The Landscape of My Childhood

l_forest-tent-caterpillar

It is probably a truism that the world of a child is smaller than that of an adult. But, paradoxically, the opposite of a truism is often also a truism: the world of a child can be vast and without the limits that regularly constrain adults.

Perhaps it’s my age, a few years shy of forty, or perhaps it’s something else of which I’m unaware but I have been reflecting on my childhood and piecing together memories; attempting to discern the active ingredients from the sum total of those days—to single out those experiences which still resonate, ripple, and influence my adult life.

The first place that I can remember living was William Street in western New York. I can still remember the full address and phone number. I had to learn those things in kindergarten along with how to tie my shoes. The house was pale green when my family moved in and we would later paint it a burnt red color; I was allowed to climb a ladder to apply some paint. Climbing the ladder while holding the paintbrush proved slightly challenging as I inadvertently painted the lenses of my glasses before reaching the upper rungs. There was a well behind the house that probably didn’t work given that I can’t remember ever seeing an adult make use of it—it was only kids who ever pumped the handle or poured water down the spout.

But my memories of William Street are not really of the house. With some effort, I can dredge up some mundane details of the interior of the house. But it takes no effort at all to remember the backyard and behind that the woods. It proved to be the landscape of my childhood.

I remember the morning when me, my younger brother, and the kids who lived next door discovered that tent caterpillars had suddenly invaded the apple tree in our yard. The apple tree was a critical landmark and reference point for us. The apple tree effectively marked the start of the transition from backyard to woods. It was a meet up spot and was perfectly shaped for a child to climb. I spent time reclining in the upper branches. It was one of several fruit trees but it was the one everyone had the most affection for—regardless of the fact that the apples weren’t really edible. The invasion of the tent caterpillars had to be resisted. All other thoughts and plans vanished; the day was dedicated to tearing through their silky sticky tents, evicting and eviscerating the trespassers.

I remember the board that laid in the tall grass of the neighbor’s yard. We would sometimes lift the board to check for snakes. If a snake was seen, whoever had lifted the board would immediately drop it and we would all run for our lives before stopping to compare notes about what, if anything, we had just witnessed.

I remember the bridge that crossed the creek. Two utility poles spanned the gap; boards had been nailed between the poles to form a bridge. For all we knew, the bridge had always been there; it was almost a feature of the landscape. Our childhood minds could have more easily imagined a time when the bridge was first discovered rather than imagining it ever having been built. The bridge was aged and in a state of disrepair that made it fascinating and perhaps even slightly dangerous. The boards were not very secure, some merely setting in place with nails that had long since worn loose. Stepping to the edge of the boards rather than walking down the center could—and did—result in a fall into the creek. The board you fell off of might then fall on you but fortunately the water was never very deep.

We established landmarks and named unique spaces as we saw fit and there was no known edge to the terrain we wandered. There were presumably property lines but we were oblivious to them; we cut through neighbor’s yards with a presumed right of way. We could—and often did—spontaneously decide to go somewhere we hadn’t been before. And it would probably be a place our parents had never been before either. Off the map!

I remember we decided to follow the creek to parts unknown wherever it might lead. We set out with a sense of purpose taking long strides through familiar scenery and eyeing the horizon for something new. We got to the bridge and jumped off. At one point the mud got so thick it was pulling our boots off and sock feet were landing in mud. If it were a movie, it would be at this point that someone would plead “go on without me!”

The landscape and one’s sense of the world can potentially expand with adulthood but often it doesn’t. Adults tend to have longer, stronger legs able to span greater distances and the ability to pull their boots free from the mud. But for many, it seems, the world contracts, getting smaller and less interesting. The multitude of landmarks and reference points discovered in childhood all get reduced to “the backyard”. Adults never spent time in the upper branches of the apple tree and they were totally unaware of the tent caterpillars; adults didn’t discover what we called Vine Village where vines were as big around as our arms and could support our weight; adults never fell off the bridge or gathered up their courage to look under the snake board. Adults generally have their decisions made for them by other adults and their days are scheduled well in advance.

If my parents had been asked where my brother and I were during the day they could only have said “in the backyard” or perhaps “in the woods”. They didn’t know what direction we set out in and couldn’t easily find us. The only expectation was that we return home by dinner time or at least by dark. We never left word where we were going because we never really knew. Plans were apt to change and discoveries couldn’t be predicted.

It has been over a quarter of a century since those halcyon days and I am now relying wholly on my memory to reconstruct the past. If I returned to that same expanse today, it’s unclear how or if my memory would align with the facts on the ground. Perhaps the backyard wouldn’t seem quite so vast and maybe the woods wouldn’t feel as though they were a yet-to-be discovered continent. My horizons have expanded with time, experience, and travel but I have also succumbed to many of the trappings of adulthood. I would be hard pressed to say which is greater: that which I have learned or that which I have forgotten since wandering those woods. I am working on remembering.

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Finding Magic in the World

Originally published by The Dark Mountain Project.

finding magic

Serious-minded people — rational adults — do not believe in magic… or so we are led to believe. To suggest that magic is in any sense real is often to disqualify one’s ideas from consideration. Even those who believe in burning bushes and talking snakes would likely be offended at the suggestion that what they believe in is magic. The phrase ‘magical thinking‘ is used for a variety of common logical fallacies and mistaken ways of thinking. The belief may be considered natural in children but almost pathological in adults. Belief in magic is amongst the ‘childish things‘ that we are supposed to shed. And, indeed, most do shed the belief but I suspect they do it because it is expected of them rather than through any carefully considered decision or gathering of evidence. As children the world is overflowing with magic but as adults we collectively pretend the world is more of a machine than an animal, more of an object than a subject, something to dominate rather than revere.

So am I suggesting that magic might be real? Well, I want you to keep reading and so, for moment, I’ll need to keep those cards close to the vest. But it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suspect that something may be up my sleeve.

Much like asking if God exists, the answer hinges almost entirely on the definitions being employed. He or she who defines the terms will surely win the debate. A world full of magic may look identical to a world completely void of magic if interlocutors are employing the term in radically different ways. Likewise, even the most zealous of atheists may happily concede that gods exist provided certain definitions. The assertion that ‘there is no god’ is often made within the context of traditional Western theism; stepping outside that context toward a radically different understanding of what is meant by ‘god’ makes for a significantly different conversation and different possibilities.

Returning to magic, consider the following dialogue from Richard Linklater’s recent film Boyhood:

Mason: Dad, there’s no, like, real magic in the world, right?
Father: What do you mean?
M: You know, like elves and stuff… people just made that stuff up.
F: Well, I don’t know, what makes you think that elves are any more magical than something like a whale, you know what I mean? What if I were to tell you a story about how underneath the ocean was this giant sea mammal that used sonar and sang songs… and it was so big that its heart was the size of a car and you could crawl through the arteries? I mean you’d think that was pretty magical, right?

The confusion is created by incorporating the idea of the supernatural into the very definition of magic. Many standard dictionary definitions will include the idea of the supernatural but this is not helpful; indeed, it’s a trap. It means that if something is part of the natural world that it is not, as a matter of definition, magical. We already know (or assume) that there is no magic in nature. So, for example, we know whales aren’t magical because we can go out and observe them or convert them into oil for lamps. Magic is supposed to be more elusive.

Anselm argued one need only to adequately understand the concept of God in order to know, with certainty, that He exists. For Anselm, God was ‘that than which nothing greater could be conceived’. To trace the consequences of this definition meant that God necessarily exists. If you are thinking of a being that is perfect in every way but lacks existence then you not thinking about God; you are not thinking about ‘that than which nothing greater could be conceived’. Anselm thought that to exist would certainly be greater than to not exist.

And yet Anselm’s Ontological Argument is not very convincing and is widely considered to be inadequate. The generally identified flaw was initially provided by Kant who pointed out that existence is not appropriately described as a characteristic or a perfection.

We ought not incorporate existence or (non-existence) into our definitions.

Returning to the natural world, Robin Wall Kimmerer in Braiding Sweetgrass writes:

‘The very facts of the world are a poem. Light is turned to sugar. Salamanders find their way to ancestral ponds following magnetic lines radiating from the earth. The saliva of grazing buffalo causes the grass to grow taller. Tobacco seeds germinate when they smell smoke. Microbes in industrial waste can destroy mercury. Aren’t these stories we should all know?’ (Kimmerer 345)

While not explicitly about magic, Kimmerer breaks down the wall that many of us have erected in our minds that divides poems from facts. The former are often treated as fluffy and frivolous while the latter are regarded as solid, dependable, and gathered through the hard work of trained professionals. We entertain ourselves with poems and build spaceships with facts. But the divide is artificial and the characterisations of what can be found on each side nothing but stereotypes and superstitions serving to convince us that the divide makes sense, that it needs to be there, that something must be one or the other and not both.

So who is really guilty of the sleight-of-hand when answering this question about magic? No one and everyone.

Whether there is magic in the world is, on a certain level, purely a matter of definition. For most of my life I have defined magic out of existence. It is only in recent years that I have been finding it everywhere as a ubiquitous part of everyday life: as mundane and as exciting as the air.