“We need the tonic of wildness.”
—Henry David Thoreau
It was an adventure that included the risk of getting muddy, soaking wet or late for dinner. The creek by my grandmother's house was full of wonders . . . and frogs!
It ran higher in winter all the way from the mountains to the ocean on the California coast. We were less than a mile from the beach. The creek was lined with sycamores, boulders, and wild flowers. When I was a child, this creek was a wilderness. We would cross it by stepping carefully on the rocks that rose above the water line. The faster you stepped the less likely you would lose your balance and fall in the water. On one side, there was a patch of bamboo that reached toward the sky and grew in a mysterious labyrinth pattern. The nasturtium decorated the banks of the creek like green and orange lace. I thought this creek was a secret that only my cousins and I knew about.
Photographs by Kathleen Reeves
If you followed the creek to the beach, there were more wonders to behold. There was a line of eucalyptus trees that had long pinkish leaves and acorns that smelled like fresh wood (I called them acorns but they are seed pods). There is a campsite right on the beach that I often camped at with my huge extended family when we all came to visit my grandma. The campfire smoke mingled in the salty ocean air along with the scent of eucalyptus. My cousins and I could follow the creek from our campsite on the beach, all the way to grandma’s house.
“The Mud will wash off but the memories will last a lifetime.”
Photos by Kathleen Reeves
The author in 1985
But then the construction happened. One day when visiting my grandmother, I saw that the dirt path was paved over. A sign marked “Bike Trail” greeted us at the entrance. I felt like my secret creek had been discovered. Still, little changed, except that it was not so risky to get there or walk alongside the creek path. It felt a bit more “civilized” and less wild, but there were still frogs. We knew that only an adult would build a bike path, when there were stepping stones and dirt paths that were not as boring. Few cyclists used the bike trail, because it wasn't practical since it didn't go anywhere or connect any major roads.
But over time the creek changed. I did too. I was growing up and I started to have responsibilities such as my first job and more schoolwork. I visited my grandmother less often. I still loved the creek, but it wasn’t the same. The frogs disappeared, but I didn’t know why. I hardly saw my cousins anymore. Everyone had their own lives. Eventually grandma died and her house was sold, and there was no reason to go to the creek anymore.
The author and her favorite sycamore tree
Photos by Kathleen Reeves
“Children have a natural affinity towards nature. Dirt, water, plants, and small animals attract and hold children’s attention for hours, days, even a lifetime.”
—Robin C. Moore and Herb H Wong
Now it is twenty years later, and my world is so different. I returned to the old creek, but it has changed even more. They repaved the bike path and changed the direction of the creek. Now the bike path connects two major roads. The bamboo labyrinth is gone, and so are all the trees that lined the banks. There is no more nasturtium decorating the muddy edges of the creek with bright orange blossoms. The creek no longer feels alive as it once did. I followed the path to the beach and to the old camp sites. It was sunset, and the sun was reflecting off the water. The campers had their fire pits lit, and I walked under the few remaining eucalyptus trees. Most had been cut down, because their sap dripped on the camper’s motor homes.
As the scent of firepits, salty ocean, and eucalyptus filled the air just as it did in my childhood memories, I started crying. I know that things change, life is constantly “becoming,” but what has it become? This was grief for the loss of wild places. I keep a jar full of acorns from my pink-leafed eucalyptus trees. They smell like childhood. But they are more than reminders that I’ve grown up. They are lost potential. I grieve the loss of the frogs and the bamboo, the eucalyptus, and the nasturtium. They are gone now. But are they? In our process way of thinking they exist in the “all that ever was” or part of “consequent nature of God.” They live as prehensions in my life, like stepping stones across the creek. And then there are always opportunities. What if people noticed that the creek is now lifeless and allow trees to grow instead of cutting them down. We are living in a changing world and the bike path is not the final word. Could the frogs return? I hope so.
I often talk about falling in love with the earth to save it. But I also believe that we must grieve each loss, each extinction, each felled forest. Our grief must be part of the story. We must do so in the open, not in silence, for if we don’t grieve out loud, our world will slip away quietly inch by inch. We must grieve out loud for the lost wild places.
A jar of possibilities | Photo by Kathleen Reeves