Winter is a time of contemplation. I’ve been thinking a lot about what it is to work the land and how it feels to become part of it. The rains and then the cold has given the farm a feeling of being in a deep state of quiet. All the life has been waiting underground, holding out for the right time to return. It seems that there is a connection that the plants have of when they have rested enough, when they just can’t take the internal waiting anymore and they are ready to break dormancy to start growing again. I am starting to feel tugs of the urge to burst out and start right back into the growing phase, too. But something tells me to hold off a little while longer.
It has been good to take a break from the farm and get a bit of a rest. Last weekend, Clare and I went to the swing, which is a place that my oldest friends and I made when we were much younger, back up in the green hills outside of the little suburban neighborhood I grew up in, called Mission San Jose, in Fremont, California. Last Saturday morning, it was a beautiful day in the soft, green hills, and even though there was some smog in the sky hovering over the bay area, it still felt like the same place it was when I was in junior high school. Even though my family hasn’t lived there for many years now, I go back every year to visit the swing. Because every time I have gone back, it has been like coming home. Now, I only have one friend who still lives in Fremont and all of the family and friends I grew up with, at least 15 friends, have moved away a long time ago.
I have to think that as people living in such a mobile culture, land is sometimes really the only home many of us have to return to. People change, go away, make you mad. Family isn’t always stable or tolerable, and people aren’t always reliable. But the land stays, and even after being away for a decade, or 5 decades, it sits and waits patiently, without changing too dramatically.
Luckily, our land where the swing still hangs is protected from developers. The fancy houses that were built up there in the hills during the dot-com boom never made it high enough on the hill where the swing is due to a moratorium on building that some enlightened citizens locked into place in the late 1980’s. So when Clare and I made it up to the top of the hill last weekend, where the swing was, we looked out at the million dollar view across the entire bay area. We could see all the way to Mt. Tamalpias and further north in the distance. It was warm. I took a nap in the old Mother tree up by where my old friend Nate dogg and I nailed up a tree fort platform in the Summer of 1994, behind which we encscribed on the tree “bros forever”, before nailing the last board on. I looked for it, but the inscription was long gone, as the tree’s bark had been shed too many times since then. And I haven’t talked to Nate dogg since 1996, but I could still faintly make out some blue paint that I remember Amy Evans painting on that tree in the shape of a lizard, one day when she was up there with Jamie Dillimuth after school in the Spring of 1995. By then, most of us were seniors in High School.
The swing, to us students, friends and reluctant dwellers of the suburban landscape, was our antidote to what we now call “Nature Deficit Disorder”. Up there, we could just be ourselves, and we could experience a feeling of freedom that did not exist in us until the moment we set foot through the barbed-wire fence and onto the cattle pastures and short grass green hills, and until we smelled the eucalyptus or laid down upon the earth, looked out over the vast city below that stretched and covered the land. As a youth, having found something I liked in that experience, I had given up playing video games and watching after-school television shows to go up there and stare at the landscape. Before Google earth or online satellite imagery, the only way to get a birds-eye view of the landscape was to go up on a hill and just look at it, in true 3D. Seeing a view like that was a way to orient myself to where I lived. I could see all of my friends’ houses down below and all the features of my neighborhood in a way I never got to see before.
If I was alone, I would leave notes for friends on the way up to the swing. We didn’t have text messaging. Or cell phones. The internet and emails and instant messaging of any kind were not around yet. I’d leave a note on my 1st floor apartment bedroom window that said “Arron’s at the swing! Meet me there!” and I’d go there and wait. And once I got up there it was so quiet – even with the freeway down below. All the sounds, even the sounds of nature, were absorbed by the hillsides. By the earth. There wasn’t anything to really distract me from simply being in the place. It wasn’t hard to notice how beautiful it was there. I’d do my home work up there, and I’d consider my life up there. Many times, other friends would make the trek up the hill. They’d meet me by the tree swing and we’d eat food together, or read books together, take naps, talk about the cloud shapes in the sky, dream about our futures, watch the sunset, and then play hide and go seek in the forest if there were enough of us. All of us friends became so close in part because of our connection around this place that we found and decided to occupy, that was up above the problems in our overly-engineered suburban lives, where nature had to take a back seat to “urban planning”.
I haven’t kept in touch with many of those friends who I used to be so close to. I hear of them on facebook, when I go on there. I see that they have gotten married, had kids, have political opinions. They are teachers, artists, doctors, travellers, craftspeople, mothers, and successful business people. But I wonder if all those friends really think anymore about the Swing? Or the Mother Tree? If they recall the freedom and peace of having a place to stare at the view, or lay in the tree branches like a cat. Or if they’ve moved on from that because life’s tangents are different for everyone. Or maybe that was just something you do when you’re young and impressionable? I wonder if any of us ever goes back? To me, that little hill with the swing hanging from the long eucalyptus branch has been one of my strongest anchors in life. It has given depth to my soul. In fact, that place might even be my soul. If I had no swing, or no place on the hill where I had kept my memories in the rocks and where I laid down my thoughts and dreams in the the tree stumps, felt my first love, or cried my fears of growing up out into the soil, I’d be lost in this world. I’d have nothing that held me.
I think I will go back and rehang the swing soon, before the seedlings need to be transplanted and the farm season starts up again. Get the tradition going. Every community needs a swing and a hill to look out and see where they came from. There are so many memories of that place and of that time that are still alive in me. I think I am those memories. If I were to move on and let them go, I would still be those memories, but the connection wouldn’t be there, and I wouldn’t quite understand where I came from. And I think that’s important to know – so as to avoid running on empty in a world that, even in beautiful West Marin, so easily can demand too much from us.
All of this experience has led me to where I am in life now, and to the desire to constantly be developing a relationship with the places in nature around me. There are now so many filters we can partially experience the world through. But lying on the ground and staring up into the sky, or hearing wildlife walk nearby, watching the seasons change in a place over time and really being part of it – this experience all provides something vital. The places in nature that I have loved still are alive within me. These places are even more full when we have dwelled in them. And I think they miss us when we are gone.