region of falling population. The maps at http://tinyurl.com/7cqbhn are both beautiful and fascinating.)

sexy said...