A Walk on the Wild Side

canstockphoto24627239I came in yesterday evening after digging and planting most of the afternoon, dark rings of sweat on my shirt, dirt ground into the knees of my jeans. My hands were stiff from the jarring strikes of shovel and hoe into sun-hardened clay. After a shower, I tried to sit and write. Every five minutes, I was hopping up to do one chore or another. Normally, I’d spot this as procrastinating behavior, chide myself and force myself to sit again. It’s something else, though.

With my computer crash of last week, I spent most of my days outside, sweating and filthy and in motion. My mind was free of distraction. When I work outside, nobody interrupts me, for fear of being conscripted into weeding. I can spend hours alone. I drink gallons of water, stop and watch a hawk overhead, startle voles in the brush pile, watch as a caterpillar makes its way up a tree trunk.

I live in an older suburb of the Twin Cities, surrounded by little ranch houses built in the late 1950’s. Every house looks the same – some shade of tan or white, desperate to look different with shutters or fences or yard lighting. We attempted this by ripping up the front lawn, piece by piece, and putting in perennial plants. We’re an irritant to our neighbors on one side, who alternately poison and water their lawn in rapid cycles through spring.

Our back lawn is a carpet of creeping charlie, dandelions, wild violets and thyme. The rabbits dine there at dusk. Last night, I watched four of them chase each other around our yard, or as it is known in the rabbit world, foreplay. This year, I’ve been fencing all our garden beds, in an attempt to actually have produce that we get to eat. The rabbits have fought back, leaving stubs of tulips, gallium and roses everywhere. Horny, long-eared vandals.

A hail storm that lasted all of ten minutes rained down on us late in the afternoon. Marble-sized hail bounced off the lawn and house in every direction. I could smell it before it arrived and pulled tools and gear into the garage just in time. My internal barometer worked, smelling the air before rain moved in, feeling the chill from a slight drop in temperature and pressure – it always makes me think of farmers who know when to come in from the fields and old ladies, whose bunions ache just before a rain. It’s a forgotten wildness, this abstract intuition of the physical world in which we reside.

I had forgotten over the winter, cuddled up to my devices and traversing between house and car and destination and home canstockphoto6411807again. I’d gotten wrapped up in issues that were beat to death online – that seem of finite importance when standing under a clear sky, with the sun warming my face. It only takes an hour or two in my backyard ecosystem to remind me that the world inside my study is but a sliver of life.

Sitting down at the keyboard after being outdoors makes me feel like a big, wild thing stabbing at keys in some funny meme or YouTube video. Look at the primitive try to type. Words all sound like incoherent grunting as I write, but I can hear crows cackling two blocks away and notice the stillness that suggests a light spring rain is on its way. It seems a tremendous bridge to cross – this wildness caged and sitting still, trying to funnel it all onto a cold, lifeless screen.

My mind wanders to the turkeys I startled while hiking at a regional park. There were five of them, one a male in full feathered regalia, trying to woo the others. Frogs were warbling away, in a Swamp’s Got Talent sing off. Purple martins and swallows crowd boxes to get the best spot, smacking into each other and fluttering away. The wind blew across the lake as herring gulls swooped overhead and Canada geese escorted their new fuzzy families along the water’s edge, squawking loud commands to goslings who dillydallied.

I think about writing as a state of being, once removed from life. It’s civilized, structured, a story playing out on a paper stage. I’ve often felt a distance from the life around me, too busy in my head building a narrative. I need that distance. Being an introspective introvert in a noisy world requires a buffer zone. Writing serves that purpose, allowing me to create order out of chaos, perspective out of ambiguities.

canstockphoto18451476Being outdoors is a different kind of bombardment. The immediacy of life all around grounds me in the moment. I’ve tried to write while I’m outdoors, but as I often joke with my walking buddies, I have nature ADD. There’s nothing I can do but breathe, listen, smell, observe. I am not me, with a long list of neuroses and adjectives. I just am, no more or less than the red-winged blackbirds that trill at me as I cross the marsh. The bit of wildness that remains within calls back. Me too! Me too!

37 Comments on “A Walk on the Wild Side

  1. I love to sit on my deck and write in my journal. With the journal, I never hit delete or backspace, so it is perfect for outside work. Anything else is impossible because of the way light plays with the screen.

    BTW. I lost my journal because Apple permanently locked my iPad. I work with a slick little bluetooth keyboard rather than the on-screen board. Unfortunately, the keyboard does not have a reliable OFF switch. It is a case of all too clever form before function. Something that has always plagued Apple products.

    One of the cats fell asleep on the keyboard (that I inadvertently left on) thus continually transmitting keystrokes to the iPad. Sadly, Apple has an iron rule, if you attempt and fail to log-on more than ten times – they permanently lock your iPad and you lose everything. Obviously, my sleeping cat did not understand this.

    I never intended my journal to be read, even by me. It was always a place to exercise fluency rather than compose/edit. Now that the journal is gone. It has become what I intended it to be.

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    • Cats have very little interest in humans as artists, hence the need to sleep on keyboards, knock pens off desks and insist that they are the source of all inspiration.

      My little go round with technology lost me a couple of weeks work on the novel and I found that immensely satisfying. It’s an odd optimism that always tells me I could do better, so anything lost is just a run up to the real thing.

      Your loss reminds me of all the many great artists or writers whose unpublicized work gets dragged out into the light by opportunists or fanatics. I’m sure many of the greats would be horrified at their private letters, journals, drafts and grocery lists being sold or published.

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  2. Oh yah! The Call of Nature! The grounding of the mind in the movement of the soil! I feel the same call. Yesterday, in my cold city of Toronto, I tried to knit my work while sitting under a magnolia, enjoying the warn breeze and the light shade. Some cars and trafic noises were reaching my ears, but, mostly, everything was quiet. Until my neighbour got his spade and wheel barrel and started to fuss over this plant and this shrub and, first thing I know, I am digging too, moving this and that and planning the vegetable garden and filling the watering can and… Hibernation is over!!!
    Thanks for sharing these thoughts with me.

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    • I feel so lucky to live in an urban area where city planners had the foresight to fill it with trees and parks and trails. There are some places I go, like to the regional park, and it feels like I’m far away from the city. And to see wild animals regularly seems such a privilege.

      I think there must be something about gardening just a little bit primal, with the effort to control nature and the subsequent respect one must have for its adaptability and persistence.

      Hibernation is indeed over – thank goodness!

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  3. WOW! Years ago I used to feel sort of that way when I grabbed my camera and went off to explore the countryside. I’d go by myself and spend hours exploring ravines and trails and escarpments and pretty little towns and villages. Maybe it’s time I tried that again. Thanks for the inspiration πŸ™‚

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    • It is very easy in our modern world to completely lose touch with nature and that really is the crux of environmental destruction – too many people are unaware of what is to be lost.
      I’m no longer an adventurous sort, but sometimes all it really takes is a literal walk in the park to reconnect with the outdoors. I like the fresh perspective I get if I’ve been indoors too long.

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  4. I love, love this post!!! Exactly how I feel when I am out in the garden, piddling around. My dogs follow me around and plop all exhausted. My gardening wears them out. Shoot it wears me out. Great post!!!!

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  5. Well … you might be finding it difficult to write your book, but lady, ain’t nothing wrong with what spending time in the great outdoors is doing to your writing! This was beautiful and evocative. Thank you!

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    • Thanks – I love nature writing, but I myself struggle to capture the deep connection I feel to the natural world. It’s sort of like writing about love or music, both of which I’ve taken a run at on this blog. There’s something ephemeral and instinctual about them that is hard to put into words. Still, writers have been taking runs at these subjects for centuries, so I’m in good company.

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      • I think you did capture it in this post. Of course we’re never satisfied with our own work, but this post moved me on a deep level. I saw your garden through your eyes, and I felt your pleasure.

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  6. It’s a forgotten wildness, this abstract intuition of the physical world in which we reside.
    This is a wonderful thought. I often think about that which we can sense through our sense of awareness. Your descriptions are very sharp.

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    • Thanks. I find if I’m indoors too much and too focused on technology that those senses get very dull. It is amazing how quickly they can be honed once we allow ourselves to be still and observant.

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  7. I was feeling starved for dig-in-the-dirt-time and also took advantage of the glorious weather this weekend to try and clean up the yard and gardens a bit. We are also the dandelion, creeping Charlie style of landscaping — better for the environment especially as the run off goes into Lake Superior! I hope to spend more time digging in the dirt this year than last — the past couple years have been that crazy multi-tasking, family-work juggling schedule that is winding down in the next year or so, transitioning to empty nest, which will not be so empty as it fills with new work projects, community activities and hopefully plenty of outdoor commune with nature time! Your post definitely resonated with me.

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    • This year is my serious gardening year. As I’m writing at home, I have a little more free time to really “dig in” and I feel compelled to save us a little money on produce!
      I just got into a discussion with our next door neighbor, who offered to spray the strip of yard abutting theirs with weed killer. It led to a useful discussion about environmental impact, but it’s hard to shake this apparent need for the perfect green lawn.

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  8. When I am in nature, I feel like an integral part of it. I think that’s what you are saying too. I can’t write while there, but when I come back into the house I feel inspired by all I’ve observed, and writing goes much better.

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    • I think being outside evaporates the boundaries between me and the rest of the world. Sometimes I feel like an intruder. Most of the time, the “I” thoughts disappear, which is an important perspective that most of us need on occasion. Especially in a world that strives to separate and divide us. I can only imagine it broadens my writing as well.

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  9. I have the opposite experience. I love to walk – to hike, amble or stroll along a favorite forest path or, most often, the tow path at the old canal in our town. While my chubby legs are struggling to cover ground, my mind is winging light years ahead. I do some of my best writing while I’m walking. The problem is remembering any of it the next time I’m at my computer.

    When gardening, however, my mind is too focused on how I hate being hot and dirty, and that everything is going to die in a month anyway, and how soon can I be done with this torture, take a shower and sit on my screen-porch with a cool glass of wine.

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    • Ha! I’m an odd duck and I see the same traits in my duckling – I like nothing more than getting sweaty and filthy digging in the dirt. I feel very much in my element. This counters the fact that I’m a bit of a neat freak indoors.

      I’d like to believe my subconscious is at work while I’m rambling about in the woods, but when I try to do actual nature writing, it seems to lack vitality. Like everything else, I suppose it’s a work in progress.

      Of course, this is spring. Check back with me in July when I’m wishing for an early killing frost, because if one more @#$% mosquito bites me, I’m torching the yard.

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  10. Oh, I love this. No incoherent grunting to be found. And it’s clear you need to be outside as much as possible.

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  11. A fine piece of writing, Michelle. Interesting that our minds and inclinations have both been drawn to the ‘wild side’ πŸ™‚

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  12. I love getting outside and digging in the dirt. My pet grasshoppers love it too. It basically means MORE FOOD! πŸ˜‰ Darn them!!!
    Hmm..maybe I need chickens or something. I don’t like using pesticides.
    Okay, what are you going to do in your yard next?
    It has been so hot here. Really hot for this region. Plus a ton of mosquitoes will be moving in soon I fear. They love my sweet blood.
    Keep on typing your stories! They are a nice read. Smiles to you!

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    • It’s hot and humid here now. Rabbits abound, so I’ve been working on better fencing so that we don’t lose all the produce I’ve planted. And YES, the mosquitoes are really starting to show up for the party. But they bring the gorgeous dragonflies, so I try to remember that!

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