It takes a lifetime, perhaps, to really know a piece of land. We men and women, tramping here, and peering there at robin nests and butterfly landings, are merely infants in nature’s scheme, even though we like to imagine we’re the Head Honchos of the planet, the great beast of prey.
We moved here to the southern shore of Lake Superior back in the late 1970’s. We came as innocents, thinking we knew something, as young folks in their 20’s often do. We arrived bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to cut firewood and create a home where we might someday raise children of the earth, wild things, really, with dirt between their toes and imaginations bigger than this deep cold unpredictable lake.
Of course, the young’uns would read books, too, and draw pictures with sharp stubby pencils, and carry stuffed animals down to the spring-melt off and once even load the creatures in a red wagon and “run away” into the trees for at least an hour while Mama watched periodically through the bedroom window from fifty feet away.
It takes a long time, perhaps a lifetime, to learn the language of trees and chickadees and black bear, let alone our fellow humans. You must listen carefully to hear the swish of garter snakes almost underfoot, the screech of an owl at midnight that sounds like a forlorn baby crying, the faraway call of the noble loon.
You learn about clouds of mosquitoes, so thick that arms and hands move constantly, slapping, killing. “I am a murderer,” I thought only yesterday, blood on bare skin, mosquitoes lying limp and crushed.
Black flies bites burn, and often welt deep. Sand flies, oh what pests. Wood ticks? We’ve discussed them ad nauseam. What about the red fox, trotting low, so feral, so beautiful? What about the porcupine with his razor-sharp quills that climbed the poplar behind the deck and munched budding leaves, oh how delicious after winter’s sparse pickings, and waved in the wind, a swaying porcupine, my goodness, what if that branch simply breaks, sending the creature falling eighty feet straight down?
You could study the flora and fauna from now until sunset and only know a few random facts. Do you know where the raccoon lives? Do you know why the rabbits live up the road at Roz’s old house, rather than down here? (It’s because lots of low-growing evergreens provide cover for hide and seek, musky earth-smelling cubbyholes to save rabbit fur from hunting hawks and owls.)
We’ve lived here, oh, 34 short years, and I know so little.
How many years does one chatter away in one’s head and not feel the earth beneath her feet? How many seasons pass, just like that, and you’re too busy planting garden seeds, and scolding chipmunks for stealing all the pea seeds, and annoyed at the pileated woodpecker that destroyed one exterior wall with his insistent pecking, looking for tasty insects and now you’ll have to spend how many hundreds of dollars repairing it?
When you move to a rural area, a place already populated by others who’ve grown generations of roots into the earth, how long does it take to be accepted? How many years must you be an outsider?
More than 34 years, methinks. Just last week, at a local meeting, when the board debated up and down the possibility of spraying chemicals to kill tag alder trees near the cemetery–and I voiced the unpopular opinion that it just wasn’t right–a friend later frowned and said, “Remember what I told you 25 years ago?” she said. “If you don’t like how we are up here, don’t move here.”
“We’ve lived here 34 years,” I sighed, wondering if she was joking or serious. (How long? How long until we’re totally accepted? The answer–maybe never.)
We weren’t born here. They don’t remember our parents in elementary school. Heck, they didn’t even know our grandparents or great-grandparents. We’re transplants, like cucumber or broccoli starts grown from seed in a faraway greenhouse.
This, by the way, is the same friend who once confided, “I like the way you help me see outside the box.”
Her family has long roots, hearty roots, deep in the soil. She’s not alone in her assessment. Many locals wish the transplants would stay away. Or at least take them as they are and not irritate them with fancy environmental tree-huggin’ suggestions. Their focus goes toward earning a living in a tough-scrabble place. Who’s to blame them? Their children must find jobs and many don’t care if they’re in a sulfide mine, or chopping down trees, as long as they can feed hungry family big bowls of stew or maybe some venison.
Our children moved away. Their toes no longer dirty, their forts no longer standing, the stuffed animals packed in the attic.
I’m a murderer. I split hundreds, thousands, millions of trees into logs to keep us warm come wintertime. Life-giving sap dries up on my planetary watch. Look out, tree. Look out, mosquito. Nothing’s safe on this planet, is it, or easy to classify in black and white judgments?
How long does it take to know a place, the ins and outs? A lifetime, I guess.
Why does it take a lifetime? We’re given the opportunity to create a relationship with our surroundings, to glimpse beyond our limited personal selves. Some create even a marriage of sorts. Perhaps we need season passing season to deepen into our relationship with our local flora, fauna and two-leggeds.
Perhaps, one fine day, the boundaries will fall away and we’ll realize our innate interdependence with everything. Perhaps, even, one sunrise the definition of ourselves will expand to include the sun, the water, the boat. We’ll realize we’re not as limited as we once imagined.
Perhaps the earth will celebrate in a rainbow of delight.