We live in the natural world and the man-made world. Think about close encounters you’ve had with the natural world. Ice, snow, water. Hills, mountains, deserts. Animals and plants. When I was in college, I slept on a Lake Michigan beach one summer night. One of the guys I was with, a little drunk, climbed up the bank and slept on the top of the hill, in a patch of poison ivy. He scratched until November. Talk about a close encounter. The experiences you write about here might be either positive or negative. I thought about two experiences I had on a sailboat: A midnight sail on a clear moonless night, with a spray of stars in the heavens; some years later, an afternoon in a sailboat on a large inland lake, and an accident that could have killed my father. We love nature. There is much to love. Every so often, nature shows us it’s much bigger we are. And not so nice.
I. Write about a vivid memory involving the natural world. It might be on or next to the water, in a park or the forest, or in your own backyard. Where did you feel close and connected to the natural world? What was that connection like?
In the 60’s it became fashionable to get back to nature.
Young people were exhorted to get back to nature. Man-made culture was bad, nature was good. These exhortations were part of a developing politics (anti-war, anti-establishment, pro-environment) packaged and sold. “A cloth house is all you need, as long as you got love.” This hokum courtesy of John Sebastian, speaking to 350,000 concert attendees at Woodstock. I didn’t actually go to Woodstock. I did see some of it on black and white TV, the rock bands and the dancing, the shirtless long-haired guys and topless girls, the drugs, the rain and the mud. I also bought the record (or rather the 8 track tape), along with the first LP by Crosby, Stills, and Nash, the cover image of which captured what I yearned for: long hair, a mustache, an acoustic guitar. Those three hippy musicians sitting on a couch on the front porch.
II. Recall an event, something that happened, good or bad, to you or someone you know. You were enjoying nature. Then something went wrong. Where? When? What? Tell that story.
We lit matches and started fires.
One day, on the path along the river bank, we gathered around a dead tree, probably one of those cottonwoods. Its bark was already peeled off. Around our waist level, the base of the tree had split open slightly. Dan Leman was there, Doug Haynes was there. We each had a pack of matches. We took turns lighting matches and tossing them through that split. They disappeared down inside the tree. Eight, nine, ten matches each, was more than enough.
Smoke started to curl out of the crack.
We panicked. What if the tree started the whole river flats on fire? For some reason, that question had not really occurred to us.
Now we watched in horror as the tree started to really burn.
III. As always, it may be useful to think about how things changed over time. That famous Joni Mitchell song, “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” How did your view of nature evolve as you got older? How did the natural world begin to look different? In my home town, fields became subdivisions. And that’s not all.
To me nature was the river, and the cottonwoods, and the wind down there.
It was also the fields surrounding my town, where farmers grew wheat and corn, navy beans and soybeans. Sitting in the back seat of the car, when we drove west out of town to Meridian Road on the way to my grandparents’ house, I loved to watch the continuous blur of evenly spaced rows of crops as we drove past fields. At my grandfather’s little farm, my brother and I would climb up into the hay mow in the barn, or into the grain bin at the edge of the drive, where we could lie back in the cool fragrant gold wheat. At the east end of Breckenridge, every fall there were mountains of sugar beets the farmers had harvested that would be trucked to a local plant to become Pioneer and Big Chief Sugar. This was nature, too.
And in a farm town, nature was also weather.
“It’s so wet,” parents would say at the supper table.
“The farmers can’t get on the fields.”
“It’s so dry.”
IV. You were stung by a bee. A dog bit you. Your car slid on a patch of ice. After a rainstorm, your basement filled up with water. Stuff happens. It’s you against nature. Sometimes nature wins. There are “natural disasters,” big and small. Did you ever encounter the face of beautiful and brutal nature? Tell that story.
With fall and spring rains, the Tittabawassee River flooded. A hundred feet behind our house in town, the hillside fell to the river flats, and the flats ran another hundred feet to the river bank, which dropped five feet to the water’s edge. With steady rains the water rose above the bank and flooded the flats, soaking our field of dreams with floodwater and dioxin and whatever evils Dow was concocting upstream and leaking into the river.
One year the rain kept coming, the river kept rising. When I walked to the top of the hill behind the house to look one afternoon, the river had filled the flats and water was rising up the hill. You couldn’t hear it. But you could feel it, the immensity and power of the river. I can only liken it to an earthquake or an avalanche. The current, which in ordinary times was lazy, carried away whatever was in its path, tree branches, debris, I could swear one time I saw a blue couch rush past.