When I was little, the world seemed enormous—much bigger than it is now. My family lived on seven acres, enough room for a whole country—or so it seemed at the time. There was an endless ocean of grass, a treacherous swamp, and ruins of previous civilizations, which included a broken dam and a rusty culvert. These, along with a massive spreading elm, a crumbling stone wall, and a ruined tree sliced dead by lightning, are landmarks I still see in my dreams.
As ruler of this nation, I had thousands of subjects of the creeping, crawling, flying and finned kinds. I spent long, happy days alone, hunting these critters—always with the best of intentions. They all seemed so rare and wonderful that I studied their needs and made little homes for them in jars, bottles, and boxes. I wish I could say I knew enough to release them before they pined away, but it took me a long time to learn that wild things are meant to be wild, and a frog can’t live in a shoebox.
Since I’d failed at zoo-keeping, I became a naturalist with the help of my father’s field guides, my Grandma’s binoculars, and a series of lined journals. I loved to learn the names of things. Grass is grass, no matter what it’s called in books, but there’s a certain satisfaction in identifying even the humblest weed. And birds were magic, with their trilling songs and the flashes of white or red that marked them as one species or another. The excitement of seeing something new could make my day so grand I’d turn the new knowledge over in my mind for days, reciting my new discoveries’ proper names: Hiruno rustica, Corvus corax, Spizella passerina.
We moved away when I was twelve, and I felt like a frog in a shoebox for years afterward. In fact, I’ve missed that life in a deep, visceral way since the day I watched it diminish through the rear window of our 1972 Nova. I was a wild thing, and wild things are meant to be wild. Sometimes I think that’s true of most children.
I may have lost the child I’d been, but I never lost my love for naming things, and I never forgot that a single off-color feather could make a bird rare and wonderful. Without that knowledge, I might never have made it through middle school. I didn’t fit in, but thanks to Roger Tory Peterson and his field guides, I didn’t care. I was an exotic, a rara avis.
I’m thinking of this now because I’ve come full circle. My bout with breast cancer left me with the certain knowledge that life is short. For years my husband and I talked about finding a wild place of our own; now we put the search into high gear, determined to stop talking and start living.
A month ago, we discovered a little canyon where a creek runs over rocks and fallen logs, where cliffs and crags overhang dark, mysterious pools and black squirrels with lovely tufted ears dart from tree to tree. It’s at the end of a long series of dirt roads, each one progressively more challenging than the last, like a series of tests leading modern Hobbits to Smaug’s cavern. The air there smells of sage and pine, and with no passing traffic, it’s free from all the sounds that clutter normal life.
Walking the stream, I found a quiet pool that reminded me of the “happy place” I’d gone to during the visualization exercises I’d done during cancer treatment. It was so quiet, so serene, and so strangely evocative of a place I’d seen only in dreams.
We named our new home Stillwater.
That pool may be still, but Stillwater changes every day. Because I know now that life is short and luck is random, I’ll treasure every one of those days, and record it as well as I can. When you read this, you hold my truth in your hands.
Welcome to Stillwater.
Where is your happy place? If you could live any life, anywhere in the world, what kind of life would you choose, and where?