Sunday, November 8, 2015

Country Childhood

I have a photograph on my shelf of my three children that reminds me why I chose to raise them on forty acres of forest in a small rural community. They are marching in their own little parade, with my daughter (the oldest) in the lead. She and her brother are both playing recorders and they are both barefoot. She is nine and he is six. Trailing behind them is their two-year-old baby brother singing and dancing to their tune. Although our ancient and very tall fir trees are not visible in the photo, I know they are there. I used to tell the children that those enormous fir trees stood guard at our gate and protected us from harm.

When we had lived in our country home for a short time, we went to my daughter’s elementary school one evening for a family night. She was in second grade. Her younger brothers had not started school yet (one was four and the other was a baby). We spread a blanket on the lawn with the other families. The school grounds included vast fields of green (this was before the dreadful drought) and overlooked hills and farmlands. The teachers gathered the children into a motley group, one of the teachers played a guitar, and the students sang a number of songs they had learned for the occasion. On the far right of the group of performing students stood a little boy with a goat on a leash. The goat was almost as big as the boy. It grazed on the grass peaceably while the children sang. Something about that goat delighted me. From that moment on I was in love with my children’s intimate rural elementary school. It was a K-6 with less than 200 students, many of them (about 20%) Native Pomo who lived on the nearby reservation. All the teachers knew all the children by name. When my youngest came home from his first day of Kindergarten he told me with amazement, “Mama, everyone at school knows my name.”

Country living meant living with critters too, of course (not just the friendly goat). We had a dog and several cats that we lived with on purpose. We also wound up living with many wild creatures by default. One of the most annoying critters we were forced to cohabitate with was the skunk. Skunks persisted in living underneath our house. One time we returned from a vacation at the beach to discover a half a dozen baby skunks lined up with our cats in the carport waiting for us to put the cat food down in the evening. Our neighbor had fed the cats in our absence and the skunks had made themselves right at home. When we put the cat food down, the baby skunks joined our cats, who didn’t seem to mind sharing, and chowed down like one big happy family. Those adorable Disney-cute skunks grew up and nested underneath our sons’ bedroom. Argh. We had to hire a trapper to trap them and remove them.

When our youngest child was in high school, a couple of skunks got into a fight under our house at three in the morning. We woke up to the horrible stench. There was no time to deodorize ourselves before work and school the next day. The teacher for my son’s first period class called the assistant principal when my son arrived at school and they removed him from the classroom because they mistook the skunk smell for marijuana. As the assistant principal questioned my son, it dawned on him why they had pulled him from class. He burst out laughing and explained about the skunks spraying during the night. His explanation was immediately believed because in our community everyone knows how much skunk smells like marijuana. And they knew he lived out in the woods. He was embarrassed to have to go through the rest of the school day smelling like skunk, but it made a good story and his classmates were sympathetic since a lot of them had had the same thing happen to them before. That night we washed his clothes with a de-skunk product we bought at the farm supply. (No, not tomato juice.)

My daughter had a college friend who had been raised in the boonies in Idaho. My daughter did not meet many people at college who grew up in the country. She and her friend told me about one of their first conversations when they compared notes to decide which one of them was more country. My daughter told her friend about the skunks that kept living under our house. Her friend claimed that their family had a bear living under their house for a while. My daughter, not to be outdone, asked her friend how many miles of dirt road she had to drive to get to her house. She said less than a mile. My daughter had her there since our house was down more than two miles of dirt. They compared wild pig stories, snake encounters, power outages, trees falling, how many peaches they had put up in a summer, how much wood stacked, getting cars stuck in the mud, frogs in the bathtub, and more; always trying to outdo one another for volume and breadth of country experiences (both disasters and wonders). I have overheard my daughter tell people that if she wanted to sneak out at night as a teenager she would have needed an emergency survival kit just to make it into town.

I’m afraid I’ve made it sound like growing up country is all about learning to live with wild critters. But that’s not what I’m trying to say. My children learned and experienced so many valuable life lessons automatically, almost as a given, as rural children. They helped plant the food they ate, saw it grow, and helped prepare it so we could eat it. We preserved gallons of food every summer. Some of it we grew and some of it we picked from other people’s orchards (like cherries) or bought from local growers (like apples and peaches). The first week that my daughter was away at college she called me and said, “Mom, I met this girl who has never eaten real cheese. She thinks Velveeta is cheese.” She couldn’t get over that. My children know what real food is, the work that goes into producing it, and how to prepare and cook it. They know how to build a fire and keep it going since we heated our house with a wood stove. They know that when you flip a switch and get heat, it comes from somewhere and that energy must be created (it doesn’t come out of thin air). They know that good water is valuable and shouldn’t be squandered. They have seen enough rattlers to be able to stay calm in a crisis. They have spent so many nights at home with their family that they value family time.

They have seen the night sky. It is estimated that 80% of American children grow up without ever having seen the night sky (Paul Bogard, The End of Night, 2013). The 80% may see a few stars, but they never actually see the Milky Way because they live in urban areas with so much “light pollution” that the heavens are not visible. They never experience true natural night darkness. (Or silence.) Perhaps some of these children will go camping or be taken into the country at some time and will have the chance to get a glimpse of the night sky. I hope so. My children saw it every night that wasn’t clouded over. A school assignment they did was to keep a “moon journal,” writing every night for a month what they noticed about the moon. Country living made my children resourceful, resilient, well-read, familiar with the habits of animals, helpful, unafraid of hard work, persistent, appreciative of the wonders of nature, yes I could go on and on. When you spend as much time in a forest with no TV as my children did, you become a pretty imaginative individual. (We got a satellite dish and brought in TV and internet after about seven or eight years, but they spent those first years with nothing but snow on the TV – we rented movies.) No wonder my children are extraordinarily creative, have a great sense of humor, and never get bored.

After my country bumpkin children grew up, they left our remote land and our hayseed town right away. They chose to go to the big city for college. Now the oldest lives in Los Angeles, the middle one and his wife live in conservative and congested Orange County, and the baby shares an apartment in a low-rent inner city Oakland neighborhood with three friends he met in college. All three are completely cosmopolitan these days and they love their lives. They remain outdoorsy people who go hiking, biking, and play sports. My son who lives in Orange County said a couple of months ago, “No one but us three will ever understand how amazing it was to grow up on the Ranch.”

I wonder if any of my city slicker children will move to the countryside at some point in the future. Raised in the suburbs, I lived in cities when I was a young adult. I loved those cities. In those years, I couldn’t imagine what country people did to amuse themselves. But then when we were faced with raising children, my husband and I decided we wanted them to grow up in the country. So we made the move. Sometimes I think we “shot the moon.” It turned out there was way more to do in the country than I could have imagined when I was living in the city. The things my children learned from living out on the land in a forest will last them a lifetime. I still see the powerful positive impact of that upbringing on them every day. Well, it stands to reason, because trees are remarkable teachers.

This is a photo of the photo taken by Ron Reed in 1993.

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