“Those shining stars, he liked to point out, were one of the special treats for people like us who lived out in the wilderness. Rich city folks, he’d say, lived in fancy apartments, but their air was so polluted they couldn’t even see the stars. We’d have to be out of our minds to want to trade places with any of them.” – Jeannette Walls in The Glass Castle
I grew up in a pine forest in rural Ontario, about 15 minutes away from the nearest town of 1,400 people. My backyard consisted of neat rows of towering trees. The ground was thick with many seasons’ fallen pine needles, which seemed to make you feel like there were springs under your feet when you walked on them (especially if you were a tiny person wearing Pocahontas running shoes).
Our house was a bright bungalow nestled into the side of what amounted to a sand dune. We had a fenced-in area where our schnauzer, Duke, liked to rest in his doghouse or dig holes to the outside world. There was a well-loved homemade swing. A playhouse. An open area where my dad taught my sister and I how to golf with our junior-sized clubs. Two toboggan hills – one in front of the house and one behind, each equally thrilling. Horses in the field down the road.
I know I can’t romanticize the woods, though I’d certainly like to. There are a lot of things that aren’t ideal in the country – my 45-minute bus ride to school comes to mind – but looking back I think that time in my life was special.
The best part of the forest was something called the Bright Spot. This was my dad’s name for the part of the woods that was filled with maple trees and open space. It was a break in the pine-tree maze. You’d be walking through the dense, dark forest and all of a sudden come into this almost-clearing. The sky would appear again and there were so many things to look at: fallen trees covered in moss, giant rocks, bugs, and an old hunting perch high up in a tree. To me it was overwhelmingly green – as if even the air was green.
I loved the Bright Spot. It was a safe place that I thought was ours, even though we didn’t own the property. You’d rarely see another person walking through, so it was ideal for all sorts of little-girl adventures.
Living in the country like this – with so much natural beauty for amusement – taught me how to be alone. When there are no streets bustling with neighborhood children (and no ice cream man!) your social calendar is greatly limited. I spent a lot of time with my sister. We were pretty good at watching TV, investigating the kitchen’s snack inventory, and arguing. (In fairness to my sister, it is highly probable that I started all our fights.)
We were united in our pine-forest life, but I would also be perfectly fine taking off alone, announcing: “I’m going to the Bright Spot! See you later!” I’d leave through the basement, avoiding all the resident spiders and making up lengthy songs as soon as I was out of earshot. (About the songs: I was really talented.) My Bright Spot activities usually involved balancing on things, gathering rocks for my collection, and making forts. I had several invisible friends for a long time, but I think after a while I was cool with just hanging out by myself; just me, my jeans and jean jacket combo, and the whistle I could blow if anything went awry.
As an adult I think it’s crucial to be able to spend time alone without getting antsy. Sometimes I’m my own best friend, and I’m not sure I have the ability to feel real loneliness. I thank living in the woods for that.
It’s quite possible that if you haven’t known me for very long you would be surprised at my early upbringing. I suppose that at first glance I don’t look like I’m too familiar with forests or bugs or rocks. I like my creature comforts. I like wearing nice clothes and putting on make-up. I don’t think there are very many circumstances under which I would ever consider camping. And I’m not ashamed of any of this, because I know there is a time and a place to get messy. The time and place to get messy is not on my morning commute, after I just did my hair. If I want to commune with nature I’ll schedule a time and place to do so. I’ll probably even get dirt all over me, and you just know I’ll be sweating like a boy. But I’ll want to go home soon after this adventure, and I’ll definitely want to have a shower.
This division between my “country mouse” and “city mouse” selves is so perplexing to me. I don’t think such obvious compartmentalization was conscious or sudden; maybe it was always there. Wherever it came from, I know I need to treat it with reverence because it’s not going away anytime soon.
Lately I’ve been partly joking about wanting to live on a ranch – some sort of giant acreage where I can run a hobby farm, plant lots of flowers and vegetables, and sit on a wooden porch reading all the best books. I can only say “partly joking” because I know I would really love to do all of these things… I’d just want there to be an amazing coffee shop nearby, along with a few boutiques and a place that will sell me the exact pair of running shoes I need. I need some sort of life where I can be country mouse in the morning and city mouse in the afternoon.
Part of growing up is learning about yourself. I used to think these lessons involved listing your qualities, like you would on a social media profile so your Internet friends can distinguish you from their other Internet friends. I could say I’m 24. I live in Calgary. I am going to marry Ian. I don’t eat meat. I like to exercise. But beyond that… there is so much explaining to do. I’ll need to clarify that my house is in the middle of a big city, but every chance I get I head to the park so I can be near trees and water. I’ll have to tell you that a bad hair day can seriously ruin my entire day, but I think I’m most beautiful when I’m running for miles and miles with bedhead and a bare face.
The stories and images and feelings from my childhood are still important, and I’ll always carry them with me. Things like the Bright Spot help me come to terms with the endless contradictions that pop up in my daily life, and they link me to so many of the things I value: nature, health, family… rocks… forts…
I’m happy with the way I spent this day in the city, but if I could pick any way to spend tomorrow I’d go to the Bright Spot. I’d climb up into that hunter’s perch and take a survey of all the things I could see around me. I’d turn a fallen log into a balance beam, then hike through the forest with a giant walking stick. I’d put some neat rocks in my pocket. And, just for fun, I’d make up a new song.