by Erlene Woollard
I grew up as a quietly feral child in the deep US South in the midst of a conservative, highly traditional and even rigid decorum. My earliest memories are of much family chaos juxtaposed with the serene visits to my grandparent’s farm in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was orderly and wonderful with its large “gingerbread” house, scuppernong vines, gnarly apple trees and enticing barn with scented hay bales that my handsome young uncles fed to the dubious looking cows and horses. The huge lawn welcomed us with its old oak trees and much needed shade by day and evening gatherings of family and friends.
Once the day’s hot, hard work was done and the evening meal of local bounty was over, we would gather for respite and fun. We children chased lightening bugs and each other in the approaching dusk, trying not to hurt bare feet on the sharp acorns scattered about. Our evening treats of freshly churned ice cream full of farm cream and locally grown strawberries or peaches made the evenings complete and we happily settled into sweet smelling and seemingly ancient beds for dreamless sleeps.
Then my family moved farther south and these visits became less frequent but just as sacred while I entered a new life of being a “town kid,” learning to ride my bike on tree lined sidewalks, walking to school and starting piano and tap dancing lessons. At the age of five I was allowed to go to the store for mom who had two smaller kids napping at home. I roamed and roamed, collecting Spanish moss hanging from cypress trees and the velvety blossoms that had fallen from the huge magnolias, all perfect for making homes and comfy beds for the frogs and bugs I nurtured. One August day as we swam in the local pool fed by a natural creek we had to leave very quickly. An alligator had found its way into the pool area. How exciting!
Then, horror of horrors, we moved two miles out of town to an isolated two acre place with a flat stone house, huge pine trees scattered about in a disorderly fashion and just fine sandy dirt, pine needles and cones for a front yard. Was I now destined to become one of the country kids donning overalls and saying “upehre” instead of “up there”? Little did I know what opportunities this move would provide. I was still close enough to town for lessons and friends but now had a huge garden where we could grow exotic vegetables and fruit.
I learned about freezing, drying and canning and remember being able to relate proudly to my town friends where pickles came from as they had no idea that cucumbers could transform in such a way! My dad planted two rows of tender pecan trees that turned into a lush orchard and is still there today some 60 years later. We had puppies and kittens galore and even two pigs that magically produced six piglets that I sat on our wooden fence and watched for hours. There was a hoop towards which we threw basketballs and a large yard where we ran and played with abandon.
Best of all were the long, lonely walks along and then across the distant railroad tracks that divided our property towards landscapes that beckoned my wandering spirit. Finally, trees that I could climb, hide and daydream in, while watching the bugs, clouds, and birds. The parched landscape that had first seemed boring now was alive. One of my treasures was a runt of a wild plum tree struggling to survive in this loveless hot dry environment. I watched and offered the love that later in the summer I was sure had helped it produce blossoms and scabby yellow plums. It struck me then that I was possibly the only person in the world who knew or cared about this little tree. For years I went to it on many spring and summer days. No one in my family ever asked me where I had gone or what I was doing or even cared where I was during these visits to that tree. As I reflect now, I realize that was the only time in my life that I was ever truly alone and able to become meditative in a way that still provides a grounding sense of luxury and peace.
I left home at the age of 17 and wherever I have lived during the many years to follow, I have always sought out and wandered between natural but cultivated urban environments and more isolated wild places for reflection, peace, and a claiming of “my sense of place.” My two grandchildren are still lucky enough to have access to wonderful wild environments and choose them often over more defined activities. I hope that when they are approaching 70 years of age they will be able to sit down in a healthy natural place and peacefully write about such long term memories while their own grandchildren play happily at their feet and have the peace that comes with knowing that the natural world will be safely offered to many generations to come.