Although it is easy to wax poetically and over-romanticize one’s childhood while looking back decades, my childhood days really were glorious. I lived in a tiny town of about 1000 people located in one square mile of New Jersey, very much in farmland. Roosevelt is located in central Jersey where relatively large areas of undeveloped land remain and there are still farms left. Sure, there are tract housing developments near my hometown now that did not exist when I was a kid, but it is still a wooded borough surrounded by plenty of nature.
I got to thinking about my experience with nature as a child because of a book that I just read for my book club, Last Child In The Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv. I have been in one book club or another for more than 20 years. This time I have rejoined a club that meets at the library in my new small-town—new in the sense that I have only been living here full time for about 5 years and part-time for only 20 years. A club member, Annie, who works in ecological education, suggested the book. She also happens, coincidentally, to be married to the son of Becky who I grew up with in my hometown of Roosevelt. Although it is possible that knowing Annie’s connection to my town primed me to recollect these nature experiences, the book on its own was remarkable in how much it elicited my memories of being a child of nature in the 60s.
One of the themes of the book is that children raised before the early 70s had a different relationship with nature than most children do now or during the intervening years. As I read the book I realized how lucky I was to roam the small streets and woods of my town and commune with nature. My whole perspective on life, in retrospect, was influenced by nature when I was a girl. To me, being in nature is paradise—heaven on earth. I assumed everyone felt that way and I am sure many do. But I actually did live in Paradise. Well, it was once.
Roosevelt was originally Jersey Homesteads and before that is was an area named Paradise. I have the map to prove it! In winter I often sled down Paradise Hill, a steep paved road that was the only remaining nod to Roosevelt being Paradise. In the adjacent woods, if you dared, there was a path through the woods called “Steeple Chase” where you had to dodge trees as you speed down the slope. I think the first time I tasted Jack Daniel’s—just a sip—was on a cold evening as a teenager sledding on Paradise Hill. My mom grew up in the same town and during the early 50s, she sled there too (though I have no idea if she sipped whiskey).
So many of poignant childhood memories are outdoors somewhere in town. Near our school there were many great opportunities for outdoor exploration. In “the enclosure”, a tree and grassy square lined by hedges, friends and I played many different games including hide-and-seek. Even though that area was relatively manicured compared to the woods, I loved running around and under and sometimes climbing through the big trees or just lazing on the grass in the enclosure blowing blades of grass to create sounds.
I was devoted to the paths in town (I walked many paths outside of town too—see Walking Around A Lake). There was the formal path between the school and Tamara Drive where I even found wild asparagus growing. I can almost taste the raw thin sweet stalks to this day. I often walked along the path beside the creek that ran through town. The creek meandered and crossed roads at several locations including Tamara Drive, Rochdale Ave and an unpaved road that we simply called “the path”. I loved stopping on any of those overpasses to play with the creek. I’d place a leaf on the upstream side of the road so that I could watch it float under the road and pop out the other side. What quiet joy!
I wandered all the paths in town alone or with a friend or my brother any number of times just to explore. Or to use as a shortcut. That was a common word I used to describe the routes on paths I found between places in town. I took a shortcut through people’s backyards, front yards, or the woods—all ways imaginable including just about going through someone’s house—to get between my home and somewhere I wanted to go. I took shortcuts to school. I took shortcuts to my best friend Peri’s house that was across the street from my grandmother Coco’s house so therefore a shortcut to her place as well. And I took shortcuts to my great Aunt Ellie’s house. Most of the shortcuts were through the woods on hardly what you’d call a path in some places. They were more just routes through bramble and prickly bushes, some with blueberries or raspberries, or slimy rock lined routes with colorful moss.
Moss stands out prominently in my love of nature. Very close to my house, above the Pine Valley Swim Club, was a path into the woods where I made a secret hiding spot in a moss-covered embankment. I kept a metal box that held—I don’t know what—tucked under rocks and moss. I loved to go there and sit and think and smell the earth around me. I’ve apparently known forever that flora sights and scents are essential to my livelihood. Not that I didn’t like bugs. I really liked bugs a lot! Whether playing with lighting bugs by putting them into jars as lanterns, or pulling off the lighting part just when they flashed on and squishing them on my finger to imitate a diamond (gross), or collecting bugs as specimens for a science classification project, I definitely was one with bugs.
So now when I think of Coco’s and my great grandmother Hani mama’s vegetable garden and the sweetest peas imaginable from the brightest green pods possible or I remember the wonderful feeling of my hands pulling carrots from the earth or I envision dancing around Ellie’s cherry trees and gooseberry bushes and the baked goodies that we created with them, I recognize how much my childhood was chock ‘o block with good times in nature. And I recognize that those good times in nature have influenced what I consider good times now. I’ve been a flower gardener from the time we bought our home 20 years ago to today. Now that Andy built us a vegetable garden, we are also vegetable gardeners. I often dream of that wild asparagus in Roosevelt, so much so that I am considering planting some in our garden even though it needs lots of space and years to establish. And not surprising, one of the first things I did when bought our property was create paths (and a labyrinth—see Revealing the labyrinth on our land). I need only step outside to be surrounded by our 3 acres of woods to regain the calm and quiet joy that I have known since childhood.
Several years ago I rambled on about how nature soothes my soul to my life coach. From the clouds above (see Cloud Hopping) to the earth below and all the flora and fauna in between, I spoke of my sense of awe and love for nature. He paused and thought about what I said and then characterized me as deeply spiritual. I had a momentary confusion having been raised non-religious. Me spiritual? I never learned anything about religion so what does spiritual mean? I was unable to fully reconcile my feelings of transcendence when I commune with nature with what I think of as religion. But now I recognize that through nature I was first exposed to the sense that there is something more than me as an individual. In nature, as a child and now as an adult, I feel connected to all forms of life and I have a need to use my hands to connect with my evolution on earth. This isn’t a theological perspective but rather a personal spirituality perspective. Now I understand that to me nature is a perfect place to get replenished because it embodies love, beauty and peace. I will always be a nature child of the 60s.