In the 1960s and 70s of my early childhood, divorce was rare. I was the only child in kindergarten who came from a “broken” home. The burning question always asked of me: “Where is your father?” was at first met with honesty. My parents are divorced. And later avoidance, as I realized such a distinction marked me among my peers as different.
For all the psychiatric warnings of the emotional damages done to children in my situation, I was a happy child. At the time, there were few injunctions against the scourge of deadbeat dads, and Mom, exhausted from the rigors of raising three children on a teacher’s salary, adopted a laissez-fair attitude to child rearing. The result was practically unlimited freedom, with our only restriction being that we returned home every evening as the sun went down for a family dinner. The fare was simple, Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks, Ragu on pasta and macaroni and cheese. Mom wasn’t much of a cook, but she was adamant about family dinners. I suppose it was the only parenting she could muster up the excess energy for.
School provided the only structure in an otherwise rambling childhood and that ended every day at three pm. When the bell rang, the shoes came off and I was set free. Other neighborhood kids were chauffeured to school and back by car, and then were expected to finish their homework before they went outside to play. They filtered in and out of my life between firm boundaries of parenting I never knew.
In the absence of little competing organization, the earth provided my rules and insight. I knew every secret humid space the South Florida landscape had to yield. The old ficus tree down the block in Cindy Keith’s yard often had pigeons’ nests that invariably held two small, white eggs. The orange tree in the yard of the house on 28th Street had fruit that was bitter, while the tree at the house on the corner had fruit that was delicious and sweet. The trees had to be harvested stealthily, as the inhabitants of both homes were not fans of barefooted, scraggly haired, dirty kids in their yards. The man with pet monkeys in his yard seemed very nice, but he turned out to be a pedophile.
I learned life’s lessons from the world. Nobody told me that trees could not be friends and that cool grass is not a substitute for a warm hug. My family included the whole outside world, and I grew to love each character in it intimately. A gigantic fig tree lived in the backyard of a Miami duplex my family rented when I was six years old. We were dirt poor and the neighborhood was a bit rough. A block over from our house lived a family that had recently moved from Brooklyn. The youngest daughter, Debbie, was younger, smaller, scrappier and a much better fighter than I was. Debbie was a wicked puller of hair. Fortunately, my tree climbing skills were superior. I suppose that spending her formative years in a concrete jungle had restricted Debbie’s familiarity with the fine art, so whenever Debbie was looking for a brawl, I would seek refuge with my tall friend in the backyard. I would climb high up into the canopy and secure myself in the fork of a branch, where I couldn’t be dislodged by the swaying of the wind. Sometimes I would have to wait it out for hours, while Debbie took out her frustration, providing me with an education in four letter words, as she beat the tree’s trunk with a two by four or other weapon of choice.
|Me at age 7|
My time in the tree was not spent in fear. Once I reached the canopy top, I knew I was safe, and when my head peaked out just above the foliage, I had a vantage point across the flat plain of South Florida as far as the eye could see. From the treetop, I would fantasize about my future life in exotic places far away from the slums of South Florida.
In the 11th grade, we read The Scarlet Letter in Honors English class. My teacher was a tight-laced, pinch-faced matron who never fostered or expressed any affection towards me. As we read Hawthorne’s depiction of the bastard child Pearl, Mrs. B. commented that the child reminded her of me. At the time, I took her remark as a compliment. I felt an affinity with the character, as my own life mirrored Pearl’s rambling and unencumbered wild existence. It was only later in life that I realized my teacher had probably meant to insult me, child of a broken home, peculiar and forever marked with shame by a divorcee mom who let her children run wild.
Yet in spite of societal scorn regarding my lack of boundaries, I never lost my desire to find solace and familiars in the company of the natural world. When I first moved to Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos Islands over 20 years ago, the entire western portion of the island was completely undeveloped. I would often take the “Best Dog in the Whole Wide World,” Chad, out to the island’s Northwest Point and walk along the perfect shoreline. Meandering in and out of the shrublands and woodlands for hours I delighted in the friendly blue gray gnatcatchers, scolding me for disturbing them. Assimilated into the place, I revitalized my body and spirit with an elixir of salt-drenched and sunbaked earth.
|The edge of the world at Northwest Point|
As a developing country with few natural resources, the TCI have only their white sand beaches and warm turquoise waters to sell. Inevitably, one day the bulldozers came and pushed a road through Northwest Point. A jarring rumble of steel scraping rock drowned out the whistling wind and the twittering of feathered inhabitants. In the wake of the machines, broken sentinels lay ruined and slaughtered. When I discovered the ruins, I sat down in the rubble and wept, my soul as crushed as the bleeding branches beneath my feet.
|Bulldozer at Northwest Point|
In his 2011 book Dreams, Derrick Jensen examines the common cultural myth of individualism, the idea that each of us is an entity separate from all others and discrete unto ourselves. We are not. Everything we are comes from the world around us. The molecules of oxygen passing in and out of our bodies are constructed in the tissues of plants, and the carbon dioxide that is the elixir of their existence is manufactured in ours. The water that provides the solvent for all our life processes is eternal, each molecule having inhabited millions of other living beings since time immemorial. Our fates are inextricably wound up with all the other life forms and non-life forms on Earth. When we live in a place, exchange air with the floral beings of that place, share water with the ecosystem and subsist on the plants and animals that call that place home, we are literally of that place. We become a living manifestation of all that it is. Western culture encourages us to ignore this connectedness and programs us from our earliest existence to feel separate, superior, entitled. For those like myself with a feral upbringing, however, the western programming never took hold, and the truth of connection reverberates as obviously as a blue sky and wind in the leaves. Each cut of a bulldozer blade feels like biting amputations of pieces of the soul.
Shortly after my crying session, I was enjoying spaghetti dinner with friends. As I conveyed the carnage at Northwest Point to my family doctor, the onslaught of tears began again, dripping off my chin and onto the garlic bread on my plate. “I think you are depressed,” he observed. Of course I am depressed. “No, I mean clinically depressed. It’s normal to be dismayed by environmental issues, but your anguish is beyond normal, it’s pathological. I mean after all Kathleen, it’s just a road.”
The doctor suggested that I take an antidepressant. “Just try some Prozac for a couple of weeks. I promise it will make you feel better and give you some perspective.” I took his advice, and he was right. A few weeks into my medication regimen, the Earth’s destruction became a mild annoyance, rather than an all-consuming grief. The sharp edges of my intense emotions were blunted. As the World Trade Center crumbled to the ground, I watched with abstracted interest. The pain was gone, but eventually, I started to miss my emotional self and my arboreal family, so I gave up the Prozac. If crying over trees is pathological, I would rather be crazy than sane.
Nevertheless, the development boom on Providenciales turned out to be more than I could handle, every development eating away at my green family and my psyche like ecological leprosy. I had to leave and then spent ten years recovering in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. The change of geography was apt. Leaving a place that was succumbing to Western-style development, I entered one that was recovering from it. The ancient mountains, once relentlessly harvested for timber, are once again lush in dense secondary growth. They are not the same as they were before, but they are alive and thriving in a new reality. Nature heals herself and rambles on into new possibilities.
|Mangroves at East Bay Cay|
In Dreams, Jensen also talks about Earth’s six great extinctions. At five other times in the history of the world, life has been brought to its knees and then rebounded with greater magnificence and diversity than ever before. During this current, sixth great extinction, one species, Homo sapiens sapiens, is single-handedly wiping out life as it currently exists on the planet in a massacre that rivals any of the previous great extinctions. Great despair, not apathy, for all that is lost should be the natural reaction. It should be normal to be mortified and depressed about the state of the natural world. The fact that the realities of human existence require mind-dulling medications just in order to cope is telling. We seal ourselves up in artificial structures or chemical straightjackets to keep from connecting with the wider family we are systematically destroying. The concept of a nuclear family, a man, woman and two-point-two children implies an enclosed nucleus, sealed up together against the elements of the outside world, but there is no “outside” world. My family had no core, no boundaries, no restrictions, yet the vast infinite space was not empty but rather full of related, living souls. The physical house was a stopping off point, a place to refill and rest before scattering back out into the world, the home I discovered when my first home was broken.
|Pelicans at French Cay|
In Dreams, Jensen reflects, “If we don’t have hope that creation will respond, then we have no reason to continue.” When I left the TCI ten years ago, this was the depth of my despair, but the mountains have healed my wounded psyche and given me hope, hope that nature will respond and that humans as a part of nature can evolve from the brink of their own destruction and resurrect the dying world.
Armed with this hope, I return to my natural home to the Turks and Caicos. I have been gifted an amazing opportunity to work as the Director of the Department of Environment and Maritime Affairs. I start work tomorrow. The scars of development have not yet completely hobbled the natural tenacity of these wild islands. Within all that remains are the seeds of resurrection. I hope.
|Noddy tern with juvenile|