“Character develops in the stream of life.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
“Study how water flows in a valley streams, smoothly and freely between the rocks. Also learn from holy books and wise people. Everything – even mountains, rivers, plants and trees – should be your teacher.” Morihei Ueshiba
When we moved to Upstate New York, it was to the very beginning of a development in what had been farmland. We were the third house on he street. All around the cleared lots and partially built houses were woods and open fields. I was about to start First Grade.
The woods became my magic place. Other kids cut through them as a shortcut to school. I would wander, exploring overcome by wonder. The first summer we moved there, after finding my way through a thorn-filled, damp section, I found an area of particularly tall trees which stretched away from me as far as I could see. Beneath them, every inch was filled with violet plants, the heart-shaped leaves soft and inviting.
I couldn’t wait for spring. I think it took one or two to figure out exactly when the violets would bloom, but most years found us stooped beneath dappled sunlight picking violets. The slender, fragile, almost translucent stems were carefully cradled at first. Ultimately, we picked so many we jammed them in until we couldn’t close our hands. The sweet airy smell was ephemeral, yet magnified by their abundance. What most amazed me was that not only were there purple and white flowers, but occasionally tiny, delicate, yellow flowers and more rare, green ones as well. Not as abundant, but there if you looked hard enough.
Spring was also the time to bring home pussy willows branches, the first indication that winter was finally over. Upstate New York specializes in winter! When the trees limbs were covered with the icing sugar snow of winter, they looked especially magical…and I can actually remember walking through them singing “Winter Wonderland” wondering why the snowman was “parse and brown.” Then one day, when the sticks of sear winter-barren weeds poked through patches of yellowed grass, we would run to check the pussy willow grove and see that the buds had finally swollen and popped open. We knew spring had arrived.
In the summer, there was a field where we played ball, and moss to lie in and tickle our toes with, and a berry patch at the edge of an abandoned farm where we picked buckets full of blackberries. Fall brought brightly colored leaves that we collected and waxed. Our woods really were a fairy tale come to life…but as I got older, I wanted to push the limits, go farther. I knew every inch of the nearby woods, but at the end of the fields that would ultimately define the very end of our street when I reached high school, there were more trees and a different kind of magic.
First, on the edge of the fields was an embankment. The ancient trees on its edge held hanging ropes, thicker than my wrists, aged vines of wild grapevine, black and fibrous. We would hold on to them and leap over the edge making Tarzan yells, then swing down to the lower forest floor on the natural ropes. There some of the vines formed swings created by their gigantic loops, and we each could swing to our heart’s content kicking our feet against the ferns that carpeted the forest floor. But better even than these wonders, the next path led to “The Creek.”‘
No matter what the season of the year, there was something to discover at the “Crick.” I called it that with the southern accent I had grown up with and learned from our “housekeeper,” Jessie who was from Kentucky. (She was my favorite “nanny” until Ms. Hassett…but that is another story.)
At the crick, spring started with rivulets tricking in the snow, then growing faster, whirling dangerously. As the melting water grew, it twisted and turned in narrow, rocky spaces and flowed beneath the ice of wider, smoother pools where only weeks before we skated. Spring at the crick was frigid, as the fast, furious water filled every bit of space.
In summer, the crick was a magnet to me, filled with treasure. There was a small cache of clay in a depression at the edge of the big pool where we waded. We could sit on the banks in the cool grass and make pinch pots to take home to paint once they dried in the sun. Mushrooms and bugs and butterflies invited and enticed at every twist, around every bend.
But it was the Crick, itself, that captured me. Where did it come from? Where was it going to? The older I got the more I wondered.
So, one late summer day, as I teetered at the edge of childhood, I got everyone to agree to the great Crick Adventure. We would be Columbus, or Champlain, or Magellan. We would discover the source of the water…and still be back in time for dinner.With lunches packed we set off early, fearless explorers ready for anything!
Hours later, the sun low on the horizon, hungry, scraped and scratched, with a bruised ego, I led us out through unknown fields, that led to a friend’s housing development. In real world “space” we had traveled a bit more than two miles. I called my parents from her house.
I never tried it again. The Crick 1, Jo 0. Oh, it wasn’t because of the spanking I got for taking my sister into danger. The reason was the magic had gotten lost somewhere. The exploration was endless and dirty and hard. My sister cried and was scared. And I wasn’t sure if we should keep going forward or try to go back. Worst of all, the adventure, with all its sacrifice, got us nowhere. We had twisted and turned and gone in loops and somewhere along our way, while we were doing that, I grew up.
Before the Great Crick Adventure, I was excited by the idea that in stories at the edge of maps on the border of the unknown. it simply said, “There be dragons.” Now, I knew, I could deal with dragons, but I had to know what the dragons looked like and even what they wanted for lunch before I would risk them. I had to actually be completely prepared.
The magic of my childhood had taught me to dream….the Great Creek Adventure taught me I had to plan, that it must be well thought through, safe for any I would lead. Ah, back to many posts on balance. I guess.
One thing I am sure of….the woods, the creek, the magic in my childhood have been great teachers. They are a part of who I am and who I will be…even if they now only live in my imagination. Since then, life has been the adventure….sometimes twisting and turning. Time after time, the lessons from my childhood have kept me on the right path.