Provided with permission of the John Jay Institute’s Center for a Just Society.
When I was 9 years old, my family moved to the middle-of-nowhere, Texas, and there I found a companion that I treasure to this day: the earth. Until then, I had brushed up against sky and trees and bugs in my big Tennessee back yard and in smidgens of park visits. But never had I gotten to know the earth on its own terms, away from the crowded room of streets and houses. In my new home, the chatter of the suburban world died away and I found myself able to get far enough into the hot quiet of a summer day that no voice could shatter the watchful silence of the trees. And I began to know the earth.
My new house was a kindly, weather-beaten, yellow rancher set on what we called “The Ranch.” This wildly creative name was the family’s affectionate title for two hundred scraggly acres of Texas hill country for which my grandmother had long ago abandoned Fort Worth society. It was pure Texas; crackly grassland with the click of grasshoppers, worn fields bristling with cedars and jeweled by two small lakes where a loose herd of cattle came to drink. Before I go all dewy-eyed about roaming the land, I must note that the first day we arrived, my dad was attacked by a copperhead snake; the second morning, we woke to a bathtub full of wolf spiders.
Despite these terrors, my inner picture of that first Texas summer is dreamlike in its loveliness. Equipped with an apple and a notebook, I’d slip out the door in the early morning to roam the land until lunch. I followed old cattle trails and scraped for fossils in the shale and found the far corner of the orchard where the butterflies flocked the thickest. That summer was a dance, an open-armed, wide-eyed, little-girl twirl into the wild music of the natural world, a music I had only faintly heard in my neighborhood-bound experience thus far. But it was also a season of epiphany.
I remember the day when the sky grew gray and autumn first descended over the sun-crisped fields. The wind, my balmy friend, grew restless and chill, and the earth seemed almost to step back from me. I roamed that day with timid feet and quiet eyes. The cold was imbued with a presence; the wind bore whispers of something I had not yet encountered. That night, I mulled the changed face of the land before I went to sleep. My bedroom door had been gently shut, a nightlight glimmered in the corner, but my 9-year-old eyes were wide with wakefulness. I squirmed under my quilts. To be stowed in bed and not ready for sleep is a torture. So I sat up and turned to the window behind my head. My grandmother’s shades covered the glass, but I lifted one, and stuck my head under it so that I was nose to nose with the glass.
Chill as ice, it stung my skin and the pane blushed with my breath. I stared through the mist it made on the window into the wide black of empty Texas fields, darkness filling the flatlands as if with water. The rise of it came to my window; I felt dark lapping the ledge beneath my face and I pulled back. I looked up to the sky and my eyes were tangled in a net of stars. Cold, countless, spattering a blackness whose start and end I never could find, they stared hard at me until I drew my quilt tighter round me. It came then, a sense of my own smallness. The sense of being a thing so tiny I didn’t merit a glance from those proud stars or that enveloping dark.
Abruptly, the feeling that had simmered in my heart all day rose to a sudden boil that closed my throat. What I felt was fear. Not terror as of under-the-bed-monsters, but a wordless, choking awe at the realization that something lay behind the beauty of the earth I loved and it was far bigger than I had ever dreamed. I ran for my parents’ room and found my dad. It took him a good half-hour of holding me close and telling me that the presence I felt was God and it was Love’s immensity brooding out there in the stars before I consented to get under my covers again. When he was gone, I lifted the shade an inch one more time.
I will never forget that night; it was my first brush with eternity, my first comeuppance against something so much bigger than myself that I must be terrified or thrilled. But I will also never forget it because it was the first time I understood with unmitigated clarity that nature speaks. That skies shout and trees write words across a wide-eyed sky. I realized that the black eternity of the night and those high, proud stars were speaking with wordless voices, meaning in every atom of their pulsing dark and bright. And all through the summer, the wind had sung and the fields had shimmered with secrets, and the trees had bent to share their counsel.