Introduction - That Which We Already Know
With this post I will be veering in a new direction. I’ve come to realize that writing books and writing blogs and working full time and maintaining a house and relationships makes for a very busy life! How, then, to fit this new inspiration, this new realization of what I need to say, into an already busy existence? Yes, I COULD sell the house! That has definitely crossed my mind. Since I’m not quite ready to do that, however, I’ve decided to combine two of my most valued endeavors. With this post I will begin writing a book – in public, in “real time”, without a net, and in as close to final page order as possible. I hope it will be, for the reader anyway, a little like looking over the shoulder of a painter with easel set up before a great vista. I suspect, however, that it will be at times more like sitting in a backroom watching the making of sausage!
The regular reader will recognize the theme of this book in some of my past writings. In that regard this new direction will be a rather seamless transition with respect to Crossing Nebraska. More specifically, check out Returning to the Source and Those Still Wild Places. If at times over the coming months I feel the urge to slip in an “unrelated” post, I will let you know. Without such introduction, however, please assume that the next post you are reading is the next few pages of a larger composition which has a working title of That Which We Already Know.
The back gate of the very first home I ever knew opened onto a tract of land that once served as the nursery for nearby Gerhardt Gardens. By the time I arrived on the scene, however, the various plots of shrubs and saplings were already so overgrown as to seem more like wilderness to the child that I was. If not exactly wilderness, it was at least a crazy-quilt of different habitats stitched together and overlaid with whatever weeds and grasses and woodland succession plants happened to put down roots and start working their way toward the sun. Notwithstanding its state of near abandonment, we still referred to those 24 acres of beautiful wildness as the Nursery. If nothing else, it was a nursery for young minds.
A well-worn path headed east from that garden gate, through a dark patch of woods squeezed between a thicket of white cedars and the corrugated steel fence of a heating & cooling company. It was there that my father hung for us a rope swing in a welcoming box elder tree still within view of our house. It was there as well that a treehouse built by some older kids of days gone by beckoned to our new generation from high up in a much more imposing elm, challenging us to ratchet up our climbing skills.
On the other side of that dark wood the path opened onto the yard of an old abandoned barn. Within its yawning embrace were just enough rusting implements to be of interest to us kids even as its perpetual darkness and the ricketiness of the steps leading up to its loft kept our curiosity in check most of the time. Much more likely were we to be found scampering after the multitude of skinks that made their home amongst the rocks and debris piled end to end along its sunlit side.
Just past the barn was the white stone mansion where the Gerhardt family lived. We thought of it as a mansion, anyway, for we rarely saw one statelier – with four white columns gracing its two story face, and stone chimneys either side. The Gerhardt’s, we’d been told, were the real owners of all of the land that I’ve only just begun to describe; and so it was that we took care not to be seen as we passed by the back of their home, lest we have some orders shouted at us that we knew we couldn’t obey.
A dirt road headed south from there, laying claim to the heart of the Nursery – an open space that likely served as the staging area where harvested plants had their root wads wrapped in burlap prior to being carted off for sale. A row of trees and blackberry brambles lined the far side of that road, beyond which a rolling meadow sloped from the outfield of a baseball diamond all the way down to the nether reaches of our domain. For all practical purposes that meadow was the easternmost region of our world, save for an occasional journey out to oversee the activities of the men working in the stone yard bordering the railroad tracks.
Another trail headed south from our back gate, past the backs of the other homes on our side of the lane. From it one could access any number of other trails extending into the Nursery’s more tangled interior. Eventually it met up with another dirt road that veered west from that staging area and then wended its way up the hill and out to the main thoroughfare, passing by the bottom of our street and skirting a little vineyard and an old farmhouse along the way. Gephardt Gardens was out on that main thoroughfare – just across the way and down a ways. We’d pass it on our way to church on Sundays, until the interstate provided a much more direct route, that is.
Perhaps the Gerhardt business was already in decline by the time I came into the world, or maybe it had just gotten easier to ship plants in from elsewhere. At any rate, it was only very infrequently that we’d see a workman puttering along on a tractor with a flatbed cart in tow – heading out to abduct one of the tidier looking shrubs or saplings to be sold back up the hill. As might be expected, such sightings prompted a flurry of surveillance activity on the part of us kids so as to ascertain the mission and intention of these intruders. Which part of our beloved realm were they being dispatched to? How much disruption would they cause?
Thankfully, nothing much ever came of those incursions and the Nursery remained for the duration of our childhood an overgrown paradise, one in which we were free to wander and explore with precious few cares or constraints. It was a Garden of Eden, a perfect place for our sense of wonder to put down roots and flourish. Here and there, rows of evergreen bushes had grown to maturity so close together as to form cavern-like spaces underneath just big enough for us to crawl through. Elsewhere, a ring of mimosa trees remained with trimmings piled high around its perimeter – just like in my Tarzan book when the villagers needed to keep the man-eating lions at bay. A field stretched almost the entire length of its southern boundary, with prairie grass tall enough to get lost in or to shape into little hollows in which to hide for a time. There were also two great halls of oaks: one oriented such that it glowed like a golden cathedral in the autumn sunlight, the other with limbs spaced so perfectly as to tempt us to climb far higher than we were really ready to climb.
Threading its way between that hall of climbing oaks and an airy stand of birch trees was a drainage ditch that carried stormwater runoff from up above our lane down to a sinkhole about a hundred meters behind our neighbor’s yard. Of course we were warned to stay away from it lest we should tumble into its darkness and not be seen ever again, but that didn’t stop us from throwing rocks down into its gaping mouth in order to see if we might learn something about its interior from the sounds that echoed back. And down the hillside from that sinkhole, beyond where its effluent flowed out into a broad patch of sunchokes and Queen Anne’s lace, was a grove of honey locust trees whose thorny branches always gave us pause - as did the industrial detritus to be discovered there half-hidden in the grass and weeds.
Which brings me to the low-lying corner of our beloved realm. A vine-draped cluster of trees huddled there in solemn vigil around an eroded basin into which the runoff from the entire watershed came together before disappearing under the railroad tracks for parts unseen. Our entire world flowed through that point - the spring showers dripping down the still-dry stalks of prairie grass, the summer cloudbursts pummeling the wildflowers in the meadow rolling down from the ball field, the trickling mist from the irrigation pipes watering the truck farmer’s field across the way, and the rivulets draining from the streets and sidewalks of civilization to gush into the darkness of that sinkhole and out again into the light. I must have sensed that that was so even without the understanding that I presently have for I was drawn there just as surely as the waters were. I'd meditate there while sitting on a fallen log, allowing my gaze to soften so as to take in everything and nothing in particular all at once - the varied hues of emerald green, the glints of sunlight piercing through the leafy curtains, the tangle of branches and gravel washed down from above, the subtle impressions of form and light and being. I'd let it all flow through me like the water flowing through that basin.
Ah, but there was no shortage of such sacred places back there in the Nursery. There was that patch of cool grass between the spruce and fruit trees where we lay with the scent of wild onions wafting up our nostrils and the clouds billowing past overhead. There was that notch way up in the tallest of the sycamores that required no effort at all to rest in once you’d made it up that far. From there one could watch over the entire world that otherwise seemed so large while standing on the ground. There was the bottom of the ravine formed by the rainwater washing down from the ball field. The entire world seemed to disappear when we were there, save for the sky. And there were all those little ponds created by rainwater filling up the holes left behind after a bush or sapling had been plucked from the earth. If you sat still beside one of them long enough the frogs would begin to croak again, the birds would return to their chirping and chortling, and a dragonfly might even light upon your knee. How still could I be? How long could I remain as one amidst the suchness of so much sacred activity?
I learned a lot back there in the Nursery: the life cycles of frogs and mosquitoes; the coincidence of box elder trees and box elder bugs; the call of the crow, the red-winged blackbird, and the mourning dove; the look and feel and scent of the varied plants contained therein, and the earth in which they grew. I learned where you’re likely to find a puffball and what will happen if you pop it when the time is right. I learned that that which is moist nurtures life and that which is dry welcomes rain, and that all of life is a transformation from one thing to another – a coming into being based on causes and conditions, and a passing away when those causes and conditions subside. I learned that nothing exists of its own accord, and that in the midst of all of this coming into being and passing away is stillness.
Stillness is there in a lonely bird call on a sweltering afternoon, and in the blur of a dragonfly’s wings – hovering and darting, hovering and darting. Stillness is there in a chorus of frogs that falls silent as soon as our presence becomes known, and it is there deep inside to be known whenever we just sit quietly and observe. Yes, I learned a lot as the seasons came and went during those precious years of childhood. But what I appreciate most about the Nursery from my fallen position as one who is now all “grown up” is its ability to nurture in me that which I already knew – the value of being still and watchful.
That which is most central to our being is most easily overlooked. The simplest and purest truths of our existence are the ones most easily forgotten as we succumb to a frenzy of doing. Modern human life, even with all of its comforts and conveniences, is rife with the tyranny of busyness and frivolous distraction. It seems appropriate then to devote an entire book to the rediscovery of that which is in the heart/mind of every child, of that which nobody needs to be taught, of that which we already know.
Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:
Five-lined skink photo courtesy of Michael Holroyd via:
Dragonfly photo courtesy of André Karwath, aka Aka, via:
Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank