The works of nature, mysterious, awe-inspiring, and humbling, can inspire humankind innumerous ways. The backyard from my childhood, from my outside space/place essay, and Mary Austin’s neighbor’s field, from The Land of Little Rain, inspired literary contemplation. There is a distinctly similar outlook toward these places, not spaces, between us, which produces the same result, or rather, reward. By examining, exploring, and reflecting on natural settings, a better understanding of one’s self, culmination of identity, and maturing of the mind and body can be achieved. By taking this approach to our respective places, our experiences and descriptions are similar. A comparative meditation can be made:
The grass feels cold and slippery underneath my little bare feet, refreshing in the stifling, humid air of the summertime. The tall pecan trees surrounding the area are like colossal giants to me, selflessly providing me shade to help beat the heat. The air smells of the sweet fragrance radiating from my mother’s garden of brightly colored flowers of blue, purple, and gold. The scenery of the back of my old, white house with the black shutters whizzes past my eyes as I swing on my old, slightly rusted orange and brown swing set, squeaking as I fly back and forth. My brothers appear out of the little white shed of a garage behind the house, riding their bikes down the rough cement driveway that interrupts the grass. I pick up my plastic bucket out of my green turtle-shaped sandbox, and get busy hunting up rolly pollies, slugs, caterpillars, ladybugs and inchworms to collect in it. Our two dogs that run about on long chains beneath the blossoming dogwood tree, for we do not have a fence, bark at a robin resting itself on the gray cement birdbath for a drink. I pet their soft tan and brown heads consolingly as they lick me with their slobbery tongues. This was a typical summer day spent in the backyard of my childhood home in the heart of downtown Ste. Genevieve, Missouri.
Austin uses similar methods to describe her neighbor’s field. The personification of the aspects of nature, plants, animals, the elements, etc., is a common theme. By giving human qualities, such as feelings, thoughts, movements, to these aspects, the qualities of one’s self can be reflected. Austin, though not in the same stage of life, appears to have a child-like fascination with nature. We both describe the tall trees as gigantic figures, for example. They are when compared to us. I describe them as selfless, giving them a humanistic identity. Austin writes, “it would seem [the pines’] secret purpose to regain their old footing . . . one of these has tiptoed above the gully of the creek,” describing the trees as plotting interlopers (51). Austin does more observation in her descriptions instead of interaction, however. She described the living things as an observer from a distance, watching through her window, for example. Conversely, I was out in my backyard, not just observing, but also collecting the bugs, petting the dogs, feeling the grass against my bare feet. Austin reflects a more environmentalist or naturalist perspective in not interfering with the habitat and lives of the living things.
My backyard was not a space, but a place to me. It brings back fond memories of my childhood spent playing in it, and the happiness I felt at the time. I absolutely loved that backyard, how it felt like my own little world, my Wonderland. Because I have such a strong emotional attachment to it, I consider it a place. It was not a public space, but privately owned by my family. It was a place not used for productivity or business-purposes, but one used for leisure, fun, and play. Primarily my family, and occasionally family friends used it. When the weather was satisfactory, I would play in the backyard almost every day. I became familiar with every inch of the place to the extent that I still remember it clearly today.
Austin addresses the concept of land ownership when discussing the field. She discussed the succession of people who “took possession of the field,” the land being bought and sold as a commodity (Austin 50). She refutes this notion of ownership, in that the plants and animals that inhabit the land will do so, no matter who owns it. I described my family as owning the land, however. This concept comes from not just living on the land, but also having a piece of paper to reinforce it, a notion which Austin would disprove of. The commonality, however, is both of our strong familiarities with the outside places. “Under my window a colony of cleome made a soft web of bloom that drew me every morning for a long still time,” Austin states (53). The instinct of routine creates a sense of understanding and connection with the places. Also, this is very much a solitary activity; both of us were alone with our thoughts and observations on nature. This promoted introspection, which leads to self-discovery. This encouraged maturity within me, and growth within Austin.
This place was used most often by me after my older brothers were old enough to go to school. After school they would sometimes use the driveway to shoot hoops in the basketball hoop, or ride their bikes around on it. My mother would use it to tend to her garden surrounding the back of the house, sometimes with me helping by digging holes in the black dirt and dropping in the tiny seeds. My father, being a workaholic, rarely used the backyard except on weekends when he would mow the grass. I, on the other hand, declared myself Queen of the Yard, and used it as my own personal playground. Playing whatever game of imagination I came up with that day, I would prance around the grass barefoot, against my mother’s protests. The only beings that used the place more than I were our two dogs, which lived outside next to the beautiful dogwood tree. To them, the backyard was their home.
Another comparative theme is gardening versus natural growth of plants. Austin describes gardening as humans trying to manipulate nature, but not always being successful at it. Yet, there is this human drive to create plant life that both Austin and my mother and I share. The fact that we are all women may be indicative of it being some form of feminine need to procreate. But whether this is true or not, Mother Nature is a role that cannot be played by any other actor. Austin writes, “we spent time fruitlessly pulling up roots to plant in the garden . . . all this while, when no coaxing or care prevailed upon any transplanted slip to grow, one was coming up silently outside the fence near the wicket” (52). The view of the landscape being an imaginative place is another commonality. There is the personification of the vegetation, that it can move about on its own and such, which is a reflection of this view, but also there is the imagination of stories and spiritual aspects in nature. Austin alludes to a Native American story about the pines being “bad Indians” and running away from the granite range, the Chief (51). This reflects the same sort of imagination that as a child I possessed.
I have a strong positive emotional attachment to the place. It is where some of my fondest memories from childhood took place. The security of its location, being hidden from plain view behind the large house and surrounded by large pecan trees, and the beautiful aspects of nature, such as the living insects, plants, and flowers, act to generate this positive attachment. The place is very much designed to be child friendly, with its swing set and sandbox and basketball hoop. Therefore, as a child it appealed to me, and as I used it more and more, I became attached and fell in love with it. Now, the backyard represents to me a time when I was happy and ran wild and free.
Austin also has a strong positive attachment to her neighbor’s field. She writes, “when I had no more than seen [the field] in the charm of its spring smiling, I knew I should have no peace until I had bought ground and built me a house beside it” (49). The sense of familiarity from living next to it helps develop this attachment. She also has the same sense of appreciation through observation for the aspects of nature as I do. We both have happy associations with the places, whether it be through fond memories of it or by describing the place itself as happy, which is a reflection of one’s self.
The difference between a location being described as a space versus being described as a place is relative and subjective. A space is typically defined as a public location designed for productivity. Its layout and atmosphere are not designed to encourage people to want to linger there very long. It is used for productivity, people move through it quickly. A place, on the other hand, is typically defined as a private location; it’s more personal. It’s designed to encourage people to spend a lot of time in. It is used for leisure, personal activities, or inhabiting. Those who use it feel an attachment to it, and are very familiar with it. The defining of a location as a space or a place is highly subjective. For example, if someone works in a location others define as a space, said person may consider it a place instead. I consider my backyard as a place rather than a space because I used it as my personal private area, but someone who did not live there or use the backyard might think of it as a space. My front yard, on the other hand, I would consider a space because it faced a busy street and was a much more public area.
I would argue that Austin thinks of her neighbor’s field as a place, as well. We have a similar viewpoint, as they are places to us, but spaces to others. This stems from not just our appreciation, but also our use of the land. Other people may see the land in terms of its productivity and utility and use it as such, but we use it for leisure, enjoyment, and discovery instead. The Paiute Indians used the field as a campoodie, and the cattlemen used it as “a recruiting ground for [their] bellowing herds” (Austin 50). But, Austin uses it for observation and exploration of the natural world and its processes. “One day I discovered that I was looking into a rare fretwork of fawn and straw colored twigs from which both bloom and leaf had gone, and I could not say if it had been for a matter of weeks or days,” she relates (Austin 53). Austin, like myself, appreciates the place for its aesthetic quality, not for its utility. She has a positive attachment to it even though “the field is not greatly esteemed of the town, not being put to the plough nor affording firewood” (Austin 49).
As I think back upon this outside place and what it means to me, I realize why it is so special to me. It is a place that cannot be replaced by any other in my memory that can conjure up such a specific emotional response. I have lived in other houses with other backyards since then in which I also spent time, but to none of them do I have such a strong emotional attachment. Never in my life have I felt as profoundly free, carefree, uninhibited, joyful, curious, content, and natural as I did when I spent time in that backyard as a child. I had no restrictions or responsibilities, and was free to be myself. The space outside my place, the entire rest of the world, did not matter while I was happy and safe and free in my beautiful backyard of childhood enchantment.
Both Austin’s field and my backyard are transient places, they change over time, and what we depict is a memory. By the concept of ownership of the land, they are passed from one owner to the next. My family no longer owns the backyard, someone else that changed the landscape does. If I were to go back there today, it would not be a place to me. In the same vein, Austin’s neighbor aims to turn the field into lots for building development. She writes, “it occurs to me that though the field may serve a good turn in those days it will hardly be happier . . . no, certainly not happier” (Austin 55). This reflects her positive associations with it, and her change of feelings toward it. These places no longer can serve the purpose they encourage within us. In the natural outdoor settings there is a sense of freedom, which is key in enabling and promoting our exploration and self-discovery. One is free to be carefree, natural, and true to one’s self in these environments, which allows for growth and maturity. “It is not easy always to be attentive to the maturing of wild fruit . . . one can never fix the precise moment when the rosy tint the field has from the wild almond passes into the inspiring blue of lupines” (Austin 53). Like the plant life, one cannot determine the precise moment a child grows out of their innocence and naivety into self-awareness and wisdom. But, mature I did, like the bloom of the wild almond. Austin’s descriptions of the field as a place enabling vegetation and animals to mature and thrive are indicative of her own experience of growth within it. The land has affected her as well. Through her observations of the character and processes of the wildlife, she has made discoveries about herself. Nature can teach us many things about life and, through our reflections, about ourselves.
Work Cited: Austin, Mary. The Land of Little Rain. The Modern Library: New York, 2003.