I will make the case that to explore and affiliate with life is a deep and complicated process in mental development. To an extent undervalued in philosophy and religion, our existence depends on this propensity, our spirit is woven from it, hope rises on its currents. ~ E.O. Wilson from Biophilia (Harvard University Press, 1984)
The first memories of the natural world I recall in any specificity are from the family visits to my grandparents’ farm on the Watauga River in east Tennessee. The Feathers descended from John Feathers who immigrated to America from Ireland in 1850. Small farmers all, my relatives were subsistence farmers probably carrying on the tradition of people whose lands were always subject to seizure by foreign or religious powers. They were independent, making their own food, clothing and furniture, raising children by the Good Book and taking simple pleasures in seasonal celebrations, dancing and singing, and harvesting and preparing the fruits of the Earth.
I did not know my father’s family until well after the Depression years that hit hard. Dad remembers being hungry, after all the animals had been slaughtered, when the beans and corn that had been put away in the cellar in blue-tinted jars had been emptied…when his mother made gravy from bacon fat and baked fresh biscuits to hold their hunger at bay. But they made it through with hard work, sacrifice and luck. When I showed up on Earth, their little farm was still there to welcome my sisters and me each summer or Christmas of our lives tromping from military base to military base. Over these many years of annual migrations to my grandparents’ farm my character began to form and I learned where I came from, and something up ahead of me began to take shape.
A distinct memory is the feel and sound of our car wheels rolling up the gravel driveway late at night and getting my first glimpse of the lit windows in the large two-story house under the big maples. Deep shadows cast by a summer moon onto the white clapboard shingles or running across the lawn after a December snowfall primed the excitement in my heart as I anticipated my grandparents waiting on the front porch with its yellow light above the door. Before the car came to a full stop, the doors flung open to release a tumble of jubilant children. The admonitions of our parents and greetings of our grandparents as they nestled us in their arms melded into the ever present rush of the river below the hill sweeping us into its flow and reverie once again.
I always considered the hilltop farm and its contours my home, which I explored like a small insect in my very own world.
Places make a quilt of memories woven of faces, feelings, and senses. Any one of these can evoke an entire memory or set of memories from long past – so powerful are they laid down in our very core. I can recall vividly the sound of ripe watermelon ripping open after my grandfather had slashed a big gash down its middle and his sausage-sized fingers pulling it apart to expose the glistening red fruit. The aroma of its warm flesh, plucked fresh from the garden on a hot summer’s afternoon, laid bare for our refreshment under the cool shade of a towering tree, remains with me to this day, a half century later. Every time that I cut open a watermelon I am drawn into the good, wholesome feelings of those cherished days with my grandfather, sisters and cousins, spitting watermelon seeds across the lawn and watching my parents relaxed on a porch swing up the hill in the sheltering embrace of the old homestead.
These are my first memories of place. They are a tapestry of nature, nurture, and the flow of time. Yet I see now that they have a timeless quality and remain as fresh with me as the moment they happened.