I did a *lot* of driving this weekend, and one thing that kept me awake on the long drive home tonight was a _This American Life_ episode from 1997 called “Dreamhouse.” The opening vignette was about city living in a packed high-rise. I still can’t imagine living like that, so little private space, streets that smell of sewage and garbage, the constant light and sound and bustle and sirens.
The main story was long and fascinating, narrated by documentary filmmaker Meema Spadola, whose defining childhood experience was her parents’ decision in 1976 to move the family from New York City to rural Maine, where they would build their own house — from scratch — while living in a tent. The great adventure was in many ways an unmitigated disaster, but it had a profound and lasting effect on Meema. As I often do in such situations, I began to wish again that I could have grown up in a more wild, natural place. It’s a very, very mild obsession of mine, these days, but an obsession none the less.
The final story in the show is an excerpt from David Beers’s memoir _Blue Sky Dream_. In his talk about moving out to a fresh Northern California suburban development in the 1950s and watching the land go from scrubland chaos to concrete order I found comfort and familiarity. I wasn’t there of course — I wasn’t alive — but it all feels true to me. Exploring the empty, cleared land with its yellow flags demarcating property boundaries and the future sites of trees and sewers and buried electrical lines. Wide paved roads, ever-present cul-de-sacs and sidewalks and green grass and pools. I know it all, I’ve seen it and felt it and wandered it, I love the order and the cleanliness and the tameness of it. I was born in a master-planned community that emerged from eradicated orange groves, and even in the 80s as I was growing up I could still see the march of human development as strawberry fields become shopping malls and parking lots, airports and baseball diamonds and roads. By my old house there is a remnant of what used to be, and it is amazing in its alienness, the dark ground and light brush and flies and lizards.
In my suburban safety I never had to worry about freezing through a snow storm in a house missing windows and walls, and for that, of course, I am grateful. I also never had to worry about getting lost in the woods, or stumbling across deer drinking from a pond, or waking up early to milk the cows, or getting splinters tapping the maple trees to collect their sap. But for missing those things I am not grateful.
I live in a world of order, and on weekends I venture forth, occasionally, into the chaos: I go hiking or kayaking or climbing. Its odd that exploring and enjoying the natural world, in this modern age, has become but an occasional weekend leisure activity for many, and a completely alien experience for many more.
And one final rambling thought: in California today perhaps the best way to experience the sight and smell of the orange groves of yore is, sadly, hilariously, ridiculously, through a Disney theme park ride.