Tales of The Country and a City View
There is a whole city to get lost in. The bus lines weave a pattern on the map, braiding together a cloth which like the symbol of infinity goes around in the figure eight on its side; forever eating and giving birth to its tail. There are some places, along the way, I find and relish, keeping them to myself for a while. I must mark a place mine, visit it many time before sharing it, luxuriant in its atmosphere, food or view. These are perfect, unique lovely gems in their own setting.
Once, it was not like this. In the beginning, I was dismayed by the cool white fog creeping over the low buildings and through the moisture-loving trees. These buildings were the opposite of the tall apartment buildings I was familiar with in New York City, and the three-story houses lining the Pacific Heights hills displayed a shocking waste of space.
I’d walk my dog, and concentrate on the night sounds and smells of an area where cars never stopped moving through the streets. All the parking places in the streets were taken already, as they perpetually are, and Maxwell would strain at his leash to smell the most interesting tires and leave his marker, unaware that tomorrow could find their owners hundreds of miles away. The pungent, musty, sharp of fireplaces burning their note to the nighttime bouquet. These experiences were at the very beginning of my San Francisco lifetime; a piece of cloth that was begun with me and has been stitched onto every day.
Massachusetts, Berkshire Mountains 1968:
I am here at camp, after a four-hour bus ride made in great anticipation. I was here last year as a seven-year-old and so I know where the salamanders hide. New York City was beginning to become really hot and humid in the third week of June, but up here the temperature isn’t causing sidewalks to fry, and the air to smell like old oil. Here has the smell of hay fields and earth.
Camp Southbrook has a brook for which the camp was named. It’s at the bottom of a hill that gently sloped into where a large pool had been formed by damming the water up. The water resumed its travels over a large man-made waterfall. When we camped out, we went upstream to pre-made campsites next to the burbling, singing water. Sleeping near it was a much nicer experience than trying to be taught how to swim in it. I had stood waist-deep in the water, the last one out, the last because I refused to practice blowing bubbles in the water. It was cold, almost icy, and beneath my feet squished a three-inch layer of soft mud. I was scared of water-bugs and snakes and rocks beneath my feet. There was no one I could turn to for help, because the swimming instructor was of the mind that what was deterring me was stubbornness. All along the banks, trees stood quietly, stirring in the wind. They couldn’t help me; their woody bodies were tied into the earth. It was nearly silent around the water, and instead of the environment bringing a restful sense of peace, the stillness brought a sharpening of the senses. The air sparkled with the weight of the sun, nearly a presence that could be tied to a string and pulled like a balloon. Up there in the gentle mountains, the glow would reappear intent on its desire to illuminate the growing things, in this haven of nature. However, occasionally, clouds hung in the sky. It rains there in the hot summer. Rain, thunder and lightning.
These days, in the city, I will pack a paper bag with sandwiches and mineral water for a picnic, and take it to Golden Gate Park. I go to walk along pathways and keep to the wild uncultivated areas. The trees are of a Northern California city kind: these can withstand months without rain. After lunch, I hike my way out, a journey of ten minutes. Mount Tamalpais is within easy driving reach, and has lots of interesting trails for the urban dweller, but I don’t drive. I remain a city-ite, like a prisoner in a palace, confined to my luxurious quarters and destined to have dim memories of primordial freedom of roaming around the wilderness. I am a silver bird in a gilded cage.
In a city as refined as ours, civilization has many delights. Beautifully cut garments are de rigueur at the many fine stores; mail order catalogs are superfluous. The many goods we have access to be considered a fair trade for the fields and trees of the country, but all that fresh air is also fertile ground for large spiders and other insects. Cold and rain bring them indoors. We in the city, except for the homeless, don’t significantly alter our plans because of weather.
Four-fifths of Americans live in cities, and in many cases, the children don’t experience the outdoors, don’t know that ghost stories are best told around a warm campfire on a cold night, and think sleeping bags are for staying over at their friend’s houses. They know of crowds on sidewalks, when to cross the streets and what city parks look and feel like. My memories of the camp are rough stones polished by the passage of time, now as smooth as silk.
Massachusetts, Berkshire Mountains, 1968 – August:
It rained last night, the sounds drowning out the bullfrogs that live in the little pond next to the tree that’s good for climbing. The ground will be dry by nine a.m. except under the big tree where no sun goes; under there will be big storm puddles that are all shades of gray, drifting about, with the sun shining through in big gaps. It is the second to last week of camp, and the monotonous breakfast food is ready. As I’m walking to the food building I see all the sheets hanging on the line that were not brought in are pulling down the ropes, so that they will have to be rewashed, anyway.
Today the sun favors us, and we are not to be sequestered indoors the whole day, making taffy and marshmallow cakes from scratch. The normal outdoor activities are scheduled and I begin my round of activities with my chore for the week, feeding the rabbits. I love creatures we are able to pet, but these are not to be taken out of their cages. They are ridiculously plump, and seem to be able to keep eating s much as anyone gives them. The cage is too small to allow them much exercise. I pity them, for soon I will be back in the city and will know much less freedom myself.
Just before midday, I visit the archery range. I have been here frequently, straining, trying very hard to make my bow line up and my arrows behave. At times I’ve given up in disgust and been content to have the arrows fly over the target, covered with cloth and filled with straw. Some people are so good they hit the target every time. Today I’m relaxed and not feeling obligated to think of it as a sport or a game. I pull the arrow back carefully, as I do with each one I’ve used and coincidentally, accidentally and without putting much thought into it, hit a perfect bull’s-eye.