-- by Marie Goodwin
I don't remember much of my childhood. It is an odd feeling, frankly. People reach out to me on social media and say, "Hey I was your neighbor and we all played together. I'd like to reconnect," and I have no memory of them at all. I barely remember the details of my room, for instance. I do have glimpses of things, but a coherent narrative memory for me starts in high school. Much of the rest is lost in some vast, deep ocean; sometimes images come to me in a dream or in sudden bursts of insight. Snippets. Vignettes of time. Random subconscious insights bubbling up from the depths like air from the blowhole of a deeply submerged mysterious beast.
I do, however, have a consistent memory of one part of my childhood, something I've never lost. I once knew what it felt like to be "home."
There was a place in the one-hundred acres behind our small farm where the rickety old barbed-wire fence covered in honey-suckle briefly parted to make way for a small gate. This gate separated the main cow-field of thirty acres or more from a much smaller space, and every time I entered that space, I felt like I had found a magic garden, an abode of reverence and stillness and quiet, all things necessary to an introvert like me. And I felt like I had come home.
Out in "the real world" of school, and friends, and unhappy parents, I felt unmoored, adrift in loneliness and a generalized angst. So many children feel this way, but I never embraced emotionally what surrounded me, what I swam in. I knew, from a very early age, that this was not my home -- this small town in Georgia, the bitter hot summers and rainy forlorn winters: the "born again" religious fervor of my neighbors, the joyless landscape of the flat, red clay, featureless pine-covered earth. I knew, somehow, that my relationship to the land was what "home" was -- even then. And I knew that the rural south was not my home.
Except for the secret field. Except for there.
I would go most days after the school bus dropped us off to an empty house. It was the three of us -- my brother and sister and I, and I was the eldest. We had chores to do, animals to feed, homework to get done, and it was my responsibility to make sure everything was finished before my parents got home. But after accomplishing the work of the day in the mundane realm in our 1970 split-level, I would take my horse out, and we would cross through to the fields in the back, onto our neighbors farmland and I would ride. I almost always ended up in the secret field.
The place was unlike every other place I knew in our small town. It was lush and green, because an earth-bound stone breached the surface soil like some great humpbacked whale and gave up a trickling spring, that gently ran down its face, a constant rivulet that pooled here and there and muddied the earth along the stone's gentle slope. In the land of never-ending pine trees, here rare hardwood trees grew and thrived. The spring fed a great oak, without fail, that spread its branches into a shady refuge. A pecan tree grew a little further down. Even during the most serious of draughts or deep into summer's unrelenting heat, that water ran cool and strong, greening the ground below.
This was no small outcropping; it was the size of the the footprint of a modest house and was always warm, even at night after the sun set. I am told that the outcropping was part of the same granite that makes up Stone Mountain, but I'm not sure if that is true or a guess. Areas of the grey and glistening mica surface were covered in thick moss. I would always feel compelled to lie down on the warmth of the stone. Often I slept there, coiled up on the moss for comfort. In spring and summer, the honey-suckle from the fence gave off an aroma of sweetness, and from all around animals and birds moved in the shade of the great trees that fed from the spring's abundance. I ferreted a folding chair down there, something you might have at the beach, and read under the shade, book after book after book. My horse grazed quietly in the grassy lowlands just beyond the trees. Some times I swear I saw nature spirits hiding in the bushes, waiting for me to return home so they could have their secret place back. Maybe they were just rabbits. I'm still not sure. I'm still looking for the nature spirits though.
Since the cows were prevented from entering this part of the larger field by the gate, the water was sweet and pure and I often drank deeply from it. I would cup my hands in the shallow pools, looking at the glinting, mica-filled sediment that gathered there. I imagined that these were precious jewels, gifts of the earth. The moss gave the water an earthly rich taste. I've only tasted water as sweet from a remote spring in the highlands of Scotland. I wish I could drink that water every day.
I brought special people to visit this place -- friends first and then, eventually, lovers. But no one else understood. At least that is how it seemed to me. Everyone's reaction was, "Um, OK. So what's the deal here?" Couldn't they see? I thought. Eventually I gave up trying to explain it to people.
When I left to go to college, my parents sold the house during their divorce, so I lost access to the secret field. It is probably under the foundation of some McMansion by now, the water seeping into a basement, demanding to run free, a source of constant consternation to homeowners. That idea is a cool comfort.
I've been thinking these days what this place has meant to me all these years. Why is the memory of it pushing so hard at me right now. I've been writing this blog post for years in my mind, and have decided it is high time I begin some attempt to explore its meaning. What this small plot of land gave to me is the deep and unshakable knowledge that there are places where you belong, and that belonging is tied to the land in some mysterious way. You get claimed by it. It makes itself known to you, and you return again and again to its embrace. And it can happen anywhere, at any time. And it may only happen once. But it may happen over and over. It is good to be able to recognize it when it comes knocking.
What I also learned is that being claimed by this land, at this point in my life, informs my conception of what home means to me. Others see home as the place where their family lives or where they grew up; some others feel it is a community in which they feel heard and seen; still others see it in the long range -- Where are my ancestors buried? All of these concepts are people-centered. The version of "home" that feels most comfortable to me is the lush green moss, the shade of a great oak; the darting rabbit-spirits and the burbling spring, a gift from the deep source. It is cool air, and shade, moss, and stone, and water. This knowing has infused itself into my being, unbidden.
Recently, I've begun writing a book (a trilogy) of historical fiction, its story a gift from some creative well-spring that has never reached out to me in my life before now. The story was given to me, almost fully-formed, in a time of crisis in my life. I have been researching and writing it ever since, almost two years now. As a unschooling mom to two in their tween/teen years with a job(s) on top of it, I've had to carve out longer periods to write away from the incessant distractions of home life. The whole "wake up before everyone else and just write an hour or two a day before they get up" idea is not viable in my house. So, I looked for places to write, remote from my every day life, and found the description of a state park five hours away that features an old growth forest with abundant rivers and streams, paths moving through a rocky and mossy landscape up to the "cathedral area" where the trees have never been logged. I knew I could write there.
This place, a cabin in these woods, has been the second place where I feel deeply at home, and I return again and again and again to write. I find a rhythm there where the story slips from my fingers. In sleep, the story weaves itself into my dreams. I awaken and spill more of it into my computer. It is almost a mantic creative process. And deep into the experience of living among the old trees up in this remote cabin, I catch a glimpse of the idea that the story is being dreamt, through me, by the old beings surrounding me.
That sort of communion with the land, the easy comfort of deeply belonging to a place, has been a search I've been on my entire life, a desire to recreate that easy comfort with place. I know people who live in a place that feels like this to them. They are rich beyond all measure in my opinion. Right now, I have to get by on my occasional visits to the cabin in the park and my memories of belonging to a remote stone outcropping in rural Georgia, that claimed me and held me as I slept and nourished me with its crisp water.
I have also begun researching ancestry, to see where the bones of my people lie. My visit to Scotland a few years ago showed me that there are whole countries, not just small fields, where I can belong. The forests and bogs, streams and mountain springs, the endless hilly vistas of that land awakens something deeply resonant in me. It is not a coincidence that some of my ancestors come from that place. And it has made me curious about other ancestral places: northern Ireland, Cornwall, Devon, and Wales. These too hold my ancestors bones.
But I keep returning to the idea that it is the land that claims us, not the other way around. So I am waiting to be claimed. I'm working at being claimed too, by traveling and exploring my deep roots and places that feel likely to offer themselves up. But I often wonder if it will happen again, and remind myself that I should consider myself lucky to have had this experience at all. I just wish that I had understood that I was being gifted something precious and pure as I slept on that rock, the moss cushioning me, the water trickling in my ear. I wish I had known that I had been claimed, that the experience was ephemeral yet eternal. I wish I had known that it would re-make me on the inside and make me a seeker for the rest of my life.
Image credit: Creative Commons: Flickr: Elfleda.