I just asked one of my housemates, who is an Ohio boy (A Midwesterner! My people!), if living in the city makes him miss nature.
“You know,” I tried to explain, “Trees, grass, deer … ”
He looked at me with amusement as Britta got him a glass of water:
“Nope,” he said, taking a long sip.
Living in the city makes me miss nature.
I took the Greyhound bus to New Jersey and back this weekend to visit my aunt and uncle. On the way there it was too dark to see out the window, but on the way back, I looked. And looked. And whipped out Google Maps on my phone to see which river we were crossing. And resisted tugging on the sleeve of the gentleman near me: “It’s the Delaware! Can you believe it? We should be in rowboats!” And looked.
There were ugly parts, as there are in every state. Parts where cracked parking lots are weighed down with rusted cherry pickers and pickup trucks coated halfway up with salt. Where cylindrical towers blow smoke into the sunset to be disguised with the same pink tips and shots of orange as the real clouds have. Where even small sheds crouching at the edge of cornfields are marked with spray paint. They now sport puffy names and cuss words. Where three deer run along the freeway, slower than a Greyhound but fast enough that they blur against the tan noise barriers. They wouldn’t have come in, broken through a small gap in the wall, but for the intriguing bits of trash. Waxy sandwich wrappings containing stray shreds of lettuce. Tipped Slushie cups, stained blue and red. Thousands of cigarette butts laying pale and idle in the grass, some still warm. Having sniffed it all and found it unsatisfactory, the deer run, looking for a break in the wall that will let them back out.
The beautiful parts, the parts that made me want to get out and run myself, were these: the rivers (Delaware and Susquehanna); trees that had been planted in a perfect semi-circle along the curving freeway ramp years ago, and had grown up; a sprawling garden filled with what appeared to be cabbages; woods I could imagine Continental Army soldiers picking their way through, born too soon to appreciate the great absence of noise; a red and orange sunset that turned everything below it on the earth into shadowy, unrecognizable shapes.
Please don’t mistake me for someone who is outdoorsy. I do wear flannel sometimes, and I do miss nature when it’s not around, and I do dream about settling down in the woods with a bear-proof house and a typewriter and a husband who makes good coffee, but when I was a kid and had all of Lake Superior to look at and hike around and fish in, I often opted to sit in the cabin and read. Perhaps I’ve changed a little since then, but not too much.
Today, though, I looked at every bit of nature between Newark and D.C. like a benevolent Thoreau. I memorized it, only losing focus for a moment when a woman at the back of the bus launched into a loud phone conversation. But then even she became poetic as she scolded and repeated and shouted her injustices for all to hear:
And then my mom called the Po on me again.
She called the Po-lice on me again …
I said … I only fell asleep … I didn’t sleep over: I fell asleep.
She’s a sweet girl, and I’ve always liked her. But even she …
Even she’s jealous of my hair.
I had long hair in school. Long, longer than most people’s.
And she was always jealous of me. I can tell. I could tell every day.
Don’t interrupt me again. I said, don’t interrupt me again!
The deer fled from her and from the city, and could lose themselves in the old, shrinking woods. But I could only watch it and make a poem out of it and save it for nights when the city is close around me and the trees are few and young.