Thursday, April 22, 2021

"Nature is Everywhere"

When I was ten years old, we lived in aparment two, Alvarado Road. It was a large complex, near a university, on a freeway frontage road. Next to the apartments was a vacant field, and a gas station. As often as possible our Mom took us to beaches, or to the local mountains, a county park. Today, those places are like going home. I think it's fair to say my brothers are as nostalgic about Julian, Dos Picos, the Bay, and Cove, as I am. The roads are familiar, the destinations dear. We loved being out in nature, exploring, paddling in the water, or scrambling over boulders, making trails. Back home,our two bedroom apartment had a very small enclosed patio, lots of winding sidewalks, a "rec" room, where Bill became incredibly adept at playing pool, for a 7 year old. We could also use the swimming pool, which was easily a favorite part of living there. Between buildings, along the sidewalks, was landscaping... carrotwood trees, agapanthus, asparagus fern (hideous stuff). Some of the apartment entries were planted with Schefflera, and I felt sorry for those Australian transplants, stuck growing in cramped quarters, where they had to stoop and bend beneath the over-hanging roofs of the second stories, with Heavenly Bamboo ("Highly popular in the landscape, one of the toughest and most adaptable plants,") encircling their trunks. To this day, I cringe when I see landscaping of nandina, Schefflera, and especially asparagus fern. It took me a long time to appreciate agapanthus, to not feel begrudging, and the same with butterfly irises, and bird of paradise. In California all of those plants were ubiquitous with apartments, rentals, and tough gardens kept by tough landlords.
Before Apt 2, we lived in a rental house in Oceanside, and before that we lived at three different houses in Ramona. Ramona is where our Mom gardened. Where I watched my mother blossom, growing rhubarb, squashes, strawberries, keeping chickens, raising calves, feeding everyone, and always impressing me because she knew the names of flowers. Ramona is where I awoke to nature. Nature. In the small house, where I walked to kindergarten, and to Woodward's, the feed and tack store. The house where we had bunnies, who had bunnies, where I made mud pies and baked them in a scrapped oven, planted sunflowers, bought Chick-o-sticks and candy cigarettes at the ReXall on Main and 7th Street. When we moved to the house off Highway 67, there was room for chickens, and those calves, and exploring out back, up into scrub, oaks, and granite boulders. There was room to run with a kite, to chase a dog, and get dirty, to eat from the garden, and stalk rabbits, to ride the Big Wheel down the rain rutted trail that dropped down, at a wild grade, for small, adventurous, daring children. We moved from this home to the red house with the big trees, a basement, room for a pony, and cats, where we could coax the toads to climb out of their holes, find horny toads, and trap-door spiders, where bats got into an attic crawl space, and even the grown-ups wanted to sit on the swings... the same swings that inspired me to ask for a big swing of our own, here at our Bird House. Next to my bed was a window that popped open, and had no screen, and within reach were the branches of a large shrub that grew all the way up to that second floor. I nibbled on the berries, whatever they were, that grew on the bush. They were garnet red, crisp on the outside and sort of spongy and pale inside. They were only slightly sweet. (Wow. The Internet is amazing. I only had to do a few rounds of searching to discover what I was eating. No one else ate them, and I was almost secretive about them, and never sure what they were. If only I'd known, because I think they were lilly pilly berries, and how absoultely magical is the name "lilly pilly"?) I don't think we lived there even two years, yet my mind is brimming with memories, like something that could fill chapters of a novel. Maybe it's because those were what they call "formative years," when I was six, when we had a full house, when I was impressionable, and aware, when both good moments, and disturbing events, were vivid. When we had to move, I was devastated.

The house in Oceanside, and the time there, was maybe the furthest I ever felt from nature, from beauty. My Mom worked in Escondido, and in Barrio Logan... commutes that I can hardly fathom, now. It was not an easy time, and some very traumatic things happened while we lived there, when I walked home from school through a SWAT event, and my friends were held hostage, and my next-door neighbor had bullet holes through her house, and an injured dog, when the home and family we shared a chain link fence with held a backyard memorial for their murdered son. This was when our father re-married, and didn't tell us, didn't invite us to the wedding. The best of those days were when we would visit cousins in Alhambra, or friends in Julian, or when the library truck would stop across the street.

Earth Day. I sat down to write about Earth Day, and I fixed on the idea that Nature is not a separate place from us. I have been seeing posts about going out into Nature, and getting away to Nature. I understand the expressions, and I know there's a difference between a greenspace or a garden strip planted up in a parking lot, and a National Park, or a truly wild space, where nothing is paved, or managed. But I have lived much of my life in spaces where nature is sectioned off, divided, minimal, and I like to think that I have learned to recognize nature in those small spaces, outside of preserves, and parks, to glean a connection and appreciation for Nature as everywhere, around us, even in us. Forests and deserts, protected spaces, where native plants and wildlife have room and habitual cycles, are wonderful, invaluable. But I know that we won't all have the chance to hike, and camp, to explore, and retreat to sacred places, where deer cross meadows, or no cars pass, and so I like to both protect large spaces, and care for small nature, too. And I think I learned this, or was at least influenced in this way, by my Mom, my Abuelas, by Handsome Eddie and Eileen, and by Genie.

When we moved from Oceanside to San Diego, to Apartment 2, I might have lost even more "natural space," but our Mom kept bringing us to the beaches, to tide pools, and beach-combing, to ocean swims, and exploring remote parts of the bay, where we could find sea urchins, and octipi. I remember times when we would count all of the coins we could find, for gas money, so we could get to the local mountains, so we could picnic in Dos Picos Park, fish at the pond, scramble around the trails, gather acorns, or visit Julian, and those wild spaces, with creeks, and trees, and good memories. She did all she could to give us wild spaces and freedom to move in them.

Behind Apartment 2, outside the gate of our little patio, was the patio of our neighbor, Genie. She was older. I can't say how much older, since I was only 8 or 9, maybe 10, and didn't have much perspective about such things. But she noticed me, or I noticed her. I don't remember. I do remember that she had white hair, and often wore shorts, and looked confident, like a person busy enjoying herself and happy about it. And at some point, I was invited in, and it's even possible I invited myself in, but I found myself in her apartment and seeing her paint easel, and petting her small white dog. I didn't know any women, her age that wore shorts, that painted at an easel, during the day, that was busy enjoying herself, and made time to talk about it, with me. And something else, she was gardening on that small patio, and I was astonished at it. The property manager had chased me off and scolded me, more than a few times, for picking flowers, for playing in the weight room, or hanging around where I didn't belong, for trying to climb a tree, and once for digging. So, I questioned Genie, incredulously, How can you garden here? I had this idea that there was no literal or figurative room to garden in an apartment, on a patio, no room, or permission, to dig. Plainly, and assuredly, she replied, "You can garden anywhere. Nature is everywhere, and you can have part in it, care for it." She introduced me to her plants, to her pots, and to moss rose. I most clearly remember the moss rose, and her explaining what a simple and gratifying plant it was.

She painted her flowers, too. And I was awestruck by the way she was engaged with beauty, seeing it, caring for it, even reproducing it in her art. I thought she was brilliant, and I felt akin to serenity, to calm, purposeful living, when I was around her. I wanted to observe more of this, and be in her influence. When I found out she was moving, I was almost as heartbroken as I felt leaving Weekend Villa Road for Oceanside. I would sit outside, on her patio and watch her pack. She gave me her painting of a geranium in a glass. A masterpiece, to my mind. I watched all of her things go into boxes, and felt so low, so aware of my limitations. How far is to Barstow? How would I ever see her again? How do you tell someone that you need them, that they are too significant to lose? I couldn't find the words. I asked her about Barstow, and she wrote her new address on a slip of paper. She was looking forward to the sun and warmth, to retirement, and new gardens. And that's when I realized that her patio garden was staying behind, and it shook me. How could she leave her garden? It felt doubly hard; it wasn't just me getting left behind, but the geraniums, and moss rose, too! I asked her, almost accusingly, What about your garden? How can you just leave it behind? The manager might throw it all away! She was always so composed, assured, and she replied, "They'll be fine. Don't worry. Nature finds a way." She was sure, but I had doubts. I was worried. I looked out my bedroom window, over her patio fence, and into her empty apartment, and I fixed on a plan.
Before new tenants moved in, before the apartment manager went over and could take anything out, I would take Genie's garden. I determined to save all I could of her plants, and care for them myself. It happened that we were moving, too. This time to house-sit for people with a big home and a backyard that had almost nothing growing in it. On the look out for any grown-ups, as stealthily as I could, I slipped into Genie's patio, and I dug up the moss rose, careful of the roots, mindful of not getting caught. I kept the small plants in a box, sprinkling water on them, and fretting about how long they'd last before they had to be stuck back into some dirt. And would anyone mind, if I took a bit of space in the backyard of a house that wasn't ours? I did get to transplant the moss rose, and I recognized when they went to seed, and I planted those, and some grass seed I found in the garage. I became a moss rose expert, over a few months, while we were house-sitting. I don't think my part of the yard was even more than two square feet, but I took so much pride in it. I felt like a Gardener, like a person attune with nature. I would have said "naturalist," if I knew the word. And today, on Earth Day, I remember and cherish, every small and great experience of nature, whether in the Redwoods, or on a piece of firewood that is sprung back to life with moss. We need to save the planet, and do big things for our climate, but we can do it in small ways, in small spaces, too. We can share seeds, we can share ideas and opportunities... ideas that may inspire feelings akin to serenity and feeling that connection that we have to nature, because Naure is all around us, in us.


Teresa Kasner said...

You have a good memory for all those homes. My mom liked to move, too so when we moved from Oklahoma to Oregon when I was 4. We moved 12 times by the time I grew up and left home. It's no wonder that I've wanted to stay in the same place once I was married and had children! Although we married in Louisiana and lived 3 places there before we moved back to Oregon and lived 3 places here but have been in Corbett since 1974. ((hugs)), Teresa :-)

gretchenjoanna said...

I loved reading about your many and varied ways of being in and participating with nature over the years. You had good examples of women who had eyes to see, and love for what they saw. I am really grateful, too, for growing up in the middle of an orchard, with lots of "good clean dirt" all around, frogs and dogs and a giant oak tree and a river and certain weeds and birds.

If my parents did not talk about any of this, it didn't matter; it belonged to us anyway. We had no devices to distract us from the realness of the natural environment all around us, and we did have the example of our father and our friends' fathers who made their living from the land. It was easy to grow up with the idea that the earth is a wonderful gift.

Natalie, the Chickenblogger said...

There was a lot of moving in my life, until we arrived at this house, where we have been for almost 12 years! This is the longest, by 2x, that I have ever stayed in a single spot. Not all moves are hard, but I don't miss packing, or unpacking!

Natalie, the Chickenblogger said...

An orchard, and all the rest sounds like a wonderland! And when we are young we can have such an easy inclination to find wonders in most places, but frogs, and rivers, and a giant oak tree had to be bliss. What varieties of fruit, or nuts, were growing in the orchard?

Sara at Come Away With Me said...

I truly enjoyed reading this Natalie! An awareness of and love for Nature was always central to my wellbeing from very early, although cultivating plants was never my interest at that age. Two of my four siblings are the gardeners. My grandparents lived in Oceanside; I grew up mostly in Carlsbad, except when my father moved us first to Twenty-Nine Palms and then to the Central Valley during my fifth and sixth grades, returning to Carlsbad after that. On our return to Carlsbad, we spent a couple years in a rented old house (more of a ramshackle shack) on Buena Vista St., then into rented houses by the Agua Hedionda lagoon (the last one was in the middle of an avocado grove), then finally my parents bought a little home in a small cul-de-sac right next to the railroad tracks. In August 1971, I moved out to live with my girlfriend and her sister who were attending SDSU. If you can believe it, we lived in an apartment on Alvarado Road near the university (could they the same apartments your family lived in??). For nine months I walked up the 70th Street hill to catch the bus on El Cajon Boulevard that took me downtown to go to "Business College" (secretarial school). After that I got a clerical job at SDSU and the rest is history. These days I do keep a little garden. And I have always been more comfortable with Nature than with my fellow humans . . .

Natalie, the Chickenblogger said...

Sara! Our paths have crossed, a few years apart, but we were definitely on the same paths! Did you live in the multi-story apartments, or the ones that were more like condos? Do you remember the weight room next to the swimming pool, or the kind of rec room, where there was a pool table, and empty rooms for events? I walked up 70th, too, on my way to school, then home, again. We were at John Muir, on Mohawk and 69th, but my brother and I would sometimes adventure out to El Cajon Blvd. A couple of times I got to ice skate, across the freeway, where 70th became Lake Murray. I LOVED it! Now I am taking a closer look on a Google map... no more fields, no more gas station, but I can see our apartment, and Genie's, and the entries of other neighbors I remember.
And for a while, when we were in Oceanside, I went to a (strange, though not for the 70s) school in Carlsbad, where some young people had a rural home, very communal, and we were dropped off and free to educate ourselves by pursuing our interests... climbing trees, sliding down dry slopes, and listening to The Beatles, exclusively! We even got to do a Beatles themed tribute skit at the Carlsbad Library when they screened Yellow Submarine. I was a Blue Meanie and "danced" on stage! I'd love to have some idea where that "school" was. Carlsbad, before it was developed, was a wonderful kind of oasis.