Toward the Middle of the Book
by Susan G Holland
The glory of nature.
I’m in Bill Plotkin’s book again. Now I’m getting to the part I will like the best.
It’s what he calls the Garden and the curious child is called The Explorer.
My world of gardens and creeks and trees and sky and sea — all of this was my most happy environment, and I remember the amazement of it all — the shapes, the colors, the scales and feathers, the gravel and the dust, the water running in the creek full of life and wonders. I realize now that I really was placed in a privileged world in that it was all of this, but was just a Philly suburb!
Southwest of Philadelphia is a place — it’s a borough — where people lived long before the Europeans moved in! Beaver Indians lived in Rose Valley, and there is a bronze statue to memorialize that — right at the bottom of a windy little road called Price’s Lane. I’ve traveled that road by bare-foot so many times from my house in a fairly new (then) cluster of houses. Just behind our house behind the row of Pine Trees was the edge of Rose Valley. I would set off and go down the old trolley tracks (now just rubble cement) or up the verge to “sandy bank” and from there to my aunt’s house on Hilltop.
If anyone was a child of that territory I was.
Bill Plotkin speaks of the NECESSITY of interactions with wild nature — unsupervised personal explorations as original and wondrous as any
Columbus or Da Gama had: that the growing child is taught such vital things by touching, smelling, handling, engaging with the stuff of nature around them. Not every child has the kind of neighborhood I had to investigate. It was safe (except for basic facts of nature — one can fall, or drown, or freeze, or get poisoned by nature, after all.) We were not in a high crime district — neighbors knew neighbors and there were community gatherings that embraced our parents, and also ourselves, in activities of all sorts. Swimming and dances and art classes and bird-watching and backyard sports and picnics.
A place that had been an active mill next to the Ridley Creek was restored and made into what we called The Old Mill. Weddings happened there — and plays. The Western Style Fair called The Roundup, happened there. Halloween parties and dancing classes happened there. Musicals were put on by both adults and children. Grown-up shin-digs were had there.
Around the corner from that old building was (and is) Hedgerow Theatre, a place where actors — some of them famous — would keep a Repertory Cycle going of Classic plays. Locals were often involved as extras or small parts, including children. I was a child character in The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg, I remember. Mark Twain. One of my mother’s contemporaries played Alice in Alice in Wonderland. Wharton Esheric designed and carved the lobby’s winding stairs and also a pair of horses that stood out front of the Theatre. It was a busy place all summer and all winter with people coming down from New York and elsewhere to see the players. There was a residence about a mile up Rose Valley Road from there where visiting and resident actors and directors stayed and worked. I was in love with the dogs that had a play yard behind that building. And behind that was the graveyard of the Old Union Methodist Church on Rose Valley and Brookhaven Road — which is where my mother and father, and many other family members are buried.
My little friend Jimmy and I played games in that cemetery — hide and seek and sometimes Tarzan and Jane. Not a scary place.
Jimmy was a buddy who was my boyfriend or not (at the tender ages of 8 and 10), depending on which way the hearts on our friendship rings were turned. If it was away from our heart we were mad at each other. If we were not, the hearts were headed into our hearts. We rode bikes all over a few square miles of pleasant little neighborhoods where everyone knew everyone, and everyone's children and everyone’s dogs as well. Jimmy and I would go up to Providence Road where Lane Travis’ house was. The Travises had a mid-sized pony and we would ride that little pony bareback all over the back pasture, passing under a roofed area and grabbing the eaves as we went through, letting the pony ride out from under us — Like Hop-Along Cassidy!
The world got wider as we had a longer distance to walk to school. And as things like dancing lessons taught us to go on the local train into Philadelphia and back — alone, to the big city — to Mme. Franz’s studio on 16th Street! It was all an adventure and I remember it as being breathtakingly awesome. Scary sometimes. But it was my world, I made it mine, as I took possession.
There were dangers.
Across the street from my house was a man and his wife who were just one of the neighbors until the day I wandered back to where he had a sand box with construction sand in it. I remember that while I was playing in the sandbox, the man came out and sat on the corner of the wood box. He had no supporter on. He saw that I saw his privates hanging down. I ran away fast with heart beating. Yes I told my folks. Yes, they counseled me. I stayed away from that man. But that was only one of four different encounters I had with sexual exhibitionists. All right there in our safe little corner of town. And it did teach me fear. If there were other little girls approached I never heard about it, but I got the message that little adventurous girls like me attracted the attention of people and not all people were nice people.
There were periods of heartbreak too.
During the years my world was widening I got my feelings crushed often. As sensitive as I was to the wonders is also how sensitive I was to the disappointments: the teasing about my red hair, the childhood cruelties that happen on the school yard. I was not one of the “in group” of any school I went to early or late. I was not hated either as were some of the “kids at school.” I was interested in a different category of people, places and things than most of my classmates. They wanted to be together and dress and talk alike. I was more interested in finding out things. There were a few kids at school I had that in common with, and those were the ones I sat with at the table in the cafeteria.
It is funny to touch base with some of the people from my childhood. They remember me as “bright.” In my yearbook I was described as “vivacious!” And my art was admired by all. The little elementary school was, thankfully, graced by some key teachers who “got” me. I was so lucky. In high school, too, there were teachers who could “read” students. I am still grateful for them.
So, as I proceed in this book Nature and the Human Soul by Bill Plotkin, I am fascinated by what good things happened in my young life that many people simply did not enjoy — even those in my neighborhood! You could tell who the “popular” girls were by their chic clothing and the activities their parents arranged for them. I didn’t do the country club stuff or the fancy vacations. Did I feel left out? Of course I did. But, then, I also didn’t really like what those girls were into — the extra fine clothes and the fancy bedrooms and all.
I loved my down and dirty life in my world where you could sit on the ground and play with the dog. Where you could pitch a baseball to the boy next door. I got a black eye that way, and was never able to pitch again. Boys hit hard!
So — where I wrote a “Cautionary” notice about the book earlier on in The Story Hall— it was only cautionary — not a rejection! I’m loving this book right now. It likes me and how I grew up!
Remembered by Susan G Holland ©2017
Art is by SGHolland, a digital variation on a photograph by a friend of beached jellyfish.