Tuesday, January 3, 2012. Reading: Dorothy Wordsworth, excerpt from The Alfoxden Journal (January 20 – February 3, 1798). Journal entries about walks in the countryside and along the seashore in Somerset, near Alfoxden House. Jammed with metaphor, simile, personification of nature. Sentence fragments. I can’t imitate Dorothy Wordsworth’s writing, but did try to imitate her powers of observation. What I saw was less on the ground than in my own mind.
Today I walked a route taken almost daily when I was a child: from my parents’ front door to that of my best friend. The sky was low, overcast, pearlescent gray, spitting showers of snow at me sideways. Twenty degrees Fahrenheit; gusts of wind in the 15-20 knot range. Black spikes of grass sticking up through half an inch of powder. Snow hats on the shrubberies. The walk can be understood in terms of geographical fact: I thought the distance to be about a half-mile, but Google Maps says that it is less than half of that. From the house where I grew up to the corner of Walnut Street: 305 feet. From this corner down the hill to Poplar Street: 285 feet. Turn left, and pancake-flat Poplar Street runs 325 feet to an imaginary boundary at the foot of a wickedly steep hill and becomes Pinewood Drive. My best friend’s house was 62 feet up this hill, near the ridge, on the left. The neighborhood is set at the edge of a mile-wide valley that was once the bed of the prehistoric river that drained most of the Ohio River basin. The eroded river bank rises to the south; the houses are either built on foothills of sediment and rock deposited in the riverbed, or along the edge of the valley floor that was once the river bottom. There is an old joke that in suburban America, developers cut down all the trees and then name the streets after them. This isn’t exactly true of our development. Until the late 1950s, it was a farm belonging to the Thompson family, and the houses were built in what was most likely the Thompsons’ nearly-treeless pasture. The developers curled Pinewood Drive in a U around a stand of tall, skinny longleaf pines, and they left two old walnut trees that may have marked a house or the corner of a field at the intersection of my street and Walnut. I was standing under one of those walnut trees in August of 1977, when a friend told me the unthinkable news that Elvis Presley was dead. The other walnut tree soon went to join Elvis; a replacement was planted immediately. In 1973, where the street will always live most vividly for me, I knew the name of every family living along the route – who had children, who were empty-nesters; whose job paid enough for a brick rancher, a cedar-shake bungalow, a cottage with a cinderblock foundation and a telltale shape that betrayed its origin as a double-wide mobile home. I knew all the children personally: the late-life, unexpected baby girl; the handsome teenage boy and his two brothers; the two beautiful girls who babysat us; the talented majorette with a wild mass of honey-colored hair and a flashing baton, and the jolly girl beside her who was too old to play with us and too young to babysit us. The boys at the end of the street who had a nasty German shepherd named Captain and a garage band –they played Beatles tunes all day in the summer until about 1975. Studious, moody Karen. Debbie, who played with Barbie dolls until she was nearly sixteen, and who made them have sex in the Barbie Camper until Barbie caught Ken cheating on her with Malibu PJ. I knew the crazy dad who photographed rainbows over our houses and tried to sell us the prints, and the single working mom – a rara avis in that time and place. I knew the empty lot that was best for building ramps and practicing wheelies on my bike, and the one where my babysitter had broken her collarbone when she was playing tackle football with the neighborhood boys. I knew that septic tanks drained gray water into the ditches along the streets, and I didn’t play in them – especially on Poplar Street, where the level grade and clay soil caused the water to stagnate, to turn the grass a bright psychedelic shade of green, and to exhale methane-breath on us at the end of a hot day. Today, there is city sewer service and the ditches are empty. I notice that several of the lots were subdivided long ago and parts were sold to pay for a new car or a semester of college. I now know only two of the neighbors along the way. I mince along the asphalt on a fine layer of snow, because my center of gravity has shifted somewhat with age; all around me, flowing translucent and shining through the winter landscape, are the long slow summers of the 1970s; the green and giving pasture, divided and sold before I was born; and the deep waters of the ancient, mighty, and vanished River Teays.