There is an article in this week’s Sunday New York Times about a battle in Ridgewood, New Jersey, over whether to build a concrete swimming pool to replace Graydon Pool, a natural swimming hole that has been a feature of the town for a century. Mainly it’s the younger residents, often new parents, who view Graydon Pool as unclean and unsafe and want to replace it with something disinfected and transparent. Older, longtime residents are for the most part opposed to the change. Mark Ferraro, a lawyer whose grandfather was a lifeguard at the pool and who is part of the Preserve Graydon Coalition, was quoted as saying, “If they do what they’re planning, it would be just another thing lost to the wrecking ball of suburban sterility.”
The rift between younger and older is a manifestation of the fact that the upcoming generation, reared in the suburbs, is significantly different not only from my Boomer generation but every other in history, having grown up with no intimate, essential contact with nature. Nature is something to run a machine over or call the exterminator for. In the lives of their kids this is even more pronounced. There are no dark woods to explore by moonlight, no creek to follow in its divagations, no bird or bug or berry to open a portal into the mysterious. No danger and no excitement. Even the green lawn, which once offered a bit of range, has been squeezed into inconsequence by ever-swelling McMansions.
“When I drive past the schools in this town, you wouldn’t believe the number of parents who drive the children to school,” Timothy Cronin, the director of Parks and Recreation, was also quoted as saying. “My parents never took me to school. I took the bus or walked.” Even that possibility for the unexpected has been foreclosed, as Mr. Cronin put it, “out of a high level of concern about safety issues.”
Safety issues. This country has them, and no wonder. We hear endless news of predators and pedophiles and other sundry dangers. Is the situation any worse than ever? Statistically, no, but perception is what matters. The reappearance after decades of an abducted girl in Antioch becomes a national celebration. We memorialize trauma, as if that would make us immune. In the same Times is a report of a plan to disperse thousands of pounds of steel from the World Trade Center to communities throughout the U.S. to use in 911 memorials. Icons, you could say, of the last cohesive myth this country can rally around. Manifest destiny has become (unsurprisingly) collective victimhood,
Four of my siblings live in suburbs. I like visiting them but their pretty neighborhoods parch my soul. The gardens, trim and trig, one after another, are less interesting than the pasture behind the house where I grew up. You get the feeling that people in the neighborhood are looking for something to complain about; the “unapproved” color of the trim of a house, the trailer sitting in someone’s driveway, the dog that barks. I’d rather live in the Tenderloin, or a small town, maybe like Ridgewood, New Jersey, though now, apparently, it’s turning into suburbia.
The small town used to be part of the national mythos. Last year Rascal Flatts recorded a song, “Mayberry.” “I miss Mayberry/ Sittin on the porch drinkin ice cold cherry coke/ Where everything is black and white…” There’s a phrase for this kind of gooberism: lard-coated caca. I bet if you got Doctor Phil in there he’d find out a few things about Barney and Gomer and probably even Aunt Bea that could curl your toenails.
I grew up in a windblown, High Plains town. Mayberry it wasn’t. The town has two cemeteries that contain significantly more citizens than its lit houses. Nobody walks at night but nonetheless streetlights on every corner burn so bright all true darkness is smitten down. One can, at least relish the quiet and tranquility, no? The 6 days and night I was there in August, preparing for the auction of the house I grew up in and its contents, and navigating the aftermath, a grain dryer at the elevator ran nonstop, a blast of noise like an idling jet that has on previous visits driven me to the edge of may(berry)hem. Where I live in San Francisco is much quieter.
Even so, in this compromised setting, over those 6 days there was a sampling of an undomesticated natural world: cicadas, having left their shells clamped to the bark of the ash trees, shrilling overhead; a big bull snake idling across the grass; bullfrogs; and fireflies inordinately incandescent.
One night Justin, a buddy of my nephew Chris (they’d driven out from Washington state) came into the house, bearing his sleeping bag. “Not sleeping outside tonight?” I asked. There was a beautifully starry sky, despite the obnoxious streetlights. I thought he might be someone who might appreciate the sight.
“No way,” he said, “there are spiders everywhere.” (He had seemed reasonably rational as well.) “You want to see?”
We went outside. Strapped around his head was an LED lamp, with a beam that he directed not toward tree branches, as I expected, but to the grassy areas all around us. “See that red dot, that’s its eye, and there’s one, and there. They’re everywhere.” I couldn’t see what he was talking about, but then he crept forward and pointed down to where the beam now rested, and I still didn’t see anything, until he leaned in closer and suddenly there was an abrupt movement, and I saw spider legs disappear down a dime-sized hole.
“Wow, that was a huge one,” he said. He pointed out another spider hole, another and another, and then I started seeing those spooky little red dots sprinkled amid the grass, spider eyes, staring back, everywhere.
For many years every night in summer I slept on a quilt in the grass under the stars, never once aware I was lying down in a world of spiders, and no harm ever came of it. Now would I sleep outside, knowing what I now know? A little knowledge can ruin just about anything. But then, I’ll never go back. That book is shut.
Do I miss it? No. What I realized when I was there is that it’s in my bones and I can never really be separate from it, and that suits me fine.