My family’s house in Jackson – the home I was raised in – sits on a wooded hill that’s made mostly out of a reddish mud-clay mixed with brown top-soil. I’ve no idea if those are the correct geological terms for what the stuff is; I just know that’s what it looks and acts like. It’s about the most infertile stuff you could imagine for growing grass, and ever since I was five or so when we moved there, Dad has never been in line for the local yard-grooming award, which was pointedly awkward since the next door neighbor is a professional landscaper.
As a kid, of course, this was fantastic. Grass to the American homeowner is springy, green, and appealing to the eye, but there’s nothing like dirt, dust, and mud to make an eight year-old happy. And I’m not just talking about makin’ mud-pies or that moment when you walk inside and your mother spits on her finger to wipe the mud off your cheek. I think I mean something deeper than that: that exposed earth between the tall oaks and maples was so unusual in a land of perfectly-groomed yards that, as a kid, I felt the call of the woods and the wild, wild wilderness right in the heart of suburbia. When fellow neighborhood children might venture off to a local creek that twisted and wound its way to the Forked Deer, that was exciting and adventurous and all, but there was something wonderful about knowing I only had to go as far as my back doorstep (or as far as my imagination) to be in a whole other world from the sameness of the suburbs. That little shaded hill with its crappy dust-bowl and with clay that wouldn’t do for molding a pot for the kiln was a land of magic to me. And it was mine.
For the past few weeks, though, Dad’s been at work tilling the mud-clay and mixing in fertilized soil from a cotton field, seeding it with what I’m guessing was Kentucky bluegrass or something similar. Other dry-patch spots of dirt unkind for walking my puggle in the rain have been covered with actual sod, and to see it is somewhat jarring for me. It looks like, well, all the other yards here in the neighborhood. And while it’s a good thing, ultimately, to have finally tackled the yard some twenty-five years later, a sadness comes with it. I miss already the exposure, the open-and-honest grit-and-grime, the sounds of the backyard childhood.
A week from now, I’ll be on the road to another mystical land (another place wooded and on a hill), this one in New York and surrounded by water and love. I’m not sure why, but it seems fitting now – at the beginning of this change – to see the ground tilled, the grass planted – the home, once home – new and different. To see the change go with me, I guess. I am a person who from the ground I came and to the ground I am returning, and I yearn to always be mindful of that. It’s something sown into my persona to the point that I’m a little too eager sometimes to get to the root of things, no matter how much of that ugly gritty ground is left exposed in a world where we too-often prefer our “yards” nice, neat, landscaped. And yet, as much as I love getting to the roots to know them, I think I do so because I want to be a part of cultivating them, of seeing them mowed down and bare to growing something that belonged there in the first place. There is no ugliness in the barren land to me; only potential and hope. Because eventually – no, now – long-gone are the dead, dry grasses who have made way for something better, something longer-lasting. That’s what I hope for myself. It’s what I hope for everyone.