Following are two very different experiences of my younger years – one very urban and the other very rural. The common thread that weaves them together is an abiding sense of connection I feel with the earth as a whole and to global community.
My first distinct memory of “place” was when I was six. In June of that year my father went on a college scholarship to Yugoslavia. It was 1952. He was in college on the GI bill.
At the time, we lived in ½ of a WWII corrugated metal army barracks. The space I shared with my sister was so small that my dad had found and remade a museum display case into bunk beds for us.
The barracks were very close together so everyone could hear and see everyone else. All of our neighbors had the exact same kinds of accommodations. The primary requirements for living in this housing were going to school and having children. Even at that young age, we were free to roam throughout the neighborhood and to freely enter each other’s homes. The only condition I had from my mother was that when I heard the cowbell ring, it meant, “Come home now.”
Many foreign students and their families lived in our neighborhood. It was a mélange of different languages, food smells, and habits. Mom was inventive and had painted “Welcome!” in many different languages near the ceiling all around the perimeter of the living room / dining room / kitchen. Every Sunday Mr. Korach came for dinner. He was from Yugoslavia and studying at the University of Minnesota. He and Dad spoke in Serbian.
Dad was gone for a long time – all summer. When he returned home, he had brought gifts. Mine were some unusual tasting cookies and two dolls from Holland. The dolls were in traditional dress. I was in awe of how special and different they seemed to be.
He talked of his travels, of meeting his relatives in Maribor, Slovenia and Novi Sad, Serbia for the first time. He told stories of the ship voyage, of the train rides, of the places he had seen. I wanted more and more. One day he said, “You know, you can do the same things some day yourself if you want to.”
That was it. A defining moment at six. I would. I would do that.
A tidbit I remember is that when I was 8 I had a babysitter, Kathy, who was good at drawing. She made me paper dolls. Lovely. And what I wanted her to make was clothing for these dolls that represented how people dressed in different places all over the world. I still remember how daunting a task I had given her!
When I was 9 my dad (and lots of other GIs) graduated.
A Spacious Multicultural Rural Community
He accepted a position in rural northern Minnesota where he had grown up and near where my mother grew up. From the inner city, we moved to the forest. Even so, life still had a global orientation.
Dad didn’t speak English until he went to school and I understand that the teachers were among the only English speakers in his community at that time. When I came along, much of the “old country” culture still continued – three day weddings with people taking turns hand-turning the spit over the fire as lamb was roasted, lots of traditional dancing and again, almost no English.
Mom and her family grew up in a very different environment on an Indian reservation. For them, as for many of their Ojibwa neighbors, hunting and fishing were a way of life and a requirement for staying alive. I remember relatives going deer hunting and harvesting wild rice. Going to powwows was a routine part of life in which we participated.
Thus, during my early teenage years we lived on the land that my parents purchased and “owned.” We could not see any other homes and were surrounded by forest. The house looked out and down on a beautiful small spring feed lake.
I went from an environment where every home had someone I could play with to an environment where I was completely on my own.
As a result, I came to spend a LOT of my free time on the land and in a rowboat on the water. During the summer I would make a bag lunch in the morning and be gone for the whole day. I explored our land and I explored everyone else’s land as well. I found nests and flowers and saw wild turkeys and deer and came to assume them as friends, as community. I could walk miles in almost every direction using the paths of the animals without encountering signs of humans. Sometimes I would nap in the afternoon. I can still hear the sound of the cicadas and the buzz of flies. At night I would watch the stars and the northern lights.
When I was about 14 I remember sitting on a fence that marked the boundary between “our” land and the neighbor’s land. I looked from one side to the other. In that moment I understood that no human could “own” land; no human boundary could define land. Land was land. It flowed beyond any artificial boundary. I understood that this land I loved did not belong to my parents – or to me. Rather, we / I belong to it. I understood that it existed long before human ownership and would continue long after as well. Though I may or may not have known the term at the time, I understood the power of stewarding the land, of being in right relationship with the land.
Like the T’ai Chi symbol, the urban setting contained the seed of the rural. One vivid memory is of the morning glories that climbed the strings and covered the corrugated metal siding of the barracks. I watched the delicate petals open in the morning to soak in the sun and close in the evening to rest. Another is of working with the soil all season long year after year to help bring forth the bounty of our community vegetable garden.
It is more difficult for me to recognize how the rural setting contained the distinctive seed of the urban. I can see what was shared between rural and urban – like telephone, electricity…. But what was distinctively the seed? If I expand “urban” to include technology, then one memory that comes immediately to mind is going outside on a starry, starry night to watch Sputnik fly over. It was distinguishable from the stars as a speck of light moving quickly across the sky.