Reclaiming My Connection To Nature After A Dysfunctional Rural Youth
by Emily Zimmer
Growing up in a small town in Ontario with an overprotective mother taught me to avoid the so-called “Great Outdoors” at all costs. To me, there was nothing great, or even somewhat captivating, about spending hours roaming around in the trees and the dirt. I was rarely inclined to explore the maze of the radiant and tangled forest that lay across my own backyard. It was easier to find wonder in the treacherous and mysterious twists of the city. I longed for ruthless concrete and towering buildings that would block out the overly optimistic sun. Where were the artificial lights? The new people? I wanted subways and the active smell of pollution that indicates human activity.
No, the profuse land that rolled behind my mother’s house did not turn me on. It was forbidden, perhaps haunted; a place I was not permitted to go without her accompaniment. It was overgrown and populated by mosquitoes, and deer, and God knows what else.
My mother, on the other hand, could spend hours out there with only her ghosts and her gardening tools. She dressed in a white button down, buttoned to the very top of her neck. Her pants were white-linen with elastic bottoms, over which she pulled her thick cotton socks. Before heading outside she would coat her aging skin in multiple layers of Off! bug spray; the family friendly kind that comes in the clouded, plastic bottle. She would pull a camouflage-green hat over her greying hair, complete with a built-in mosquito net, as if her body was that of a sleeping child, spending the night in an African village. She showed not an inch of skin, her hands protected by the type of thick gloves one might don before putting a new, splintery log on the fire.
I cringed on summer afternoons, my skin squeaky with sweat, just looking at her. She would get lost in the foresty woodland, clearing out dead brush from what was still living, while cutting away old trees who had overstayed their welcome. Yellow weeds skipped along overgrown hills as newly fermented dandelion wine dripped down my mother’s throat by the ounce.
I resented her as she urged me to join her. Her slithering tone, her unpredictable temper, I longed to have each artificial wall of our large, country house to myself; all of it. Every dusty corner, moldy loaf of bread, and wrinkled bed sheet. My mother outside of the house and me, safely within it. That was the way I liked it.
On one humid excursion to our garden, I mentioned my love for the smell of the dandelions, despite their notorious, weed-like reputations. They were sunny and bright, I envied their ability to spread and migrate as they pleased. Yet, something about pulling them ruthlessly from the ground brought me a wonderful and cathartic premonition. My mother, unhappy with my proclivity for the weeds, taught me how to remove them by the root.
“By the root!” she would yell, a cigarette hanging out of the side of her mouth.
“Pull the thing out by the root. If you can’t do that you might as well leave it there.”
Refusing to be deterred by her criticism, I reached into the dry, yet fragrant earth with short fingernails. I cupped the bottom of the plant, wrapping my entire hand around its river delta entrails. I yanked the weed from the ground, as my mother’s gaze burned into the back of my neck. I reveled in the echo of the sound of the earth relinquishing its invader, and my mother’s satisfied exhale as she turned and returned to her own work.
The tearing sound resembled the un-sticking of a zipper on a winter coat, caught from a zip of speed with little tact or patience. It became a habit to pull the weeds from the front lawn, the cracks in the pavement, and, on occasion, along the side of the road as well. Mastering the the art of weed-removal was one of few ways to find favor in my mother’s eyes. Yet, I did not enjoy the earth; I found my pleasure in destroying it.
When forced to accompany my mother outside, she insisted that my sister and I emulate her choice of protective garb. Like aliens trudging through rocky hillsides, we coped by implementing our wild and youthful imaginations. With this mindset, my sister and I found magic in everything. We were travelers, storytellers, sorcerers — we built homes for our imaginary friends amongst the twisted knots in the trees. We dreamt up an entire family of elves, of which we named and drew crayon portraits. We would visit them on our outdoor excursions, taking them on walks with us and visiting them in their treetop residencies. We climbed trees together, flew kites, and skipped rocks — or at least we tried to, even though it was much more likely for them to sink.
A small aluminum jungle gym stood firmly at the top of the hill behind our house. It was rusty and tired, clearly well used, until left by the previous owners of our home. On one occasion, our mother had taken my sister and I to Home Hardware by cab to buy two cans of electric blue paint. We spent the next afternoon smothering the tarnished monkey bars and swing set with lavish strokes of oily, liquid sky.
Upon covering the last inch of the thing, we stood back to admire our work. The jungle gym looked completely out of context against the backdrop of the evergreen trees, which created a barrier between our property and the road. It seemed like a flaw, a wild plaything, now officially domesticated. The act of covering its ware brought joy and entertainment — by concealing the mark nature had left, I had only emphasized my great dislike for our forest of a backyard. Painting the jungle gym was my way of protesting the whole damn place.
Now, in my early 20’s, I’ve somehow found myself living in New York City. The buildings are so tall that the sun must lobby for its voice to be heard. The people are loud and ambitious; the atmosphere fast paced and competitive. Smog hits the horizon line with fervor, but the people fail to evacuate. Music pumps from crowded happy hours on weeknights and the trains are packed at all hours of the day. The concrete is cracked, but no dandelions emerge.
I spend hours of my days planning my escape from the city. In cases of tremendous claustrophobia I text my friends frantically, searching for any way out. “Can we take a day trip this Sunday?” “Can we plan a hike soon? I might have the car,” “Are you free this weekend, maybe we can go exploring?” “Doesn’t anyone want to come exploring?”
While New York City has offered me a plethora of opportunities and abiding friendships, I long for the green hills and rocky cliffs of my dysfunctional youth. I think of my mother and the contrast of her wrinkled eyes against the glowing green pines. I imagine how washed out her pale complexion would become in the artificial light of Times Square. I hear her voice in the wind as feelings of deep affection and hatred bump into each other in the crowded lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge. When I see open water, I think of her manic, glowing expression, the way she would open her mouth as wide as it could go, and exhale noisily. She is everywhere and nowhere, but more importantly, she is nowhere near me.
I revel in the silence of upstate New York, the hiking trails of Harriman State Park and Bear Mountain. I miss the familiar way that nature maneuvers around itself; the way God laces his fingers into the branches of the trees and lovingly swings his arm. I miss the smell of the pine-filled forests, the earthy odor that follows the rain. I’ve grown to love hiking; the act of physically exerting yourself through paths carved by man with the utmost of intention. I love following the colored markings; finding my way through a place I’ve never been.
It’s so hard to find spirituality in a city that never takes a moment to breathe. Where do I fit in a place like where there isn’t even any room for me on the subway? How can I be conscious of my inner self when I’m so busy looking outward? Watching where I’m going, watching where everyone else is going, blinded by bright lights and advertisements, and various forms of aggressive falsehood.
The magic from the stories of my childhood is still there in nature. I am still an explorer, a traveler, a visionary. My arms are bare of any sunscreen or bug spray, my mosquito net, now resides in an estranged corner of GoodWill. My mother isn’t standing over me, hovering, watching my every step. Should I choose to deviate from the trail, I may. Should I choose a direction she doesn’t approve of, she’ll never catch word.
Sometimes the healthiest thing is to disconnect from the world around you and silently and holistically connect to the one within. This must be done on our own jurisdiction; for me, it must be done away from the city, away from her. In the city, the streets names are dictated by someone else; in nature, we have the power to make our own names.
To this day I cannot place why the space that once caused me utter distress and discomfort, now somehow brings me closer to who I am. The wave of relief that overcomes me when I step under a canopy of trees is invaluable. I follow no one. My mother, now somewhere far behind me, yells at me to slow down so she can catch up. Please don’t go anywhere without me. And, out of habit, I start to run. Yet, after years of whining and resentment, I have become my mother’s daughter after all. With each New York City excursion comes plotting and a planning. I can’t help but devise an escape route to somehow return to my roots.
August 24, 2020
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