Sunday, April 17, 2011

Place/Prompt Blog 8

Blog #8
I don’t think my relationship to my place has changed at all. The only difference I’ve encountered is that I know what my backyard looks like now, and I can imagine different sections of it without having to double check. But it’s still foreign. I didn’t achieve that level of intimacy I was looking for in the beginning of the semester. I couldn’t feel the same sense of security I get in my room. But I’ve learned how much more difficult it is to go out into nature than it was just a year ago. Before, I could walk out my front door, and I would have to physically leave my driveway in order to leave the expanse of nature. Even then, with the small town of Prospect located in the middle of the countryside, most of the lawns opened into fields no matter how close or distant the houses were from each other—the backyards all connected into the fields. Now, I step out my front door and the only nature I experience is the sky, the weather, and the front yard.
Yesterday, I opened my window and crawled onto the slanted roof, leaving my temporary screen wedged between the window and the frame so I could easily open the window again from the outside. I waited until the wind had died down enough so I wouldn’t feel that I was about to fly off. The grass still had spots of brown and dingy green, but it was still fresher than it was because of the rain we’ve gotten over the past few days. As I surveyed the lawns, I was reminded of how green the grass is in Ireland. Western PA looks like Ireland after it rains, because the daily rains are the main reason Ireland is so green.
Standing on the roof seems appropriate for me now. I certainly don’t consider myself above nature, but detached from the nature in New Castle. Standing on the roof, I’m still in nature, still part of it, but separated. The barking of the same hidden big dog still reaches me the same as if I stood on the grass. The same birds flit by, singing. When I turn around, Ember is staring at me from inside.
“Mom? Mom! What are you doing out there! Why are you out there! You’re outside! I don’t like you outside! I can’t get to you! I want to be outside, can I be outside, you’re where the birds are, Mom, Mom!” she seems to say in just a look, her wide eyes, her desperate meow as she paws without claws at the glass.
And I find it interesting that the nature outside doesn’t compel me to visit it nearly as much as my bundle of nature inside.
Behind her sits my computer desk, atop of which is printouts of PDFs and the nature anthology we read for class. Some of what I’ve read for this course I encountered in my previous Literature of the Environment class from SRU. But in that class, we concentrated on the reverence of nature. In this class, we shifted back and forth between reverence, irony, annoyance, subtle pleas, and personal experiences. The range in this class has been much broader and served to reinforce my appreciation for it. Some of the assignments were a bit dull or dry, but others were highly entertaining or profound. I think that if ever I choose to approach nature writing in my own works, I’ll probably include some bits of research or information, in order to not make the piece just about me. I think that’s the point of nature writing: not just to say, “Look at what I think, look at what I’ve experienced,” but to inform as well in such a way that, sometimes, the readers may not be aware that they’re learning anything at all.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Place Blog 7

The moment I stepped outside, I walked through a curtain of warmth. That curtain I haven’t felt in two seasons, in six months. It was 77 degrees with a warm wind that smelled of flowers. All the trees had budded seemingly overnight. I like to think that I’m observant, that I’d notice the gradual changes to the color of grass, the size of buds, the green shoots of new flowers, but somehow nature always one-ups me in the end. I’m waiting for spring to arrive and buds to appear one day, and the next day it’s near 80 degrees and the buds on the trees area already spreading and blooming and readying for leaves. It was wonderful to dress in a t-shirt, gray cotton pants, and tennis shoes. Aside from storms, warm, clear days like this are my favorite weather. The only thing to make it better would be a night storm, but apparently that’s not supposed to arrive until tomorrow.
To get to the backyard, I crossed the front lawn to discover it littered with hundreds of cigarette butts. They won’t degrade. Another pet peeve added against one of the male housemates. My neighbors had strung small wind chimes along their overhang that bordered my land bridge. They tinkled in the constant breeze that, this time, did not prelude another blizzard and instead proclaimed that we should go fly a kite.
Walking back there in the bright afternoon when everything was turning fresh and clean made me see all the sections of the house that were peeling in off-white strips from under eaves or windowsills. Yet just like spring, it showcases slow decay with bright youth, because just above the peeling eaves, out of view, sat a singing robin atop the sunroom’s slanted roof. If I had walked onto the roof from my room instead of across the long, tangled grass, I might have seen him.
The neighbor girl was out as well cleaning her bicycle with her younger brother, and across the alley, two men laid new wood and reshingled their own slanted roof. I know I’m situated in the middle of a dense neighborhood, and people are as drawn to spring as I am. But I couldn’t help but feel a bit violated or observed. Like reverse, unwanted voyeurism. I felt exposed, like my own scrutiny of my place was being scrutinized, like walking into class to find that the seat I’ve always sat in was occupied. To make matters worse, that seat was covered in sharpie and gum and chipped away by a pocket knife that engraved initials and space guns. All that took the form of various little I-don’t-know-what’s, a pink-rimmed sock, a thick emerald sock, an black upside down knee or shoulder pad, broken green crayons, chipped edges of Styrofoam, felt, a white garden tab that would have displayed the species of a vegetable or flower, those black egg cartons that were once filled with new flowers to pot.  Did the wind drift the junk into the yard? Had an ashtray upturned and caused dozens of crumpled cigarette butts to fall on the grass?
The ground was just as uneven as before, but the tall grass accentuated the mounds. I walked to the bricked off rectangle of uncultivated and pebbley soil where the garden is to be and tried to find evidence of any wild flowers, but there was none.  With each step, little white gnats rose and spread. I walked into the junk-filled garage for the first time and called for the house’s missing cat, Mastadon. He didn’t answer, but I noticed that the large rolling door was half open. Who knows who’s been going in and out, if they’ve taken anything (not that there was much to take), if they’ve walked up the side staircase to the upper floor and watched me undress.
I walked back out and stood listening. A large dog harroofed from a few houses down. Motorcycles grumbled from every direction. The men across the alleyway echoed hammering. Spring is so loud compared to winter. In winter, people only drive if they have to, they avoid going outside, birds are quiet or gone, and animals sleep. Today, the loud neighbors are outside, dogs are left out longer to bark at people or strange noises, and shadows glide across the lawn as birds flit by. I appreciate the warmth and getting overheated just by standing in full sunlight without a jacket. I’ve missed that. But I haven’t missed the noise.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Pompt Blog 7

I used to be terrified of storms. They’re not really part of the landscape, but they cause it to shift, they rumble in from the horizon, and the sky is as much a part of my environment as the land. Even heat lightning sent me on edge. When I was young, I would hide underneath a quilted baby blanket, hug the raggedy blanket that I carried everywhere, and curl up beneath a window or atop a recliner. Then I would stay there, cringing at the booms and shrinking from the lightning, listening carefully to detect when the storm drifted away. The day I sat cowering beneath the kitchen window, my grandmother taught me how to anticipate thunder by counting.
“When you see lightning, start counting. Whatever number you get to, that’s how far away the storm is. If the thunder hits before you start counting, that means the storm is right above us.”
I remember thinking that counting was crazy. It didn’t help me anticipate a storm, just tell how far away it was. But fine, I was a dutiful granddaughter.
FLASH, one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, BOOOM!
Three miles away and getting closer. Oh no!
Knowing how close the storm was actually enhanced my fear. The closer it got, the stronger it got. What if the house was hit by lightning? What if the house burned down? What if a tree fell on the room, or flew through the window? What if the wind knocked the house down? What if we lost electricity? What if it brought a tornado! Not a tornado!

Living in western Pennsylvania my entire life, I shouldn’t fear tornados. It’s an irrational fear because I’ve never encountered one, just seen its damage on the Weather Channel. For some reason, when I was about five or six years old, I would sit in my finished basement and watch the Weather Channel for hours at night when nothing else was on TV.
I kept this fear of storms through middle school. Then one day, after some sort of after school activity. like a PTA meeting I sang at or a poetry group I was part of, Mom and I stood underneath an awning in front of the school and watched a storm. I gripped her tight around her waist as we watched it rage, my hand clenching her shirt behind her back. It must’ve lasted only fifteen minutes, but in that time I realized how absurd it all was. Really, the pale yellow or white lightning bolts were beautiful against the dark blue clouds. And nothing was happening to us; we were safe.
From that point on, my fear slowly abated. No longer would my heart pound with the thunder. No longer would I dive underneath my covers. I left my quilted blanket where it was. My raggedy blanket went untwisted.
By high school, I began to love storms. Around that same time, I was introduced to Wicca and energy. I started watching the pattern of birds before and after storms. I started to stare at the horizon as a storm rolled in and the clouds shifted darker or lighter. I stood still as the precursor wind brushed my hair from my face and wrapped around me as it changed directions, not knowing which way to go. I started opening myself to the storm, taking the tumultuous, powerful energy into me like taking that first inhale of sweet, fresh wind in the spring. I would grin as strobe lightning took a hundred pictures of my spinning ceiling fan. I’d laugh as the thunder spit and growled overhead like a giant pissed off panther.
It’s interesting to note that my love for storms grew as my family life deteriorated. My life inverted. I embraced the outer chaos while I strove to deny the household’s. I would lie in bed and imagine flying through the storm. Nobody bothered me when it was storming. While my parents hunkered down, I lived. I was free. I could control the energy roiling around me, control whether it affected me. I would bring it around me, bring it into me, and breathe. They could take away my walks, take away my music, but they couldn’t take away my storms.
To this day, when a storm arrives, it’s like a lost lover coming home. I look forward to spring and summer storms. I consider December storms and thundersnow to be Nature’s gift to me. If it storms after a bad day, it’s Nature consoling me, making me smile. If it storms after a really bad event that left me crying, it’s Nature’s way of providing a soothing embrace. The rain hushes, the wind wraps, the lightning is Nature’s anger on my behalf, and the thunder is Nature’s voice as it tells me that Karma will do its work in time and I needn’t worry.
Every so often, I try to physically personify storms. If they were a character, what would they manifest as? Or, would the character of storms be like the character of place, and I don’t need to change a thing? I’ve always given them an autonomous consciousness, would I need to give them anything else? If they were a human, would they be male or female? I haven’t decided. Both work just as well. If a character associated him or herself with storms, what gender would they be? Would it have to matter? Certainly I would incorporate scientific research into the character, make the personalities match, make them have tumultuous emotions before they explode in passion. Make them change colors, make their eyes flash, give them a stronger electromagnetic field, make them able to conjure other forces or other characters around them. For nature writing, I could make a creative nonfiction piece about my childhood and the growing mental and emotional abuse I received, research storms to explain how they work, and then explain how I would draw them around me.
One day I may incorporate storms as a sentient being into my stories. But right now, I’m comfortable enough just exploring them in my own time, in my own way. When the day comes that I make them a character, then that’s when it was supposed to happen.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Place Blog 6

Saturday night was a night of almost. That night, after spending the evening at Cranberry Township at Ichiban and Barnes and Nobles, I went into the backyard with my boyfriend. It was in the upper 40s throughout the day, but around 10:30 p.m. it was right at freezing, and my blue fall/spring jacket wasn’t enough to block the cold. Very quickly, my fingers started to become uncomfortably cold, and I knew they were probably starting to turn red from the first stages of frostbite, but I didn’t care. I wanted to see the moon.
According to a couple articles I saw online, Saturday night showcased the moon at its closest to the Earth in 18 years. And it was noticeable. Thankfully, the night was clear and I could even make out a few stars from ground level. The moon was incredibly bright and almost double the size it would’ve normally been at its zenith and fullest. It shown behind the garage like a still slumbering  sunrise behind a hill, and rivaled the streetlight that is stationed in my neighbor’s yard. I never before described the moon’s light as golden, but that’s what it was tonight compared to the street light next to it. That would make sense, considering the moon has no light of its own; it simply reflects our yellow sun’s light.
As we stood there, shivering, I looked around and noticed that, as expected, nothing had changed. The door was shut again, everything was where it had been before. The only thing out of place was a random green wooden lawn chair that was placed on the land bridge, causing me to blink at it in confusion and step onto my other neighbor’s driveway just to walk around it.
I looked at my boyfriend and said, “So, this is my backyard.”
“I know. I’ve been back here before.”
“You have? When??”
“I don’t know, at some point. I’ve been in the garage, too.”
“You have?? When??!”
“I don’t know!” he whined. “When there was a lot of stuff in it.”
Which narrows it down to at least before winter. I still can’t remember when or under what conditions he had been back there, and certainly can’t remember any moment during my moving into the house that might’ve caused him to walk into the back yard, much less into the garage.
We didn’t stay in the yard for too long. Just long enough for me to soak in the moonlight like the rejuvenating grass and trees around me. Like them, I was waking up and welcoming spring. It wasn’t until the nice weather lasted for a couple days that I realized how much I had missed it. I have no problem with winter, and this one was no different, and usually the turn of the seasons doesn’t affect me too much. But this year, spring is a relief.
Standing on the yard, knowing my boyfriend was fidgeting in anticipation of going inside where it was warmer, I felt as if I was also standing in the space of waiting—waiting for warmth, be it going inside or soaking in the sunlight. Waiting for the movement that would bring warmth. And maybe the moon being closer and golden bright was a sort of like it was saying, “Don’t worry. Almost.”  
Almost there.
On the point of being almost there, I feel I must mention my boyfriend’s birthday. All the talk about spring and warmer weather actually coincides with it because his birthday is on Monday. When we first met and mentioned birthdays, I said, “Oh! It must be great having your birthday on the first day of spring!” Because, when averaging the dates, it usually falls around the 21st. However, lately it’s been the day before or the day after. He mentioned this by saying, “Yeah! It was great! Until the science and the calendar companies took spring away from me.”

Friday, March 18, 2011

Prompt Blog 6

During my high school years and throughout my undergraduate years, my grandparents’ farmhouse became a place of sanctuary. I lived there for about six and a half years. It was the typical two-story, 200-year-old white house that happened to be situated on a potato farm in the Butler County countryside. The foundation bowed, the house was heated by hot water pipes that banged and creaked every night, there were two doors (we rarely used the nicer front-facing one adjacent to a busy route, opting inside for the smaller mudroom entrance beside the driveway), its well water smelled like rotten eggs, its paint peeled, and it was slightly haunted.  During high school, my sanctuary started in a large room my grandparents designated for me on the second floor above a long set of steep stairs. Friends and family experiencing the stairs for the first time would look up in wonder and slight fear, and I’d always remember the first feeling I got when going up those stairs: slight panic that I would tip backwards and fall to my doom.
In that room, I could curl up, secure in the knowledge that I was away from my home troubles, that my grandparents respected me (what a novel concept) enough to knock and wait for permission to enter because they knew that space was mine, and that I was trusted to be on the computer as late as I wanted and not download porn or viruses. They let me sleep in as late as I wanted without yelling at me or making me feel guilty. Winter always came with a natural guilt when I’d sleep til 2 p.m. and only have two hours of daylight remaining. The room became a place of significant paranormal activity. I saw many things while there: shadowy men, red electric faeries, orbs, demons, animals, ect. They always traveled diagonally from the corner of my room past the tv toward the head of my bed. For a long time I thought the house was situation on a pathway, and it wasn't until I moved in with my best friend in New Castle and still experienced oddities that I began to consider that maybe it wasn't the house that was haunted, so much as me. The activity that happens now only occurs in my room. But my grandparents experienced a number of situations at the farmhouse: shadowy, hooded figures like grim reapers that watched from corners; a wafting scent of peanutbutter toast at 2 a.m.; and cigar and cigarette smoke when none of us smoked. Even if I'm haunted, there were still presences in that house.
A unique marker of the place was its Y-shaped driveway--a paved U-driveway with a curving tail. That tail was a miniature valley, and even the farmer landlord didn’t mind that I rollerbladed along it during every visit. Rollerblading there was like the walks I would take at home. I put on headphones that covered my ears, and--rain or snow or shine--I would fall into my own world as I surged up and down along the cracked pavement, swerving out of the way to avoid incoming cars or farming equipment and stepping to the side when people needed the driveway. There was an unspoken boundary and etiquette on that driveway. As long as I stayed out of the way, and got out of the way, I was free to come and go.
The driveway was flanked by a single-car garage, next to which was an equipment garage with rolling doors in the front and back. From the tail’s connection point was a steep offshoot that lead to a white barn. Cattycorner from the house was the large red shed and office. I could never understand why it was called a storage shed because it stretched the length of the house, two garages and barn combined, including all the spaces between. Everything else was farmland, from the small field/back yard beside the house and shed, to the rolling fields of hay  (or straw, still haven’t learned which it was) and potatoes. Behind the barn and clearly visible from the tail, like looking out a floor-to-ceiling wall of windows, was a small pond with two giant trees beside it. I ended up painting a winter scene of that for my senior project.
I experienced many weather conditions on that driveway and, between it and walking around my home’s neighborhood, I learned to gauge when a storm would break or the incremental strength of the rain. I would stand in my rollerblades with my back to the wind and let it push me around the driveway or give helpful boosts to make me go faster. I also learned about black ice there, and willingly shoveled when my legs screamed to rollerblade. Back with my parents, I couldn’t stand to shovel, but had no problem doing it at my grandparents’ house.
I moved in with them halfway through my senior year of high school. Finally my sanctuary was complete because I didn’t have to leave it anymore. It steadily became the closest thing I’ve had to a home. I was welcome there, because the farm was so open to nature that I could marvel at it from the side yards or driveway. I could walk around the equipment garage, away from the light pole, and see the sky open above me. A few times, we saw satellites floating past on very clear nights. For a couple years, my best friend and I would take fresh fruit, fresh bread, and sparkling grape juice during our walks along the fields in order to celebrate Midsummer. And every night, my grandfather would take his cocker spaniel for a walk in the same area, and I would watch them from where I stood on the driveway in my rollerblades—watching his stride, watching the dog’s energy or lack thereof, watching him stumble or pause to regard something or wait for his dog. It still felt slightly voyeuristic even in such an open place.
My grandfather taught me how to drive along those fields. He took me back to the picnic area behind a line of trees in order to teach me about parallel parking, how to make three-point turns, and how to anticipate and adjust to shifting terrains. He also asked me to mow the side field for him when he was too tired. When he returned from work every day, he was usually too tired to mow the lawn, let alone mow it and the small field next to it. And I wasn’t doing any chores during the day (an agreement my grandparents suggested), so I had the time. A filial duty was awakened in me then and I wanted to help, so I would don my bathing suit during the summer and ride around in rectangular patterns until the lines overlapped and I went in circles.
From watching him, feeling the acceptance from my grandmother, and being able to stand on the driveway with open nature in full force all around me, I matured, gained a sense of decency and responsibility that my parents could never teach me by forcing it upon me and screaming at me when I did something wrong. My grandparents and their house provided a quiet support system, first to help me heal, and then to guide me. Thinking about various places along the farm pulls forth different memories and all the emotions that went with those times. And now that I’m away from it, my heart twinges with each memory. The side field is gilded with a summer glitter, the pond is steeped in the deep blue of midnight with a silvery sheen from the moon. The rolling fields are auburn from the setting sun, pink from the rising sun, and waving green during late spring. I never had to worry about working in the suburbs or being indoors at school all the time, because I could come home to nature and loving grandparents.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Prompt Blog 5

Around Pittsburgh, PA, we get strong winters. The average rainfall from January through March is anywhere between 6.48 cm and 9.5 cm., with a yearly rainfall around 8.75 cm. Ironically, the rainy season seems to occur between May and September. The average low between January through March is 22 to 31 degrees Fahrenheit, with the average highs between 37 to 50 degrees. The rainfall, of course, doesn’t take into account the snowfall, which can range anywhere between a couple inches to nearly a foot. Some winters we get hardly anything—they’re mild with little snowfall or ice, just blistering cold. Other winters have massive snowstorms. There is something sublime when you look up and realize that the cloud cover you’re seeing stretches undisturbed from Maine to Texas. But this wide variation of weather patterns causes people to forget the trials of winter, and so they don’t prepare for it as well as they should.
But economy has a lot to do with how we interact with winter. If the city or county doesn’t have enough money to invest in salt, or enough workers to man the salt trucks, then back roads are typically left for last with the main thoroughfares, routes, and highways being plowed or salted first. This is what happened in New Castle this year. Often, accidents don’t occur on the major highways, but on the side streets when trying to get to or from the highways. Many times, people come in late to work because they’ve offered to help plow roads with their own pickup trucks that have plows attached to them.
This year in particular was horrible because of the lack of salt and manpower for the salt trucks and snow plows. I have great respect for the drivers now, because they’re out all night in every weather condition that we hate. They have to go slowly in order to not get into accidents themselves, and they have to maneuver those huge trucks around cars parked along side streets or abandoned on roads and highways. New York had a problem with this when that monstrous snow storm hit, because people abandoned their cars and the snow trucks couldn’t get through without colliding with the cars, so they weren’t sent through and the streets went unplowed for hours, or even days. Luckily, New Castle and Butler County didn’t have that problem. But many of the side roads went untouched for a long time, and I learned the meaning of the word “treacherous.”
People cannot predict what the weather will do a fiscal year in advance, but I’m amazed that state and local officials don’t better prepare themselves for inclement weather if they’re located in northern states. It seems to me that hiring seasonal drivers for salt trucks and snowplows would help people find jobs, especially if those people are allowed to use their own pickup trucks. I’ve seen a number of pickups with a strange contraption in their beds that hangs over the end of the truck. The first time I saw it, it took a few minutes for me to realize that the contraption was a salt dispenser. There are many people in an area who are willing to step up and help for the good of the community, and I have no idea if they’re financially compensated, especially if their work interferes with getting to their everyday job on time. It’s a shame that officials can’t receive a higher budget for inclement weather, or that more people don’t step up to help communities when the back roads aren’t yet plowed, or won’t be because of lack of salt, trucks, and/or manpower.

Place Blog 5

Saturday evening I was finally able to walk into the backyard. I had wanted to go out during midnight to explore the darkest time of my place, to close my eyes and immerse myself in total darkness as I listened to the rain. Instead, I went out during twilight, with my hood up in order to keep the rain off my freshly showered head. I was happy that it was still light out around 6:30 p.m, but that happiness was short lived as the emotional chaos that haunted me all week washed over me again. I walked into the Blue Hour, a photographer’s dream time when the last few rays of sunlight bend through the atmosphere and turn everything blue. It causes structures in the distance to appear like silhouettes, even trees that are seven houses down. All the streetlights, house lights, and car headlights glow like candles and bonfires while the sky still illuminates the world enough to see clearly. The pictures taken during this hour are beautiful, and it’s a fitting world to walk into after a rough week.
When I stepped into the yard, it felt soggier than the land bridge. My boots sunk into the ground with each step. I looked around and noticed two long wooden beams that were discarded after the fence had been built last summer. The poles were laying in wait for when the project was to be taken up again. The garden beside them was a miniature swamp. I continued to scan the periphery and noticed that this time the garage door was wide open. It was windy, and perhaps the door played to the wind’s fancy. As I continued to turn, I was struck by the brilliancy of a single streetlight that burned like fire in the middle of the church’s parking lot and glistened like sparks frozen in time off my house that was seven lawns down. After I made my full circle, I lowered my furry hood and closed my eyes.
To either side of me, the rain pattered against tiles of the garage and the house, and when I opened my eyes to find where a trickle of a waterfall was located, the dim light wouldn’t reveal it to me. And all around me was a rushing sound of water like I was standing next to a stream or river. Except nothing like that was nearby. Instead, what I was hearing was the sound of tires rolling over wet roads. The wind picked up and wrapped about my shoulders like a shawl. Every once in a while, it seemed to put its arms around me; as if nature was soothing my troubles away and hushing me with the rain. Even standing there, I thought back to Abbey’s self-inflicted predicament of anthropomorphizing nature, and I realized that sometimes we might need to give nature a human’s touch. Sometimes our emotions may pull from nature what we aren’t receiving otherwise. Sure, it may be temporary, and we know there isn’t a spirit going out of its way just to lend a hug as it sweeps past. But sometimes it’s nice to imagine, and it helps.