Rewriting our childhood

Following Hannah Hinchman's advice, I have begun to re-remember my childhood, recording my memories of the fields, streams, woods, and prairie land that surrounded my childhood home in rural southern Wisconsin. In between my nature memories from my Midwestern childhood, I am adding descriptions and reflections from my walks through the woods, fields, and marshes of the suburban New England town that is now my home.

I invite you to share your memories of nature from your childhood or your responses to nature as an adult in the comments.

Katy Z. Allen
January 21, 2012

Note: Unless otherwise credited, photos were taken by me.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Swinging on the Birches

The story went, as I remember - correctly or not I do not know - hearing my mother tell it, that a family friend from her childhood who was out in the wilderness came upon a bear (or perhaps a bear came upon him), and he climbed the nearest tree. The problem was, the tree he climbed was a birch tree, it bent over under his weight, and there he was, hanging down near the ground, eye to eye with the bear.

The birches across the valley
Photo by Mary North Allen
This may be just a "bear story," but the part about the birch trees is real, and we had plenty of birch trees on our property. To get a really good swing on a birch, the tree had to be just right. The trunk had to be large enough in diameter to hold our weight as we climbed up, yet thin enough that it was still supple. We climbed as high as we could, then hung on with our hands and let go with our feet. The tree bent under our weight and we swung down close to the ground, then jumped off. With just the perfect tree, and climbing to just the perfect height, our feet touched the ground, with no need at all to jump. If the tree was too small, it bent over before we climbed high enough to get a worthwhile jump, and if the tree was too large to bend enough, or if we didn't climb high enough...well, there we dangled, hanging too high too jump, and yet jump we must, and jump we did. 

Splendid and majestic is the One's work...        --Psalm 111:3

I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree~ 
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk 
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more, 
But dipped its top and set me down again. 
That would be good both going and coming back. 
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.   --Robert Frost

Thursday, May 10, 2012


I had goats. Why goats? Well, they were not too big, like cows or horses. My brother Tom already had sheep. They were not too small. They were mammals, unlike the chickens, which were not so very personable. And somehow they just appealed to my childhood spirit. And so my parents allowed me to have goats.

Sam or Sammy, short for Samantha, was my favorite. She was a gentle soul, unlike Nannythanial Hornthorn (named by Tom), who was just plain mean. But still, I had soft feelings for her in my heart, as well, because she was, nevertheless, my goat.

My father wasn't happy about the goats for one simple reason. It was almost impossible to keep them confined, except by locking them in the barn, and after all, shouldn't they be outside, especially in summer, when there were so many nice yummy things to eat? Including, unfortunately for all of us, all my father's favorite plants. They jumped over fences. When tied to a chain that was attached to a stake driven into the ground, they pulled it out. And they munched on everything. Not just the grasses, but everything. I often gave up and let them run free, but this was dangerous territory, and I had to at least try to keep them out of my father's gardens and orchard. 

I desperately wanted to have one or another of my goats pull a goat-cart. Lying around the barnyard I had found an old set of wheels and an axle to attach the two. I tried fixing up a seat on it, but the engineering of it wasn't right, and it never worked - in the sense that it didn't stay together and move along as a cart should. The question of the goat being attached to it and being willing to pull it was a whole other question, and the answer to that one was also that the engineering, or the personality and training of the goats, just didn't work. I tried many times, but never fulfilled the visions in my mind.

The most famous goat story was about Scooter, Nannythanial Nornthorn's son, who was also inclined to be tough and mean. He was wandering the yard, and my mother was sitting in the dining room and saw him on the front porch. She watched him look in the window at the tall, impressive, flower-filled fuchsia plant that was happily growing inside the house. She saw him eyeing the plant, and at the same instant that she realized what was going to happen, it happened. Scooter wanted the fuchsia, and so he just jumped through the window into the house and started eating it, ignoring the broken glass around him and the blood streaming from his ear.

There are many more goat stories. But most of all, I just loved them, and loved knowing that they were - in as much as an animal can be - not my brothers' and not my parents', but mine.

Old MacDonald had a farm, e-i-e-i-o. And on his farm he had some goats, e-i-e-i-o. With a ma-maa here and a ma-maa there, here a ma, there a ma, everywhere a ma-maa.

I wait for Adonaimy whole being waits.  Psalm 130.5

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Jones and Company

My brother Tom raised pigs. Rather, hogs. They lived their lives in the pigpen and its accompanying closure. These hogs became immortalized in our family with a front-end portrait shot of Jones that Tom took when he was into photography. It is a memorable view.

Aside from this photograph, I do not have any special or fond memories of the hogs themselves. More that they simply were. They were part of the landscape, a factor in life on our home, grunting, oinking, growing larger and larger, grunter deeper and louder, and then gone. Slaughtered, chopped, packaged, and put into our freezer. Such is life and death for farm animals. And they taste very good.

I stopped eating pork before I stopped eating meat altogether. The taste of bacon and ham are but a memory. But the image of Jones remains vivid in my mind, helped along by his studio-quality portrait, and accompanied by Wilbur from Charolette's Web and Piglet from Winnie-the-Pooh, two very memorable characters that didn't always behave so much like pigs, or hogs.

[Photo of Jones to come]

In all the world
There is no way whatever.
The stag cries even
In the most remote mountain.                     --The priest Fujiwara No Toshinari

I know, Adonai, that the way of humans is not in their control, humans are not able to direct their steps as they walk.                                                                   --Jeremiah 10:23

Sunday, March 25, 2012


The ladder up the windmill
Photo by Mary North Allen
Looking up the hill
from beside the barn 
The windmill above the barn no longer provided the energy needed to run the pump at its base. An electric switch opened a circuit to bring electricity to power the pump. But the blades atop the windmill continued to rotate in the wind, and the ladder to the top of the windmill was still intact.

A winter view toward the northwest from the windmill
Photo by Mary North Allen
More than once I climbed to the top of that ladder. From just below the windmill blades I could see over the barn roof and the treetops, up and down the three small valleys that came together at the creek juncture below the house. And when I turned around, I could see beyond the orchard to the large hilltop alfalfa field and the lone tree in its middle. 

It was a fine view.
View toward the ocean from atop Mount Agamenticus,
York, Maine, elevation 691 feet
Photo by Gabi Mezger

Not seeking
Just being...

Not defining
All accepting.

No demanding
Faith expanding.

Without knowing

Inner listening
Gladness -- glistening.               --Albert Krassner

Be still, and know that I am God.   --Psalm 46:10

Thursday, March 22, 2012


My father loved to garden and he always had a large vegetable patch. On late spring evenings and weekends, I helped him with the planting, sprinkling the seeds just the way he told me to into long, straight furrows below taut strings stretched from one end of the garden to the other. The most fun were the potatoes. My father bought seed potatoes and cut them carefully so that each piece had just one eye, and then let them dry thoroughly in the sun before we planted them. He dug the holes and I placed the piece of potato eye up in the bottom of the hole. Then he covered it over with soil.

I loved harvesting the spring crops, especially asparagus. The tender green stalks were the first fresh vegetable of the year, and they arrived before the weeds took control. Hunting for the green sprouts against the brown soil was a joyous search down the long asparagus bed, hoping not to miss a stalk that was just the right height for eating, finding and slicing them off just below the soil line. 

But potato harvest was the best - a time of mystery, exploration, and surprises. 

Paul Allen with his shovel,
used for many things, including
planting and harvesting potatoes
Throughout the summer, as the potato plants grew, my father mounded soil around them, creating small "hills." Some time in August the weeds always gained the upper hand. Perhaps my father lost the desire to keep up with them, but from then on we had to search for the vegetables among the weeds. At that time of summer, the leaves of the potato plants could easily be discerned among the weeds, but it was still too early harvest the potatoes. We might find green beans, but for potatoes we had to wait. 

In mid-to-late autumn potato harvest time would arrive. One by one, we searched out the dead or dying potato plants among the weeds. Sometimes we couldn't find any trace of a plant remaining, but my father was certain there was a hill of potatoes just about "here." He was usually correct. Once we located a potato hill, my father dug down into the rich soil, trying to be at just the right spot - not so close to the center that he sliced through a potato and not so far away that we missed them altogether. 

My asparagus patch needs weeding.
With excitement, I pulled out the large potatoes that rose upward with the shovel. I pulled out others peeking out through the sides. And then we reached in with our hands and searched for more, still hidden behind the sides of the hole my father had dug. The best potatoes of all were the "doll potatoes," the little ones, just right for little girls and dolls. Those I treasured. Those were for me.

By the time we were finished we usually had several bushels of potatoes. After drying in the sun, they were stored in our cellar and provided sustenance for our family for many meals during the cold, short days of winter. 

One potato, two potato,
Three potato, four,
Five potato, six potato,
Seven potato, more!               --Nursery rhyme

You open your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing.  --Psalm 145:16

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Barn Loft

View from the barn, looking up the driveway
Photo by Mary North Allen
The barn was great fun to play in, especially the loft, and most especially when it was mostly filled with hay. Exploring the dark corners below the eves from atop a solid bank of hay was invariably an adventure. By moving a few bales around, my friends and I could create a hiding spot behind which no one could see us. We, however, could peek between the slats of the barn walls and see the driveway, the house, the other farm buildings, and the view up and down the valley. What a liberating feeling! Sometimes, in one of those back corners, we would find a nest full of eggs. The hens must have also liked the seclusion.

Door from the barn loft to the main floor
Photo by Mary North Allen
The greatest fun in the barn loft was provided by the long, thick, heavy rope that hung down from the peak of the roof almost to the floor. We would skinny up it, as though we were sailors aboard a huge sailing ship: Put your hands up as high as you can and hold on tightly to the rope. Scooch yourself up. Hold on tightly with your knees, and again reach up as high as you can. Keep repeating as you swing gently from side to side, until you are as high up as you want to go. You can see the inside of the roof, and maybe a few pigeons. Then slide down (quickly for fun, but carefully, so as not to get rope burn if you are wearing shorts!) until you're at the height where you are ready and then -- jump!

View of the barn with the loft doors closed
Photo by Mary North Allen
Better than the sailor routine with the rope was swinging on it. Not far above the floor, just at the perfect spot was a large knot. When the two sides of the barn were filled to the rafters with hay, but the middle section was empty, we opened up the sliding doors as wide as possible. One of us climbed up the ladder to the rafters and made our way to the back of the barn, away from the doors, beside the open central space. The one standing below swung the rope up and back and the one on the rafters caught it. The big knot just reached the spot where we sat, ready. Perching on the knot, hanging onto the rope tightly, we jumped. Down, down, we fell, then the rope went taut and we would swing outward, out the barn door, out beneath the open sky, with a fleeting view of the trees and fields and streams as we swung upward to meet the sky until the rope could go no further, then backward and into the barn, then out again, and again, each time a shorter swing, until we came nearly to a stop. Then the rider let go and jumped off the "seat" to land on the barn floor. What an amazing and wonderful ride! It was impossible to get too much of it.

One of several rock outcroppings
at Loker Conservation Area
Nonesuch Pond in Natick, through the trees
Last Friday, I walked the trails of the Loker Conservation Area with five other women -- part of Earth-Connecting: Walking Wayland. I felt so comfortable -- easy conversation, sharing of knowledge about the land and the trees and the Earth, and a powerful sense of connection to this plot of land. The conservation area is close to the highway, and on one stretch of the trail the sounds of the traffic were quite loud. Normally that would have interfered with my ability to connect to myself and the Earth and to let the healing power of the Earth into my heart and soul, but not this day. This day something different happened; I felt the connection and the healing almost immediately -- the evergreens giving color amid the browns and grays of late winter / early spring, the rock outcroppings, the view between the trees of a distant pond across the highway, shared moments of silence as we each made our quiet, personal connection to the land, and somehow most of all, the knowledge that we were crossing the divide between two watersheds, from the SuAsCo - Assabet, Sudbury, Concord - Rivers Watershed, in which we all live, into a tiny corner of the Charles River Watershed. We connected to Boston Harbor with our feet. Two ways to touch the ocean. 
Taking a moment alone in silence
to connect to the trees and  the Earth

Kol haneshama tehallel Yah, Halleluyah. 
Let everything that has breath praise the One, Halleluyah. --Psalm 150:6

I have walked through many lives, some of them my own...   --Stanley Kunitz

Monday, March 5, 2012

Skiing, Sledding, and Tobagganing

In winter, we went skiing, sledding, and tobogganing down the hills that rose up from the sides of the valleys. My skis were old wooden ones that had been my mother's when she was young. I wore my regular snow boots and put my feet into large loops, big enough to encircle my boots, and then clamped myself in. Easy as pie.

We had a hill that we called our ski slope. It began at the end of the path across the marsh. ("Path Across the Marsh," January 22) A long stretch of the lower hillside was meadow, open and potentially ski-able or sled-able, but only in this one area was the hillside free of trees all the way to the top, providing a nice long run, when the snow conditions permitted. Our ski slope was groomed only by our skis as they made tracks in the snow. Going down the second time in the same tracks - if one could manage that - provided a faster run than the first time. But too much snow made skiing - and sledding and tobogganing - impossible, for in the deep snow we could go only a very short distance, or no distance at all, before sinking down and coming to an abrupt halt. 

Some years we had a "January thaw," a respite from the frigid below-freezing and often below-zero weather that was the norm of my Wisconsin childhood. The snow softened as it began to melt. Then the temperatures inevitably dropped and the top of the snow froze hard, leaving a crust. Depending on the thickness and strength of the crust, we could either walk on it or else, with each step we might be held up for a brief second and then sink down into the snow, making walking very difficult. On those rare occasions when the crust was thick enough to carry the skis or toboggan, we gloriously zoomed down our small hills at high speed.

One winter the conditions were just right for a wild, wild, toboggan ride straight down the steep hill below the barn, conditions that included the craziness to even try this run. The hill was steep enough that we picked up more and more speed, so when the front of the toboggan hit the first wall of snow from the snowplow along one side of the driveway we bounced into the air and over it, to almost immediately hit the wall of snow on the other side of the driveway. But that wasn't the end of our jumps, for the driveway had a circle, so, after a short zip across the middle of the circle, we had two more tortuous jumps as we hit the two walls of snow on both sides of the driveway on the other side of the circle, and then -- danger! Quick! Bail out before we hit the barbed wire fence! It was glorious and crazy and fun and scary all at once, and whoever was on the back of the toboggan was lucky (or unlucky?) if he or she made it to the bottom of the hill without sliding off.

Another winter - or maybe it was the same one - my brother Tom created a sled run through the woods across the valley; a toboggan was way too awkward to navigate this trail. We flopped belly down, head first, on our wooden sleds with their metal runners, and steered carefully, very carefully. One sled at a time in case the other person crashed, zigzagging between the oak trees. At one particular spot we would be zooming down the hill and suddenly we were headed straight for a huge tree, but with adroit and swift steering we swerved to the right, then back again to the left after the tree to continue downward at top speed and into the safety of the open pasture below. This winter ride was also at once glorious and crazy and fun and scary. And my brothers and I are here to tell the story.

There come to us moments in life when about some things we need no proof from without. A little voice within us tells us, 'You are on the right track, move neither to your left nor right, but keep to the straight and narrow way.

There are moments in your life when you must act, even though you cannot carry your best friends with you. The 'still small voice' within you must always be the final arbiter when there is a conflict of duty.

Having made a ceaseless effort to attain self-purification, I have developed some little capacity to hear correctly and clearly the 'still small voice within'.

I shall lose my usefulness the moment I stifle the still small voice within. 
--Mahatma Gandhi

Be strong and of good courage...                              --Deuteronomy 31:23