My consciousness was established in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the farmland outside Middleburg, Virginia, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was a complicated childhood, and nature was my refuge.
Things that I remember.
The springtime celebration of aspen leaves fluttering in the breeze; the invasion of tiny helicopters from the old oak trees along Goose Creek in the fall.
Hot fields of goldenrod and thistle buzzing with rusty grasshoppers and horseflies.
Tufts of animal fur in the abrasive bark of the black locust trees.
Peeling the buttery smooth bark from the sycamore trees and making little canoes to float families of bugs down the creek.
Deposits of grey, wormy scat.
The white-tail deer who would linger outside the goat pen in the dusk. The deer wanted to get in and the goats wanted to get out.
Cutting paths through the chaotic bramble on the hillside above the pond.
The weightless clutch of their tiny feet when chickadees would land on my hands to take sunflower seeds from my palm.
The friendly song of the bob whites, though they were too shy to ever let you see them. The wailing geese that brought Bob Alexander thundering through the brush because he thought dad was drowning in the pond.
Blacksnake stretched out on a hot, flat rock, its belly bulging.
My whole stringer of bluegills and largemouth bass eaten to their gills by a snapping turtle the size of a hubcap.
The earthy smell of my hands after I’d spent the afternoon steering a patient box turtle down the corridors I had carved in the weeds.
The frantic braying of the dogs when they treed a gopher, and the sharp crack of Mr. Pearson’s .22 that spun his fat body off the branch and to the ground with a dull thud. The disappointed dogs dragged their tongues back up to the porch, where they lay on the cool stone patio snapping at the horseflies.
“You ain't got a gun?” Mr. Pearson asked, scratching the scalp under his Massey Ferguson baseball cap. “This ain't like the city, now. Y’all need to have a gun.”
Also from Mr. Pearson, “You ain't need be ‘fraid of no niggers. They ain't no more harm than old Shep here,” he said roughing the ears of his grey-eyed and arthritic hound. “I can tell her, Now you go on up to the house and sit on the porch and I’ll be along shortly, and she do just that.” But that’s an aside.
The tangled mass of squirming babies that spilled from the guts of the bloated black rat snake when Joe McCormick ran over her with his tractor.
The smooth cove where the two huge trunks of the live oak tree came together that seemed perfectly sculpted to cradle the body of a young boy seeking shelter from a troubled life.
The frantic, slimy tadpoles held between cupped hands in the shallows. The impossibly quick backwards escape when the crayfish saw the shadows of your hands hovering overhead.
Skulls of possums and rats in the dusty crawlspace under the abandoned house. Tracks of deer, red fox, bobcat, coon and possum crisscrossing soft mud or fresh snow. Following deer tracks to the stands of spicebush, where would flock clouds of metallic blue swallowtails. The deer would chew the bush to its nubs, the fat, bright green caterpillars like sweet bits of fruit.
The shards of busted out window glass under my pale thighs when I slid across the seat of the old sky blue pickup truck that sat abandoned, tires rotted flat, sunk to the axles in the McCormick’s back field, cows the size of elephants stretching through the vacant window and rubbing me with their snot and slobber. I couldn't understand how they could let flies walk on their eyeballs. Mud daubers with their stingers stretched out behind buzzing against the windshield.
Spending a summer week building a dam in Aldie Creek, and then finding that the beavers built a better one overnight.
The exuberant acrobatics of the swallows at dusk. Spastic bats flopping around, shadows against the blue black night sky. The glorious luminous yellow and green Luna Moth pressed flat against the stone wall by the back light at “damn near midnight”, so said the grown-ups.
Translucent egg sacs under the branches of the fir trees.
Salamanders exploring the foreign territory of my hands and finding nothing leaping back into the creek.
Ant colonies like huge, moth-eaten quilts of sand and twigs spread out in the prickly hot sun.
Conical mounds of clay, miniature volcanoes spewing lava of nervous fiery red ants. If you stood still to watch, they would leave burning welts up your calves.
Waking up from dozing in the soft, damp weeds where the creek snuck under the barbed wire fence into the Alexander’s farm, chiggers chewing holes in my crotch and pits.
Churning bramble, bright with tiny flowers or drooping with dark fruit. Harvested berries with pricks of blood, honorable wounds for a heavily seeded pie. Digging sassafras root for its sweet summer brew, wild asparagus from the dry ditch along Aldie Dam Road.
Civil war battlefields of fat poke berries, who would spill their bright crimson blood into the sandy clay when sticks and pebbles flew.
Clusters of monarch butterflies battling for the pink milkweed flowers.
Oily rotting seed husks around the base of the black walnut trees that would make tomato plants wither and die.
I'm old now. The trails are paved. I stroll along, hands clean, remembering how it used to be.