(Penned in 2004)
Six-thirty a.m. The world is quiet. There is a faint smell of dew, and mist is in the air. I leave for my job as a bookshelver when the morning sun is just beginning to rise, and the Carolina air is still cool. I adjust my helmet and wipe the dew from the bicycle seat with an old T-shirt, unhook the lock, and am off.
The first pedal is the most exhilarating, with the immediate wisp of air and glimpse of the sun rising over the manmade lake with its torch-sized pussy willows swaying by the water. My feet slow at this point, and I can feel the morning sun on my face. Stars are magnificent, but there is something so fresh about this time of day, and if one pulls herself out of bed to see it, there is a newness, a feeling that the day is a blank slate to be written on or a canvas on which to splash oil paints or Chinese brushstrokes or watercolor purples and blues.
Today, the sky is purple and blue and the wind has a slight chill, perhaps from the storm the night before. For a moment, it feels like autumn, and I am glad I packed a light sweater in my knapsack. I drive past the newly opened museum café and ponder stopping there for a cup of coffee after work. I savor this cool air. A Northerner by birth, I love the changes of seasons and miss the abundant leaf colors and snow. So I take pleasure in these moments when the temperature dips below normal, and I can imagine I am back home.
Who is awake this time of day, before the nine-to-five world has begun? I pass dedicated early morning joggers and folks walking their dogs and an elderly couple biking like me. The couple wave as if we are old friends. Fruit trucks, bread trucks, surfers, truck drivers, school buses, and most numerous it seems: pickup trucks filled with dark-skinned men. Heavy equipment, bulldozers, dump trucks, and other yellow vehicles soar past, but I am contained in my own little world on the side of the street where the trees are blooming, tropical flowers hang down, and the houses have large front yards.
A baby falls asleep in a moving car. My friend Mick reads best during his morning walk. My brother once saw a man reading a book while trudging through a foot and a half of snow. While pedaling, I am at peace. My morning bike ride is the time my mind is most clear and able to process and meditate upon my life. The freshness, the breeze sifting its way from the nearby Atlantic, casts a soft glow, an expectation for the day that lies ahead.
The afternoon bike ride is a bit different. As I pedal, I enter into many different places at a time. The house on my right has just been landscaped with a new winding driveway, lined with full, green bushes and palm fronds, the chocolate brick color creating an elegant scene. There is a large in-ground pool in the backyard as well. For some reason, when I pass this house, I am awash with California breezes, and I feel like the Pacific Ocean is just a few turns away. How can something so mysteriously take us to another place? But don’t we eat coconut to taste the Caribbean; sip espresso alfresco to experience Europe; buy long, colorful skirts for a taste of Brazil?
I have an adventurous spirit as I travel through residential communities and shopping plazas and weave my way amongst the trees, searching for the longleaf pine I just read about in my Janisse Ray book. It’s a wonder I haven’t wrecked with the way my head is always up or turned sideways. Today, I see a trio of brown birds high up in the air; two are hanging low but one wants to be as high as he can, and he keeps swooping down as if to persuade his friends to “Come on, give it a try. Live a little.” I’ve never before noticed how high birds can fly; I’m used to seeing them lazing around on telephone wires or digging in the dirt for a gooey worm.
Splashes of azaleas in shades of pink (hot pink, violet pink, camellia pink), purples, reds, whites meet my eyes, and the branches reach out and scratch my face. The petals provide a carpet for my wheels, and they stick to the tubing. I turn my head to avoid a wayward branch. The construction vehicles roll past, but I don’t really notice.
I’m rediscovering nature amidst the tearing down of it.
My workplace is part of Mayfaire, one of the live-and-work developments that are springing up around our nation. Ours is being advertised as a haven, a step into old Main Street, into a bygone era where you could walk to the corner store for an ice cream: “We’re trying to create Main Street America,” says the codeveloper to our city newspaper. There are small shops, restaurants, and balcony apartments being built, along with residential streets and a movie theatre. Bike trails will allow access from the houses to the shops. Furious building occurs each morning in the summer heat.
Consequently, each morning as I ride into work, there are less-and-less trees and more-and-more dirt and dust. I am anxious for the day they cut down my favorite tree—my finger tree, its slender branches bending down like flexed fingers on a hand.
Concerning nature, I have been a five-minute participant, stepping outside when necessary to check the mail or walk to the grocery store or to an evening class. Travels always had a destination, a practical purpose, a slot on my to-do list.
Even my bike riding started with a purpose: I needed to get to work. My workplace moved two miles away, and I didn’t have a car or the means to purchase one. So I invested in a bicycle and a helmet.
Now I am noticing the world around me, breathing the air, observing the wildlife.
Many mornings I quietly prayed I would see a deer across my path. I wanted to see one up close. Well, it happened, unexpectedly, on a Saturday. All of a sudden, there was a deer to my left, staring at me, not afraid but curious. A few pedals more, and another one appeared. The females were beautiful, serene, not in the least afraid of my noisy bike. Their glassy black eyes seemed sad, though, and I felt a strange kinship with them. A connection, a brief moment of love I didn’t quite understand.
Another morning I was pedaling when all of a sudden, my eye caught what looked like an owl. I had never seen an owl in the wild before and was intensely curious. It sat upon a tree stump a few yards away, but when it flew away, I realized that it was not an owl but something equally magnificent. The bird stretched its wings out, a span of at least two feet and soared over the street to another tree, as if it wanted to be admired. I had never seen a bird this large up close, and it reminded me of the films shown in grade school of the majestic bald eagle soaring over the valley.
I spent my lunch hour poring over bird books and concluded that it was definitely a hawk. A Red-Tailed Hawk. As I read on, I discovered that the eagle is a member of the hawk family. My coworker saw what I was doing and chuckled, telling me that his mother has three birds that she keeps in larger-sized cages. As he was talking, I couldn’t help thinking of the birds stuck in their cages, not able to soar like my hawk did this morning, but rather on display as objects of beauty, their excitement being the type of seed they may eat that morning or if their owner will let them fly through the living room.
I wonder whose habitat is being taken away. These things never bothered me, never turned my stomach or made my eyes burn, until my morning bike rides.
I feel a mixture of loss and gain. I feel guilt about my role in the destruction of nature, not in terms of performing the act itself, but in my quiet acceptance of it by working in one of the stores in this development. I pray that my morning companions will learn how to adjust to their new neighbors and changed land. How many of their nests will be torn down for the new condos and houses, houses that you must pay a quarter of a million dollars to live in? Who is going to live in these newly built condos, which they are building in “eco” shades of brown and green? Certainly not the wildlife.
I am on a mission for a flower.
I have packed a pair of scissors in my knapsack, and I am nervous about using them. I hope that my taking a sample will not affect the plant, but I must study this flower up close. The vine is on private property, at the main entrance of a group of houses in a quiet retirement community. I am hoping no one will see me. I park my bicycle and look both ways. The coast is clear.
I step toward the vine, looking for a ripe bloom. That is when I notice my flower is dying. The majority are withered and facing the ground. Just two days ago, this vine was bursting with so much color and spunk that I had to stop to take a closer look.
There are three blossoms left. I hate to take this flower, but I want to study it. Preserve it in words. I also want to share its beauty with others.
When I step into work later that day, I show my coworkers my beautiful flower.
“That doesn’t even look real. What is that? Thread?”
“Those are rare around here. Where did you find it?”
Even the men are caught by surprise.
“Whoa. What’s that?”
That’s what I thought when I first discovered the purple passionflower, with its large, purple-fringed corona, which is essentially the body of the flower, and its bold, yellow stamens. The passionflower is thought to signify the Passion of Christ, and was reportedly used by Spanish Catholic missionaries to tell the Crucifixion story. The corona resembles Jesus’s crown of thorns; the ten petals represent the ten faithful disciples (excluding Peter and Judas); the five yellow stamens symbolize the hammer-wounds inflicted on Jesus; and the three knob-like stigmas can stand for the Trinity, the three men on the hill, or the nail piercings.
Excited by this newfound knowledge, I explain the flower’s significance to my coworkers.
“And you took it? Isn’t that ironic…”
“I always thought the name meant the romantic-type of passion, not death. It seems more appropriate. I think I’d choose that meaning over death. Death just doesn’t seem appropriate.”
I point out that if you believe in the Crucifixion, the cross is actually a symbol of life after death. Jesus died on the cross for everyone’s sins, and those who accept him as their God are granted eternal life. New believers are thus “born again.”
On my way home, I ponder this flower and its significance. I find it sad that as I rediscover the natural world, it is being taken away. What is happening inside me, however, cannot be taken away.
Can life be found in death?
Why is it that we never explore the places we live, but instead go on vacations to destinations hours away, which we may never see but once in our lives? After we graduated college, my roommate and I decided to keep the keys to our apartment one more month, even though we already lived back home with our parents. We wanted to ease the transition. So we planned a weekend for just the two of us to enjoy our apartment and college town one more time, to savor the pizza smell from the shop below us, to look out over our street and see the Amish buggies pass while the horse hooves clattered on the cobblestone. The town consisted of one main street, and in college, carless, I moaned about how boring the town was.
During this last weekend at our apartment, we decided to take an evening stroll. We began on the main street and headed toward the residential area, away from the college. A few minutes into our walk, I realized I had never walked these streets just two or three blocks away from my school, my home for four years. There were beautiful Victorian homes, small restaurants, and art galleries tucked in among the homes. I had missed out.
Today, I decide to take a detour into the community where I snipped my flower, the one that is considered private, but not gated. At first, I thought it was a campground, as all the houses are paneled in grayish-brown, reminiscent of old camp cabins. As I bike through the streets, I am amazed at how quiet this community is, how the simple fence concealing the main road blocks out any traffic sound. I feel I am intruding, that I am illegally biking in this neighborhood. It’s surprising, for these houses do not look like rich persons’ houses, by any sense. Their color and their shadowbox front windows, which display their owner’s collections of shells or model cars or other ornaments take away the feeling that I am trespassing. One older woman is watering her lawn when I pass. We say hello to each other and I brake, pausing to tell her that I just discovered this community and think of it as a haven. I am amazed at how peaceful it is here.
“Stop by again sometime,” she says to me.
As cars soar past in the early afternoon, people on their lunch breaks or heading to the beach, I am journeying through a calmness that is new for me. Down the bike trail, past the manmade lakes, alongside the highway and the California house, past the kayak shop and the hanging tropical vines, looking upward occasionally for a longleaf pine. Past the gas station with its summer hot dog specials. At the last stretch of the journey, down the residential street with the art museum and the azaleas, their fireworks of red and white that try to scratch my face, and as my bike rolls on, I wonder whether I really want to go home.