If it is attended to

by Wolf Pascoe on August 4, 2011

Any life will provide the material for writing, if it is attended to.
— Wallace Stegner

city of dragnetA few weeks ago, a post by Kristen on Motherese, Comforts of Home, got me thinking about the town I grew up in. Town is a romanticism. It was a city. The city of Dragnet, of steaming asphalt and row upon row of stucco, an expanse so vast no bird has flown its length without stopping gratefully mid-flight to rest on telephone wire.

Query: can one have a childhood in such a city?

Resolved: Any life will provide material for childhood.

If attended to.

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THE MOUNTAIN HIGH

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When Nick was three or four, we took him to a nearby mountain retreat for a few days to see snow and breathe alpine air. Believing the brochure, I had visions of dappled meadows and white capped peaks outside our window.

snowpileThere was a manicured lawn and mountain air, but that was pretty much it. Our window looked out over a huge parking lot. The trees, bare ruined choirs, had been ravaged by bark beetles. As for snow, it had mostly melted, except for a brownish pile at one end of the parking lot.

Nick, having not read the brochure, was enchanted. Every day he begged, “We go to mountain?”

He meant the snow pile in the parking lot.

So we went, and I perched him atop the highest ridge of that mountain, some five feet off the ground, from where he gathered slush balls and threw them at me.

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THE VALLEY SO LOW

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A similar miracle existed in the city of my childhood: a stream that emerged from nowhere and ran a few hundred yards behind the houses on my block, then disappeared again. We called it “the gully” and it was every bit as pitiful as Nick’s mountain.

It’s bed was a gravelly wash twenty feet below the manicured back yards. The gully’s eroded, dirt walls were too steep to descend, but the slope was easier under a wood bridge at one end of the block. The whole thing was an eyesore we were forbidden to go down in, but that didn’t stop us. Every chance we got, my cousin and I descended under cover of that creosote-smelling bridge.

GullyThere was no danger. The stream was barely a man’s length across. At its deepest it just covered our socks. No matter the shallowness. You could see tadpoles in the water. Tadpoles! Here and there grew reeds tall enough to hide behind. If you tried to explore all the ramifications of the gully, we told ourselves, you would never find your way out. Explore we did, going a little farther each time, but never quite all the way.

The city, I know now, was full of such gullies, tiny tributaries of its river. One by one over the years, in the name of flood control, someone has been encasing them in concrete. This is a nefarious thing to do to a river, and the river fights back, every rainy season, by luring children down into the rising current. The walls provide no hand holds, and are too steep climb out of.

A few summers ago, I went back to the old neighborhood and stood atop the old bridge and looked down. The creosote was gone. The gully was gone. Far below in the concrete wash, a trickle of water meandered its way down to the sea.

concrete river

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EXPRESS YOURSELF!

Any thoughts about the paradise of childhood? Add your comment below. I always respond here. This just in: you can be notified of responses to you by clicking “Replies to my comments” in the drop down menu under your remarks.

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Daisy August 4, 2011 at 12:36 pm

It’s sad the city you lived in didn’t attend to its children.

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Wolf Pascoe August 4, 2011 at 12:48 pm

Encasing the river in concrete gave a lot of people work in the Depression–maybe now we have another Depression, a lot of people can be given work making it a river again.

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jeff skorman August 4, 2011 at 12:57 pm

great this really made me think about Cleveland where I grew up.

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Wolf Pascoe August 4, 2011 at 1:17 pm

Yes — this happened in more than one city.

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Sirena August 4, 2011 at 1:54 pm

Kids in Cleveland probably were really excited when the Tioga (not sure I spelled this right) river caught on fire! This was a great entry because it reminds us that children appreciate things in a way I think we have mostly lost as adults. There are endless lovely and miraculous events happening in even the most grey and desolate places. Like outside the back door to the office building I work in where a creative bird has built a nest in the big red alarm bell above the door. Or the flock of wild geese I saw last week standing in the middle of the street on my way to the freeway. Lets all continue to look for the mountains and rivers! Love your blog Wolf.

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Wolf Pascoe August 4, 2011 at 8:03 pm

I just remembered Nick and I used to take walks in a nearby botanical garden that had a stream with goldfish. He refers it as the “jungle.”

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Alameda August 4, 2011 at 3:42 pm

we were all kids once, and then……what happened?

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Wolf Pascoe August 4, 2011 at 8:04 pm

A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys.
Painted things and giant wings give way to other toys …

from Puff, the Magic Dragon

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Barbara August 4, 2011 at 4:25 pm

Your gully, my drainage ditch. Pretty much the same memories – in our minds, it became a beautiful river running through virgin land we were just discovering. Now its shore is concrete, as well, and I feel sorry for this generation of children, although I doubt any parents these days would allow their children the freedom we had.
As far as childhood goes – it just takes an imagination! I’m sure today’s children have some other magical place they’ll remember.
Barbara recently posted..Tenacity

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Wolf Pascoe August 4, 2011 at 8:05 pm

Ah, but your stream now–it’s a mighty river when it flows, no?

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BigLittleWolf August 6, 2011 at 1:02 pm

This reminds me that to the child’s imagination, wonder can be found anywhere – or more precisely, everywhere.

And to the so-called adult, even where more grandiose wonder resides, we often miss it – along with the “ordinary.” Maybe that’s what needs attending to. Our capacity for wonder.
BigLittleWolf recently posted..I Love Lucy… Who Do You Love?

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Wolf Pascoe August 7, 2011 at 9:16 pm

And for stopping to smell the flowers, even the ones coming up through cracks in the sidewalk.

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Privilege of Parenting August 8, 2011 at 1:40 am

When I walk my neighborhood in LA I tend to imagine the wild rivers that once rushed and dried in the places where concrete runs now—and yet ducks and herons still gather and commune along such ancient maps.

Meanwhile, this post brought to mind my own child-mind’s propensity to turn small empty lots and woods along train tracks into magical realms filled with treasure, tree-forts and potential dangers from giant spiders to the last of the hoboes who might make camp along the tracks on the fringe of industrial wastelands…

Perhaps the fast vanishing fields and streams still live, ghostly in the tangled neurons of our hundred billion acre collective mental woods.

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Wolf Pascoe August 8, 2011 at 7:37 am

I once heard Gary Snyder say, “The forces that shape landscape and geography are still in place. Do not doubt them.”

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ChopperPapa August 9, 2011 at 9:06 am

Interesting post, just yesterday I wrote a post titled ‘Homeboy’ where I lament at the small town that I wanted so badly to get out of as a child has a new appeal to me today, even at the young age of 41.

In it I made the comment “I think I’m ready to live my life in black and white again, instead of HD”.
ChopperPapa recently posted..Homeboy

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Wolf Pascoe August 9, 2011 at 3:36 pm

I love that reminiscing, Black and White post of yours. Makes me think of John Lennon’s line: You may say that I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one.

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