My first memorable experiences with the great outdoors were in good old, pre-hipster Brooklyn. The whole lot of us, brothers, sisters, cousins and friends on the block made a daily pilgrimage around our neighborhood in the summertime. After hopping from school to school for free lunch, and after stashing as many desserts as we could in my sister’s stroller, we would then settle in a nearby park and stay put for hours until it was time to head back home for dinner.
My cousin Eric and I would get bored after a while; there was only so much swinging and hanging from the metallic monkey bars one could do, so we usually ended up in one of the fenced off, grassy areas of the park, digging for worms and whatever other treasures we could find. Once we found peanuts and imagined we were in West Africa, where peanuts are called groundnuts. Other times we’d only find worms, trying to lay them out in straight lines on the grass, but for some reason it never worked. They’d wriggle and wriggle, and we’d laugh and laugh, rolling in the patch of grass surrounded by metal and concrete, the squeaks of rusty swings and the smell of metal, dirt, pavement and rubber assaulting our senses, filling us with life and filling our hearts.
The summer of 1985 found me in a dark culvert, lit only by the dim headlamps that our two counselors wore as they guided twelve eight-year olds on a nighttime stream hike, our first evening at camp. For many it was their first time this far away from home, and the first time living in a place where the only sounds at night were of crickets, far away thunderstorms, and occasional peals from other campers in their bunks across the quad. I had on brand new, too-heavy-for-my-feet work boots and cotton socks, jeans, and a t-shirt, not understanding yet why I was poorly dressed for our expedition into the damp unknown.
It was terrifying. Never had I imagined that I would be walking in a stream at night somewhere deep in the forest in Upstate New York with a bunch of other Brooklyn and Queens kids I didn’t know, and counselors from places like England, Ireland, and Scotland. We screamed and shouted, slipping on the smooth rocks, trembling and scaring ourselves into thinking that Bigfoot was right behind us. We held hands, hoping that if we were tethered to each other, somehow we wouldn’t be snatched by the Boogeyman, who was most definitely waiting for us at the end of the culvert.
At the end of the hour-long hike, we chided each other for being such scaredy-cats and promised we would never, EVER do anything like this again, because what were these crazy people thinking? But the bond formed was immediate, and I would forever think of those girls and boys whose names I have long forgotten whenever I cross a stream, or whenever it is dark in the woods.
As unsettling and new as this experience was, I became fascinated by the way it made me feel. Scared but exhilarated, fearful yet somehow energized, at peace and content—happy to have lived through this seemingly insurmountable and frightening task.
When I am hunkered down in my tent up on Mt. Mitchell resting my feet on my dirty backpack after a long day in Pisgah,
When I am climbing up a rocky trail in the Chattahoochee National Forest, slipping on always-wet rock,
When I am home in Brooklyn and catch a whiff of the playground around the corner where monkey bars are now called jungle gyms and are made of plastic and colorfully coated metal,
When I come across worms doing their work in my fledgling and poorly maintained flower garden
When I am running down a rooty hill on the Bartram Trail, only to get stung by angry yellow jackets,
When I smell wild onions running through a grassy meadow, or thyme high up in the Sierra Nevada in Spain,
When I sit on the stoop on a summer evening in Brooklyn, listening to cars, air brakes on elevated trains, people, shouts, sirens, kids…looking up at stars blurred by city lights, life.
This, is my nature.