The earth and the sky, the wind and the water were mostly our friends – or so it seemed to me as a child growing up in southeastern Pennsylvania.
The small streams, including a tiny branch of Skippack Creek down the hill from our backyard, rarely overflowed their banks. The only severe “weather event” I recall was Hurricane Hazel in 1954, which took out the apple tree in our backyard.
I enjoyed driving through the gently rolling hills around Souderton, seeing the fertile fields which produced the grain my Dad the feed man sometimes sold over the phone.
In my memory, spring was long and lovely, with daffodils and tulips in March already. Summer was hot and humid, with lightning bugs in our yard to catch at dusk, and window air conditioners to help us sleep at night. Some summers were drier than others, but I don’t recall any drastic droughts.
Each autumn, the maple trees along Chestnut St. faithfully put on their spectacular show. I loved the way the leaves rustled underfoot when my Mom and I walked through the neighbourhood with my treat bag on Halloween. We had enough snow to play in during the winter, but rarely an out and out blizzard.
Thus I experienced earth and sky, wind and water, as overwhelmingly genial. Likely my Dad and my brother Jim, both feed men, would tell the story differently, reminding me of emergency efforts to get feed to chickens during snowstorms. As I grew older, I did dimly become aware of a changing farm economy and the stress that put on farmers and their suppliers.
By coming to southwestern Ontario to marry a draft resister, I chose a landscape with natural elements quite similar to those I experienced as a child.
Then this summer I re-read three authors who caused me to look at earth, sky, wind and water through a different lens. I chose these books because they beckoned me back: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s last three Little House books; Rudy Wiebe’s memoir Of This Earth, and Kathleen Norris’ Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. Only later was I astonished by the connections I found between them.
All of them demonstrate what Norris calls spiritual geography : how the place where we live shapes our spirit…how the landscape and its ordinary or harsh beauty affects our outlook on life.
I wonder how I would approach life differently if I’d come of age in a claim shanty in the Dakotas in the 1880’s with Laura Ingalls Wilder, as my Pa turned the sod for the first time.
I wonder how I would have thought of sky and earth, wind and water during that blizzard that lasted all winter, or when the crops failed year after year from a plague of blackbirds or a sustained dry wind. Would it have occurred to me as a mature adult to write stories for children about these experiences, celebrating my Pa’s pioneering spirit and our family’s resilience?
I wonder how I’d view life differently if I’d grown up with Canadian Mennonite novelist Rudy Wiebe in the tiny settlement of Speedwell in the boreal forest of northern Saskatchewan in the 1930’s and 40’s, with the old-growth trees much more difficult to clear than anticipated, with books in short supply, and with my beloved older sister dying of a heart condition? Would such a setting have incubated in me a published story about my sister, or a major novel on an indigenous leader?
Or what if I had moved with Kathleen Norris from New York City to a small town on the high plains of south Dakota to take over my grandmother’s house temporarily? Would I have understood this as a good place for spiritual writers, and stayed?
Some view the Dakotas as “empty,” Norris wrote in 1993, with a few ranches, Benedictine monasteries and settled towns in a land belonging to far-flung indigenous peoples, prairie grasses, and buffalo. The old pioneer spirit of independence threatens to fold in on itself. Hope is scarce. This is a place, Norris claims, for poets!
So I wonder: are natural environments like southeastern Pa. and southwestern Ont. too tame to incubate great novelists, poets, spiritual writers, and authors of iconic children’s stories? Or does it have more to do with developing a certain inner eye, no matter what the natural surroundings?
Questions for Reflection:
- How would you answer the questions in the paragraph above?
- In the places you have lived, how would you describe your relationship to earth and sky, wind and water?
Next Week: Summer Delights in our Neighbourhood