Wednesday, September 6, 2017

In My Defense: Waiting Years to Visit Riverside State Park

Swinging Bridge at Riverside State Park
photograph by Erin Pringle, CC license

Never an avid trail walker, I do remember walking as a child with my aunt and uncle, grandmother and mother in Wesselman Park, in Evansville, Indiana where my mother had grown up and we visited once or twice a year. Then there was Fox Ridge, which is any easy drive from Casey, IL, where I grew up, and so my mother and I went once a year, or every other. My sister liked walking trails, and took her family when she thought of it, and she was good at thinking of it.

The time I spent with wet leaves, unidentifiable wildflowers, and leaf-covered skies, came less from nature parks and more from bicycling a mile down the rural road to Ruley's, which, may not be how it's spelled but was how it was pronounced.


Roolie was the sound of the name of the old man who once owned the tree-covered property, or maybe his was just the house closest to the woods where my brothers took me to sled then roam, and later find old vases, part of cups--the bits of people's ghosts they left behind or purposely dumped. I never have known. Which is probably why broken things in the ground tend to appear in most every story I write.

Riverside Wildflowers
photograph by Erin Pringle, CC license
But even for my limited adventures, I didn't roam that much. I was not a Tom Sawyer, not an Anne of Green Gables. Though I did read both and loved Anne. Not so much her love of nature but her love of high romance and her wish for the glamorous-never that wasn't her life. Now that I think of it, most of the books I read, and loved, were set in nature. Where the Red Fern Grows, Bridge to Terabithia, My Side of the Mountain, and all the books by Mary Downing Hahn. .

Though this tendency toward reading rural settings may not be a proclivity so much as impossibility of escaping as a child reader since there has long been a symbolic connection between the child and nature, and a tendency to romanticize one as symbolic of the other. Isn't Rousseau's Emile a much healthier and better boy the closer his knees are to crawling through the field? And the enchantment of Kate Greenaway's children seems not fully possible without their flowers and green grass. Dorothy and Alice both leave countrysides to more crowded places, and so those places are more nightmarish than ideal. A warning, then, of leaving nature. Or perhaps, like myself, I read a vast number of children's books by writers with social anxiety, and so of course the books are set in nature. They were simply set where people were not.

River view from Riverside State Park
Erin Pringle, CC license
So, maybe I did spend a great deal of time in nature, it was just the imagined sort, and so, compelling in a way the cornfields and country roads around me were not. Sometimes, I would be passenger to my father's long country drives. He carried a gun and camera everywhere he went--moreso the camera than the gun, but he shot with both, and while I assume he took more pleasure from the photograph than the death, I can't say. He collected as many cameras as he did guns. But when he needed peace and calm, it was to the country roads he went. He'd grown up rural, too. More rural than me. And while I'm not his age yet, the age he was when I was a child, I am closer than I have ever been, and have begun feeling, more deeply, the urges to find a country road and follow it. And a raw belief that I'll feel better once I do, the more free, the more myself, the more in the world I will feel, instead of hovering outside of it, pushed there, perhaps, by the awareness of others.

The thing about living far from the place where one grew up is feeling somewhat lost all the time. Not in a pervasive way, but it hovers, that feeling. Whereas my faraway hometown and the entire area of it is in my bones. I know every road to home from every direction, and as far as two and three towns away, if not further. The way animals know where their dens are, or at least the way they seem to. The longing for that knowing hovers in me, too. Perhaps both feelings will fade as time moves on. I somehow doubt it. Maybe I don't wish for it, either, the fading.

But I began all of this to share with you that I finally visited Riverside Park after nearly a decade of living in the Northwest and a meager ten minutes from it, and I assume you would wonder why it took me so long. Because I've never been much of a trail taker. Because I've never known how to see the beauty of nature as more interesting than people. Because I lived smack in the middle of it instead of in an urban place that might send me running to a trail faster. Because I didn't fit in my hometown, and so lots of people assumed I'd be happier in a much different place, and much different meant a city. And so I thought I'd be happy in a city, too, and still have a tendency to avoid nature rather run to it--after years of blaming it for a life that didn't seem to suit me, even though it was mine.

That is to say, I wish I had visited years ago. I fell so in love with the place and so immediately that the only way I can figure out why it took me so long is to tell you this story.

It felt good to be there. I liked the rocks in my path and under the path and along the path. I liked the sound of the rocks against the river. The ducks floating by and quacking as though grumbling. The Vs of geese honking from here to there. The groups of women on horses following ribbons tied here and there to tree branches. The lone woman on a horse, now and then. The great weight of horses. The strangers I encountered now and then who said Good Morning with their mouths and eyes. Watching my son exclaim over the bridge, the spiderwebs on the bridge, the stairs leading up from the bridge to the trails. His eagerness to stop every few steps to examine another rock and decide whether it would be a good rock to pocket, as he has a fondness for pocketing rocks. My partner moving steadily beside, ahead, or behind me, her face against the light, her love for the river there, though we didn't speak of it. The silence. The stones under the water. The pebbles that looked like the pebbles I grew up with. Round and gray, soft. The smell of nature that I remember. The new smell that is a Northwestern one, of so many pine needles on top of so many more.

Also, I took a camera, and I think I will again.

River, Riverside State Park
Erin Pringle, CC license

Sunlight in Riverside State Park
Erin Pringle, CC license

My Face
Nature selfie, CC license