This afternoon as I trekked down my parents' long, sloping driveway with my backpack slung over my shoulder, not quite three hundred yards into the two-mile walk to the public library, I looked down just in time to keep from stepping in a pile of bear shit, dead center in the middle of the driveway. Now, shit is shit, and I'm glad I didn't step in it, but shit though it be, the sight of it delighted me because it was bear shit. I've seen neither a bear nor any sign of a bear around here in almost thirty years. I must have been fourteen or fifteen, a friend was giving me a ride home on a late summer evening, and as we crested the hill there he was, a big ole black bear, ambling across the road between the two blueberry fields that used to sit at the top of the hill. He was a handsome sonofabitch.
We moved up to the hill in 1976, when I was seven years old, and it's fair to say that for everything home lacked -- lights and indoor plumbing and space and comfort -- the land where home squatted lacked for absolutely nothing. The particulars of our home certainly contributed somewhat to the fact that we spent so much time out of doors when I was a kid, but to a larger extent that's just what kids did back then. We didn't have cable or Atari or computers or smartphones, all the things that entice this generation's kids to kill their days indoors in chairs and on couches or sprawled on the floor with handheld electronics. Not that I'm passing judgment: if those things had been available to me, I would have gotten sucked in with the best of them. I'm glad they weren't, though. Knowing what I know now, I don't believe I'd trade those wild days even if it had meant a much more comfortable life.
It's amazing to think how much pleasure we got out of so little. Snowy days we'd cart our shitty plastic roll-up sleds out into the field and spend hours sliding down and trudging back up. Summers we spent more accumulated time on the seats of bicycles than we did with our heads on our pillows. The only reason we had bicycles at all is because our father, who was the keeper of the town dump, brought home the bicycles people had thrown away, and there were dozens of them, which my brother and I harvested as needed to construct our Frankenbikes. Flat tire? No problem, this tube's still good. Sick of that seat? Here, try this banana seat with the flames down the sides. They looked like shit but they rode like champs, until they didn't, and then we'd just dig through the pile for usable parts and start over.
What I remember most about those days, though, is the landscape, and the time I spent in it alone. There were plenty of occasions when my brother and I would wander off together, deep into the woods behind the house, or skipping rocks across the pond that sits just below my parents' field. But I was even then content with my own company, and often enough I would strike out on my own. There was an ancient oak tree that stood on the property where my grandparents' farm once was, a thick branch jutting out parallel to the ground about five feet long before it curled upward at almost a ninety degree angle -- the perfect spot to lounge and gaze out across the field. That's almost certainly where I was sitting when I first contemplated what I came to know as existentialism, a dozen years before I encountered Sartre and Camus. I also spent hours sitting beside the pond, watching turtles sunning themselves on rocks, frogs poking their heads up between the lily pads, the rare catfish scurrying through the shallows. And of course the great blue heron, for which I developed an affection that remains to this day.
I was thinking about all this as I walked down the hill to the library. The bear shit got me started, but there was more: as I walked that familiar road, my eye took in all the spots I used to know so well. The pond, which is a shell of its former self. My best friend Terry Gwazdowski's house, which for two years was my second home. His parents divorced, and his mother moved them to Windsor, which isn't so far, really, but back then it might as well have been the moon. The house where my aunt used to live, where we played war and tag and cowboys and Indians and everything else for hours with my cousins and the other kids who lived on the road. Between my aunt's old house and the house where she lives with her second husband, there's a wagon path that leads to what was once an apple orchard, land that, like half the land on the entire road, was owned by my grandfather. I remember the day I learned it was my grandfather's property, I wandered down the wagon path, plucking crab apples off the ground and hucking them at the rock wall as I went. It was deep and secluded and felt like I'd stepped into a secret world that had been hiding there in plain sight all along. Of course, when I came out I caught hell from my mother: it was hunting season, and like a knucklehead I wasn't wearing a speck of orange. Only my idiot uncle hunted there anyway, and he was crazy enough so that draping myself head to toe in orange and not being in the orchard wasn't necessarily a guarantee he wouldn't shoot me. I had no regrets.
Anyway, it's all still there, if somewhat diminished. The pond is a tragic swamp. The houses are decades and multiple families removed from the memories I have of them. The orchard is overgrown with scrub brush and devoid of apple trees. Yes, it's all there, but yes, it is less than it was. Still, I can imagine my long-ago self finding there now what I looked for then. Except not only is there no more long-ago me, there doesn't appear to be a present-day anyone: there are no kids. No kids running around, digging holes, skipping stones, riding bikes, building forts. No kids daydreaming in trees. I don't know where they are, but I can guess: they are being held close, so that little Timmy doesn't wander off into the woods and get lost, or little Susie doesn't catch a cold. And that is how a place truly dies: all the magic and wonder, if there's no one there to take it in, slowly but inexorably fades, and in time is forgotten. What a waste. What a terrible waste.
And yet, today I stumbled upon the unmistakable sign that a bear -- mythical, haunting, solitary beast -- crossed the path I'm on these days. He probably dipped a paw in the pond I loved so well. He probably climbed up into the field along the same track I used to slide down on a piece of blue plastic, and quite possibly curled up and slept in the seclusion of the ring of pine trees I planted with my brother when I was nine. It is a strange but not unsatisfying comfort to think it. And it all came from a walk on a cold day and a pile of scat.
You can take the bear out of the cave, but there will always be bear shit. Always.