Mini Memoir: Altered Landscapes

To the uninitiated, the grassy stretch of lawn dipping down the middle of my front yard was not a hill.  It swept gently from my grandmother’s driveway; my swingset nestled in the slope before it rose to meet our garage.  The clues were there. We just didn’t see them.

It wasn’t big enough for sledding. I should know, I tried to go down it every winter. I had to talk my parents into hauling me down to the reservoir, where we could sled down the grassy side of the dam without hitting cement drainage ditches at the bottom.  What was the point of snow in Ohio if you couldn’t find a hill?

fallen tree at Michale J Kirwin

This is a warm and wet summer story, though. We’ll save the winter for another time.

We should have known, by the lay of the land, what would happen.

There was a massive slab of metal right under my favorite climbing tree. It was as close to the road as I was allowed to play.

It was big, several feet across. My mind populates it now with those metal plates road crews lay on unfinished work to make the street somewhat passable. It was like those, but not as thick. Rustier. More terrifying to step on.  By the time I was in middle school, it was the subject of dares among friends.  When I was very small, I would be allowed to bounce on the rusted plate of metal. Warped as it was, and covering a hollow space, my feet made banging, thunderous echoes.

I knew the metal plate covered a hole. I think I always knew there was water in it, but I can’t remember a time I had seen into it.   The rust gave way as I got older and I could peek down through the crumbling bits of metal. I would drop leaves and pennies and a dollar-store flashlight down the hole to see where they went. Pennies gave satisfying little splashes. The flashlight disappeared underwater with a blurry glub.

Had I read Stephen King’s IT before then, I would have been frightened of more than just falling down into the hole.  But I hadn’t, so my imagination went more along the lines of following a rabbit to Wonderland.

Starting at the road, standing next to that spooky metal plate, the “hill” that traced through out yard actually continued down through the backyard and into the woods. Back when this town wasn’t wedged between a State Park and a huge military installation, there had been commerce here.

With a little more perspective, we all should have remembered that the only reason the town had been called Cyclone once was because of it’s 10 saloons.  The men working on the canals had given it that name for its wild reputation.  The streetcar line was laid on the canal bed when the canals were left to go dry, after all, it went straight through Portage county.

There had been a streetcar line that ran right down the back yard and followed that dip in the hill into the woods. My herb garden was planted in the cement frame foundation left behind by the coal scale (which doubled as a fantastic balance beam).  The streetcar line was why we called the path into the woods the “car track”. I liked to excavate mossy red bricks among the pine needles and black soil. 

The “car track” was the route I took to get to the reservoir. I traipsed through the thin woods, skirted the edge of one cornfield, hopped a stream. On the other side of the stream, the world opened up into roughly mowed park lawns and little copses of pines. The rolled earth dam loomed over fishermen who used the currents at the locks to catch fish before they wandered into the river.

I did a report on the dam once for school, and I learned that the Michael J Kirwin dam was built by the US Army Corps of Engineers to prevent the town of Wayland from flooding. That the drainage ditches and spillway, the carefully engineered space, was to make arable farm land of what was once the swamp Welsh settlers had decided to live in anyway. (Wayland was actually derived from “Wale-land”).  You’d think this giant park in our back yard would have tipped us off.

My parents moved to Wayland when I was almost four years old. They did it because they didn’t want to raise me in the city. One of the very first things they did – as anyone would – was plant an ambitious vegetable garden in the wide, flat backyard just in front of the woods surrounding the car track.

Then the summer rains surprised everyone.

I remember learning that tomatoes float. I remember water that streamed from the car track down toward the road, and where it would have pooled into a pond, it disappeared with a roaring whoosh down under the giant metal plate.

We planted our vegetable gardens on higher ground after that. Then we forgot why.

Because the dam worked, and it rarely flooded. We forgot that the “hill” was an old canal bed.  A canal bed that ran from the car track up through the back yard, past the doghouse, and ended at the metal plate covering a huge storm drain that was there to prevent the road from going underwater.

Perhaps it is easier to forget the geography of a place you walk every day.

Almost a decade passed, and I was excited to hold my first girl-boy party for my birthday.

We had set up a stack of brush and scrap wood for a bonfire in the middle of the back yard. There would be marshmallows, and shadows, and –  I fervently hoped – kissing.  I mailed invitations because my birthday is in the summer, and we couldn’t use school to pass word-of-mouth. I counted RSVPs. I begged the boys to bring their friends so there would be an even number.

Panic set in two weeks before the party when a swarm of bees arrived in the black walnut tree.

We couldn’t have a party underneath a cloud of bees!

My dad called Chris’s dad, who is a beekeeper. Chris’s dad brought a white box on legs and a new queen. I don’t know if the swarm didn’t have a queen, or why the rabbit-hutch thing was more appealing than the tree, but it seemed to be working.   By the time the party arrived, we would be able to remove the box and its inhabitants.

Crisis averted.

When it started raining two days before the party, I was worried the bonfire wouldn’t light. Wet wood isn’t useful for hot dogs and marshmallows.  I took inventory of our tents and tarps available.

When it kept raining, I cried. I cried the bitter tears of a teenager who desperately needed the sun. And kissing.

The next day, I had to call everyone on the RSVP list and tell them that the party had been cancelled.

The day after my birthday, the rain stopped.

I walked out past the doghouse and I stood, staring at the lake my backyard had become. I looked at the sopping island created by the desultory bonfire wood.  I was done crying.  I had spent my birthday alone.

I looked at the water – it was up to my knees.  The flood went all the way down the car track, almost to the pussy willow bush and the jewelweed patch. I patted my dog’s head as we stood there, and then I glanced back toward the house.

There, leaning against the garage was my dad’s fishing boat.

It was a light aluminum number. Small enough to be carried and paddled by one person. I looked down at Max, and then back at the boat.  I was bored. I was sad. I was alone.

I used the rise in the ground by the doghouse as a dock and climbed into the little rowboat. I shoved off toward the bonfire so I could grab a sturdy stick on my way by. Poling would mess up the yard, but I didn’t have a paddle. I was far too young to care about lawn maintenance.  I poled down toward the car track until the water grew too shallow and my boat scraped the grass.  I navigated toward the deeper waters.

The flooded yard is a fascinating landscape. You expect to find frogs and water skimmers, maybe even a turtle in such a place.

I have always been a daydreamer, apt to lock in on strange details and let my mind wander without noticing the world around me.  I looked down and only saw the grass clippings from the recent pre-party mowing. They floated along beside the boat.  It was hypnotic and surreal to watch the strands of grass and clover swaying underwater.

It took a while for me to notice, as I bobbed in my yard, that the grass clippings seemed to be following a current.

There was a current in my flooded back yard.  A current that ended downstream – which was naturally under the giant thunderous metal plate. I was riding in the current, now that I was in the deep end of the canal bed.  I looked ahead of me, where the current had grown strong enough to create actual waves.

I was about to have a head-on collision with a full hive of bees.

With a stick. And a boat. And no paddle.

I may have screamed.

I think I remember screaming, but this was more than twenty years ago, and the mind can add details to the fiction of our memories.   There were a few moments, filled with fear when I tried to pole my way against the current. When it didn’t occur to me that there were other options of escape. The boat and I were one, we had to move away together.

But just as it is mind-expanding to be able to experience a lawn as a lake, it is good when adrenaline pokes you with the possibility of other options.

I had been proud of myself for not getting wet up until this point, but there comes a time when getting jeans and tennis shoes wet is a smaller problem than the one at hand.  I got very wet from the mid-thigh down, because I stepped off that boat and dragged it back to the shore near the doghouse. 

I remember feeling the strength of my backyard’s current against my legs. By this point in my life, I had a river and a stream to compare the sensation to, and this was closer to river-force.

I was a lonely girl in a rowboat, floating around my lawn, when I was forced to respect Mother Nature.

More than the forces of water and bees, I was reminded intimately of my own geography.

The everyday lawn that I took for granted, the hill that wasn’t a hill: these things were invisible to me until that day. I rarely considered why there was a huge metal plate in my yard.

After that day, I never forgot that our backyard could flood, though I only went boating in it once more before I left home.   I never forgot about the canal bed, I even led a busload of elderly history buffs down the car track one summer.

This memory reminds me to ask questions about the shape of things now. To notice the things I take for granted when I walk past them every single day. What lies under the big metal plate that you bounce on to make thunder noises? When is a hill not a hill?

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2 thoughts on “Mini Memoir: Altered Landscapes

  1. Great mix of fiction and reality! I never knew that metal plate scared you! LOL I seem to recall Grandma King having a rock flower garden around some of it? Was there a summer when you drew on it with sidewalk chalk?

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