June 27, 2012

Shifting Perspectives

We came here zinged on a big city's pulse, sleep deprived by bright lights and street noises and man's ingenuity. High. But the Alps--larger than London by so many metric tons--gives us the sense of coming down.

The moment we arrive in Grindelwald, Switzerland, village of expensive winter coats and sloped farmer's fields, of cascading waterfalls and white glacial rivers, of a chorus of wildflowers I have neither seen nor heard before, we let some bit of stress go. The steps we ascend, constantly, are slow going and measured, paced with our shallow breaths. The long hikes we attempt result in weary, spent bodies, sometimes bruised. And at night we devour plates of food--thin soups and hearty breads, strange salads and thick cuts of meat--until the only thing left in our psyches is sleep. As we climb up to bed, the open windows let in the lullabye of jangling cow bells and somewhere rushing water. For a few minutes, we watch as the light fades, the Mettenberg and the Eiger and the Jungfrau peaks slipping into shadowed sky, but soon our eyelids close with the day.

How long have we been here, we hear ourselves wonder. How many days since...? When did we...?
No one knows, not really, not even the ends of the questions, and though we wake up fresher, eyes wide, still we step into the hills the next morning as if dreaming.

We notice:
wildflower fields woven with snow.
streams we bend to, pure as the air, and use to fill up our waterbottles.
an alpine lake, Bachalpsee, startlingly cold, a perfect mirror.
trails inches from cliffs.
jagged sky.
treelines that shrink and shrink beneath our gaze which is so often hinged up.

On our last day, I pause, overlooking the Eismeer glacier, a crag that, we are told, used to stretch full between the Mettenberg and Eiger, a snowpack so solid men used to herd their goats across its surface from one mountain to the next. I try to imagine the glacier as larger, more white, more full of the horizon than it already is. My heart pounds. I feel it, and the shifting ice, and the waterfalls, and the rivers, in my ears, rushing in all directions. And I think, with a kind of gratitude, that we can build a thousand cities full of a million things and still be small.

June 13, 2012

Places and People and Things and Ideas

It has been ten years since I was first in Europe. A third of my life away. It was Paris then and it is London now. It was ingenue then and it is teacher now. It was a world and a lifetime ago, and I feel all those rotations of the earth in my body, in all the stories I have lived and told since then. Life moves quickly. Paris at twenty was a dusky sweep of January street lights, of bridge painters, long afternoon hours spent in cafes with glasses of wine and pages of my journal. I had arrived there among other students, but knowing no one. I cherished my solo walks down back streets, my eager and bumbling exchanges with shopkeepers in my best French, a language I knew only by the vocabulary post-it notes I had used to wallpaper my dorm room. I sat in the Luxembourg Gardens on mornings crisp enough to reveal one's breath, and I dipped a baguette into jam and watched the birds brave my presence for the crumbs. I read Gertude Stein and Eliot and Lowell and Hem. I thought, I know what it is to be me now, in this new place, with no one claiming me, no one with preconcieved notions, no one to rush me elsewhere. I can be as much and as little as I want. And I was. I did. I danced close with strangers in jazz clubs, tossed coins into the Seine at 4 a.m., felt my blood racing down and up and out and back and pounding pounding alive alive alive. I had a boyfriend back home, but I didn't want to go back. I had a family who had tucked sweet notes into my suitcase, but I didn't want to go back. I had my life planned, but I wanted to scrap it. Run off. Be the girl without limits, who lives in the intoxicating haze of no accountability except for the page you write with your own ink. Paris. I wonder if you've changed? London at thirty has been less romantic, more full of alarm clocks and puddles and sliced white bread, but also the giggles of teenage girls and antics of teenage boys and the thoughts of one who is accountable for all of them. Ten years ago, this would have been a weight. But today, with these fine lines around my eyes, with these years of leading classrooms of sixteen-year-olds through Julius Caesar, I lead them to The Globe and am warmed at their recognition, I take them on the Tube and give them high fives when they return hours later having mastered that web of colors, and I am content walking around St. Paul's Cathedral with Ally and Ashley, listening to all the youth in their dozens of street stories, and not wishing that I was anything other than me, thirty, in a baggy red rain coat with frizzy hair and a heart full of all the roads I have traveled. I think, I know what it is to be me now, in this new place, with my loved ones thousands of miles away, with them a thousand miles the stuff of my veins, with them being my everywhere home. I am as much and as little as I will ever be because--as sentimental as it sounds--I am loved in particular ways. Big ways. Waves that undulate across oceans and borders. I marvel at the tomb of Queen Elizabeth the first in Westminister Abbey, I wander past the Oxus Treasure and massive busts of ancient pharos in the British Museum, and I coast through Hyde Park on a smooth rented bike that reminds me of two white ones rented back in southern Minnesota with my darling, and I feel my heart squeeze, my heart squeeze, my love running out and in and up and away and down and far flung, and I am so thankful so thankful that I have a husband at home, who I want to go back to, a dear family at home who I hold with such tenderness, a life that I did not foresee, in that it's turned out so differently that I imagined it on the edge of the Seine, French wind in my hair, poems on my tongue. Those poems are still there. Still here, tonight. But now, despite the beauty and wonder of the elsewheres, they are full of the nouns of home.

June 4, 2012

Falling In Love

I’ve been trying to pinpoint it: the moment I knew I loved the natural world.

I’d like to say it happened while overlooking a lush Montana riverbank plump with wildflowers, an image I claim as my first memory, but I was two and a half years old then, and too young to make declarations. Years later, when I was sixteen, I glimpsed the Continental Divide stretching across the Colorado horizon and felt something come loose in me, an awe that lacked edges. But that was not the first time that feeling came, even if before I hadn’t had the language to describe it.

I could pick from memories on Lake Superior or in the Badlands or on the Mississippi, but the moment I keep coming back to is a simple one, cushioned in no impressive names, that took place in my Minnesota small town front yard. My family had just moved, and everything about our new life seemed strange and overwhelming. How does one make new friends at ten? How does one navigate the avenues of grief for a life that we’d left behind as easily as if it were a common tree?

And that’s when it hit me.

I was already awake with the birds, with the August humidity, so I left my bed for our shaded front stoop, and eventually the wide trunk of our lawn’s familiar maple. Without hesitation, I clutched onto the lowest branch and propelled myself up, and then over, and then up again, until I was nearly fifteen feet from the ground.

I found a sturdy spot to sit and let my legs dangle, and only then did I lean back against this quiet living thing and look without fear at the spot I’d landed. The leaves draped down in a green canopy, and the light filtered through them in delicate waves. The young bark under my palms was smooth, as I knew it would be, besides bits of sap. And after I was still for a while, the birds returned, and I smiled, recognized the black-capped chickadee, the red-winged blackbird, the robin, even a squirrel, all chirping despite the heat. I was in a new place, but I realized that if I could just find a tree, or a trickling stream, or a patch of blue sky, I would know where I was: with friends.

I am not an antisocial person, and as the weeks passed and school began, I exchanged smiles with other ten-year-olds, and we eventually traded bright bracelets and whispered secrets and the rest of our childhood memories. But I have since moved again. And lost track of them. And if I’m honest, only a few brought me the peace I felt on the bough of that tree.

Wherever I might go, I’ve found, the natural world goes with me, and it is this consistent relationship that I love most. I anticipate it now, look for it out the nearest window or door. And if I’m tense from the day’s stresses, from a new neighborhood to navigate or a new deadline to make or a new feeling I can’t quite name, I walk outside. I find a tree, if possible an entire grove. Then I let myself go loose and say hello.

This post was originally published at Nature-Talk

How about you? When did you know you loved the natural world?