I grew up on State Avenue in Cincinnati. The two-story tenement I called home for 16 years had four tiny rooms and stood a half block from River Road in the shadow of the Eighth Street viaduct.
Plastic curtains hung at the windows and well-worn linoleums covered the old wood floors. Our backdoor led to a common hallway where a one-stall toilet was located that we shared with the neighbors. Despite our humble circumstances Mom managed to create a cozy home for me and my older brother and sister, and our sometimes absentee Dad.
Our neighborhood playground was “the old lot,” an expanse of hardpan dirt between the pillars of the viaduct. The old lot hadn’t seen the light of day since the viaduct was constructed more than 20 years earlier.
Along with my brother and sister and other neighborhood kids, I spent many summer evenings playing hide and seek at the old lot. My favorite hiding place was one of the viaduct’s narrow steel support beams. The shadowed opening on the edge of the beam was just the right size for my tiny skinny little frame, and I seldom got caught, except by my brother who quickly figured out that this was where I always hid.
I suppose you could say we were enjoying the wonders of nature as we darted from back allies and across streets to reach home base without getting caught, but in truth there was very little nature to be seen. When you looked up, instead of bright stars all you could see was the glow of streetlights glaring back at you, and instead of the night sounds of owls and crickets all you could hear was the sound of cars rumbling like low distant thunder as the they passed across the viaduct overhead. It’s fair to say that the old lot was so barren that even fireflies passed it by.
The half dozen scrubby trees that dotted the neighborhood and the weeds that sprouted through cracks in the sidewalk were as close to nature as I came during those early years of my life. But then, at 16, my life took an unexpected turn as I went off to boarding school at Mount Vernon Academy.
The campus was beautiful with spacious green lawns and sidewalks lined with trees, but more importantly one if its inhabitants was a fun, skinny 16-year-old country boy named George; and when I say country I mean Country with a capital C.
Instead of an old dirt lot, George’s childhood playground was the woods, hills, fields, and streams of central Ohio. He and his brothers and sister played hide and seek under the stars, and when they grew tired of playing hide and seek they spent the rest of the evening catching enough fireflies to fill a quart jar. The only time George saw concrete were occasional visits to his grandma’s house in Mount Vernon.
I started dating this country boy at the end of our junior year and we married at the tender age of 20. Apart from both growing up poor, our early lives were at opposite ends of the spectrum. But my love of nature soon matched George’s, as I began to realize that all along I had possessed an inborn love of nature that was just waiting to be revealed. Not surprisingly, when our children came along I was ripe to instill in them a sense of wonder for the earth around them.
I recently discovered a wonderful book titled, “The Sense of Wonder.” The author, Rachel Carson, states, “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.”
When our children were young one of our favorite family activities was going for a walk in the woods. I found myself instinctively pointing out the unique and interesting features of every leaf, lichen, and bug. Our children learned to love these times and still enjoy this activity today.
Rachel Carson was a marine biologist that some have called the patron saint of the environmental movement. She had a true gift for writing and in 1962 wrote a controversial book titled, “Silent Spring” in which she strongly criticized the use of pesticides such as DDT. Her research proved that this and other harmful chemicals were poisoning and killing the environment.
I’ve found Rachel Carson to be a kindred spirit. In “Silent Spring” she observes, “People everywhere are desperately eager for whatever will lift them out of themselves and allow them to believe in the future. I am sure that such releases from tension can come through the contemplation of the beauties and mysterious rhythms of the natural world.”
My personal testimony to her theory is this. Whenever I feel overly stressed I can take a walk in the woods, breathe deeply of the rich earth smells, and immediately begin to relax. I’ve often said to George (my favorite walking companion) that my soul feels like a thirsty sponge and the beauty and stillness of God’s creation is like water to my thirsty soul.
Rachel Carson says it well in her gifted prose, “There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature – the assurance that dawn comes after the night, and spring after the winter.”
I would add that one is never too old to rediscover the beauty of a colorful sunset, or to be awed by a flock of migrating geese in an autumn sky. I don’t ever want to lose the sense of nature taking my breath away, its calming effect on my senses, and its constant reminder to me of our Creator.
George Brown is a freelance writer. He and his wife Yvonne live in Jackson Township.