The Delectation of Childhood

Delectation: pleasure and delight.

I grew up with a small woods in my back yard. If you took a quick walk through these woods you might not notice much color. The blue of the sky above. The brown of the ground and tree trunks. The green of leaves and plants. But, when you were 6 and pretending to be a scout , moving slowly with deliberate steps so as to not make one sound, you paused automatically to look around. To listen. There wasn’t one shade of green but dozens: new green, dying green, bright green, dark green, leaf green, moss green, etc. The tree trunks were not brown. They were sable and black, taupe and gray. Ochre and ecru were colors I didn’t even know then. There was a hint of white or cream, and rust and doe brown and soil brown. Dry soil brown and damp soil brown. Little dollops of red from berries and the dots on mushrooms punctuated the greens and browns like exclamation points. The sky was blue, but the shades were infinite. The blue was different if you looked east or south. Even the brightness or drabness of the light in the woods was uncontrollable, unpredicatable. Some days brilliant sun rays jabbed at the ground. Other days it looked like a dull yellow veil had been draped over everything. Birds sang joy filled songs and cried out dire warnings. Chipmunks called to each other and repeated clicks and clucks in an endless alert to imminent danger. Leaves on trees danced and sang as the wind softly blew. Decaying leaves rustled as snakes slithered by.

treetops2

 (photo by me)

The side yard held a swamp. Here there were different colors and light. The sounds were muddled by peat moss and water. Insects chirped and twittered. With wings whirling and buzzing, they landed, kerplunk, on over sized swamp leaves. In the swamp the wetness galumphed and gurgled.  Summer heat felt different here. The swamp smelled of life that was both in fullness and in decay.

dragonfly2

 (Photo by me)

My sandbox didn’t interest me so I pulled wild plants up and planted them, turning the sandbox into a garden. Wild roses opened their pale pink petals that smelled like spice. Somehow wild forget-me-nots found the sand hospitable. Violets reappeared each spring. A scraggly maple sapling sent roots deep through the sand and gravel to find the nourishment it needed. I tried everything. The things that grew were incorrigible, totally disinterested in planting guide recommendations. (Now, I am not so lucky with my gardening!!)

These were my favorite places as a child. I saw, smelled, heard, tasted and felt things that mattered to me. Things that moved something deep inside of me. The comfort of Nature enveloped me and nurtured me. There was nothing ordinary or mundane in these environments. Everything was extraordinary and worthy of notice and appreciation, of understanding and protection.

In my woods there were five particular trees that formed an almost square.  I would, at age 6 or 7, traipse to the edge of the swamp and collect cattail leaves. Long, sharp, dark green sword shaped leaves and carry them to “my trees”. I would wander the woods collecting slender branches and sticks. Sometimes my dad would come out and help as I somehow tied or rested the branches around the perimeter of the five trees and bent the cattail leaves over them, making walls to what would become my “fort”. At least one of these trees was a pine tree. It’s broken and living branches provided the perfect spacing of  ladder rungs for me to climb and survey my surroundings, watching for friend or foe. Pine needles carpeted the floor. I can close my eyes and smell the pungent pine scent.

My dad showed me what the wintergreen plant looked like and how to chew the leaves for a refreshing uplift when the summer heat became tiring. I think perhaps that led me to discover identification books…for plants, trees, flowers, animals, mushroom, insects….whatever I could get my hands on. I don’t know how I came by these books: if we had them in the house (my memory is that we had a least a million books) or if somehow I asked for them.

I learned where the animals lived. Some underground, some in trees. After a rain or a light snow, using field guides, I learned how to identify their tracks….and discovered their trails to food and water sources.

I learned how to identify the swamp and forest plants. Marsh marigolds and stinky skunk cabbage. Spongy peat moss fascinated me with it’s drippiness and damp, musty scent. Forest moss was my favorite with its tiny forest of sporophytes holding up seed capsules. I wondered if fairies lived in these miniature forests.

Mushrooms seemed like cartoons. Someone was very careful in teaching me about mushrooms…I never touched or picked any. But I loved the frills and spots, the pores and the musty smell. Mysterious fairy rings would sometimes grow in our yard, supporting the notion that fairies lived in the moss forests.

I learned about popping jewel weed buds and that often it grew near poison ivy. Poison ivy just so happened to grow at the edge of the woods by my yard. I also discovered, much to my mother’s dismay, that I was not allergic to poison ivy….but she was. I learned why Milkweed was called Milkweed.

Yet, the most vivid memories are of finding Indian Pipes, Monotropa uniflora and Jack-in-the-Pulpits. Arisaema triphyllum. These two plants were not always easily found. Finding either one was like receiving a gift from the woods….something special.

The Indian Pipes were devoid of color, a ghostly, translucent white. Even with the gentle curve of it’s Shepard’s hook stalk , fragile bell shaped flower and delicate frills and ruffles, they looked sickly. They grew at the base of trees and lived symbiotically with the tree roots, feeding on a fungi that grew on them. They did not need sunlight. If you touched one it was possible to believe it would just dissolve into slime on your hand. Jack-in–the Pulpits were shy, hiding in darker corners behind tree trunks. The mysterious little Jack (spadix) was always hiding under cover of a slightly striped hood (spathe). In the fall “Jack” sent up a spike filled with plump red berries.

jack2

 (photo by me)

These two plants in particular represent childhood and the wonder of nature to me. They signify finding awe, miracles and mystery in nature. And as I grew older, they became increasingly more difficult to find and see….

When my kids were little I remember walking with them through a wildflower preserve here in town. The bulletin board at the entrance mentioned that Jack-in-the Pulpits were in bloom. A pang of excitement surged through me! I could show my young children these special little gifts from Nature, memories from my childhood. We walked and walked. I looked and looked. Nothing. I couldn’t find them. I felt heart broken. Disappointed. Worried…why couldn’t I find them? We left.

I returned. I couldn’t stand it. Where were they? Other people had seen them, why couldn’t I? I felt a little silly, but this was bothering me. I walked through the garden again, looking and looking. Nothing. Finally I stopped. Stopped moving. Stopped thinking. Stopped worrying. Just like that 6 year old child pretending to be s a scout. I had the conscious thought that when I opened my eyes, everything would be special; miraculous…nothing would be mundane, ordinary or average. I would stop looking for something I thought was special and allow everything to be special. I open my eyes and walked. Seeing, hearing, smelling, sensing. Everything sang of beauty, wonder. And there, at the base of a slender tree was a Jack-in-the-pulpit. Right there next to the path.

When I allowed myself to see and experience everything as unique and wondrous, everything appeared….A reminder that everything is miraculous. A reminder to see things as such. Nothing is ordinary. It is all a miracle.

“There are only two ways to live your life. 
One is as though nothing is a miracle,
the other is as though everything is a miracle.”
-Albert Einstein

**Photographs by me.

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