by Bobbi Buchanan

“I woke in bits, like all children, piecemeal over the years. I discovered myself and the world, and forgot them, and discovered them again.”

—Annie Dillard, An American Childhood

As a child of the seventies living in rural Kentucky, I was part of a fringe, the last generation of Americans whose childhoods were shaped by the outdoors, before video games and twenty-four-hour cartoons took hold, before we got used to air conditioning and antiseptic living. We rode bikes across gravel and never minded the dust or the tickle of chiggers in tall grass. Our bodies blended easily with the seasons, slick with sweat, chilled, chapped, scabby-kneed.

At home on Belmont Road, I “fished” in our creek using a stick with kite string tied to the end. I played outside with my nephew Jimmy, who, being only five years younger than me, was like a little brother. We caught minnows and tadpoles in Mason jars. And we discovered something better than fishing with kite string: hunting for crawdads. It took no special equipment, no hook, line, or sinker. All we had to do was flip over rocks gently so that we didn’t stir the silt on the creek bottom, creating a cloud into which the crawdad might escape.

In the woods near the back of our property, there was a place along the creek bank where erosion exposed the roots of a giant tree. Jimmy and I would squeeze behind those sprawling roots into a cramped cavity, and we’d sit there breathing moss and mud, scratching our names in bark dust. We would stay there forever—or at least until Mom called us inside. Then we would run as hard and fast as our legs could carry us over the whole wide world of our backyard, slipping through barbwire fences, between cedar posts. And every day ended with the promise of another adventure—a grasshopper waiting to be caught, a honeysuckle stem to be snapped and sipped.

* * * * *

As an adult, I ended up in the city, grateful to escape the mud and simple-minded folks. I liked the clean, concrete terrain of the subdivision, although somewhere inside I must have longed for a piece of land like that plot on Belmont Road, with its creek and the woods and the redwood house my father built. A dozen years after leaving my childhood home, I felt a pang of sadness—the ache for an old friendship—while visiting an urban manmade lake at a Louisville park.

On that hot August day in 1998, McNeely Lake reeked. Sampson, our family’s Labrador, seemed to love the stink, diving at every rumpled bit of trash we encountered as we made our way from the picnic shelter overlooking the lake to the dock. The odor grew stronger at the shoreline, stifling as black smoke, bitter as boiled cabbage. I inhaled through my mouth, sucking in and blowing out in controlled measures, like a snorkeler. Near the dock, I poked around in the brush with a stick, expecting to find an animal carcass in the weedy muck. Instead I found small plastic tubs with crumbs of black dirt and dried worms, blood dough-ball bait, scraps of fish skin and scales, bread crusts and bits of sandwich meat browning in clear plastic bags. Flies buzzed everywhere.

From the edge of the dock, I waved to my husband, David, who sat in his usual spot under an old cedar on the lake’s limestone landing. We had decided to meet here as though we were strangers, to become fast lovers in the last light of a long summer day, me with the romping dog in tow and David perched on the stair-step stones amid a jumble of fishing gear. We made a game of getting acquainted: David flirted, I giggled, and Sampson closed the distance between us, his long pink tongue twitching, drooling enough for the three of us.

“It stinks,” I said. I thought David might be able to explain the smell. He nodded but said nothing.

I tossed a rock in the murky water. A ripple formed, and the algae regrouped, thickening in the shallow parts where soggy vegetation tangled with lost fishing lines.

“You never catch anything,” I remarked.

“Sometimes. Catfish.” David squinted at me over his shoulder, rummaged through his tackle box and cast his line. “You want to try?”

I shrugged and looked over his gear, as though I might figure out the trick for myself.

David picked up another pole and walked me through the motions, demonstrating his casting technique with a snap of the wrist. When the sinker hit the lake bottom, he slowly reeled in the line. “You want to drag the hook along so the bait looks like it’s swimming.”

I smiled. “Like it’s alive.”

“Right.” Tricks were necessary, he said, because heavy fishing at the lake had spawned a generation of smart fish.

I held the rod and cranked the reel.

David squatted to bait another hook.  

I watched the geese and mallards gliding on the water, their cackles across the lake awakening something primitive in me. I squawked back. 

* * * * *

The stench at the lake reminded me of my childhood home, although I was far more forgiving of the scents of hog slop and manure.

Belmont Road lay some twenty miles south of McNeely Lake in the hilly terrain of Bullitt County, Kentucky. My parents had purchased a five-acre tract of land surrounded by knobs, rocky slopes dense with evergreens, and set to work constructing the redwood house. We lived among farmers on a road where livestock outnumbered residents, with a cistern that pumped rainwater into our pipes and a septic tank and lateral field that required frequent maintenance.

We took our garbage to the county landfill once a month and worked our garden through the summer, a half-acre plot with scratchy plants in neat rows. The garden was a burden to everyone except my father and third oldest sister, who both worked tirelessly for the annual yield of corn, tomatoes, potatoes, green beans, cucumbers, and melons. Some of my siblings moaned along with me when we were called to help in the garden. But we appreciated those vegetables and fruits, and we gathered them with care. “These are homegrown,” we’d tell each other; it was our mantra to the earth’s goodness, the unwitting uttering of a prayer.

In the fall, I ran across the spongy ground beneath the persimmon trees, bright orange fruits bursting between my toes. Oaks stood like sentinels guarding the land, and their scaly, gray bark held an aroma like leather and ash. Towering corn stalks and lush green tobacco thrived in our neighbors’ fields, giving off the bitter musk of unripe fruit.

On weekends, my father gathered dead brush and fallen limbs and built a fearsome bonfire down near the creek. Those evenings, I traipsed through the grass in my bare feet hunting for sticks suitable for roasting marshmallows. I sat on a stump and waited for Dad to carve a clean tip on the end of my stick so that I could wave those perfect white pillows over the flames and feast on the soft sticky centers until my stomach hurt. I breathed in the heavy smoke, the charred weeds, the stinky, sour slop from Mr. Carter’s pig farm wafting across the field.

Almost everything smelled good back then, especially the ponies we rode bareback. But perhaps I had grown tolerant of these odors because they were embedded in the olfactory senses of my youth. Maybe, looking back, I could only recall the agreeable sweetness of my childhood home. Or maybe all smells initially register in our minds as curiosities, with nothing particularly offensive or pleasing to them until we associate them with memories.

* * * * *

We didn’t swim in McNeely Lake, my husband and I and our three children. Swimming wasn’t allowed. And of course, the lake was dirty. We had left a crowded Louisville subdivision on the bus line near shopping centers and fast-food chains in the early nineties for an equally crowded, but more desirable, Louisville subdivision on the edge of the city limits, within walking distance of McNeely Lake Park.

When I saw that the locals had overtaken the place—had overrun it, defiled it—I recoiled from the park and the surrounding neighborhood. Cigarette butts peppered the trails around the lake. Trash receptacles overflowed with Old Milwaukee cans, swarmed with yellow jackets. Along the shore, plastic grocery bags flew from tiny flagpoles of sedges and cattails. I frowned on McNeely not only for its careless patrons and polluted lake, but also for its artificial landscape: the plastic playground equipment, dyed mulch beds and asphalt, sycamores whose lower branches had been hacked off to prevent climbing, the overly manicured golf course bordering the lake. Nature, to me, needed no aids. Crooked trees coiling out of dense woods were perfect for scaling. And who needed a plastic playhouse when there was high grass to hide in?

Yet I kept returning to the park—because of its proximity, perhaps, or its wide open spaces and sloping terrain; maybe because I wanted my children to reap the benefits of outdoor play, even if it meant settling for this seemingly unnatural environment. Slowly, over the years, I began to see McNeely for what it was—an oasis in the suburbs, shabby from overuse, worn out by those desperate to free themselves from the confines of chain-link fences and television. Crowns of red maples bulged over a field of goldenrod, strewn here and there with fast-food bags. Soft drink bottles and candy wrappers mottled the bed of bluegrass that folded in toward the lake, rolling into evergreens.

So we took our children, and we fed the ducks stale bread and swung on the swings, and sometimes my husband David fished. After eating a peach or an ice cream bar, we dipped sticky fingers in the water for a quick rinse. I cringed the first time I plunged my hands into the lake. It felt slimy and warm, like blood from a fresh wound.

* * * * *

Bulldozers and backhoes shoveled and reshaped the earth to form McNeely Lake in the late fifties. David had gathered oral histories from local fishermen and bait-and-tackle suppliers. He described the equipment the workers had used and how they had built the dam, presumably for flood control.

“What about that place?” I pointed to Quail Chase, the public golf course adjoining the east side of the lake.

David shrugged. “That came later,” he said. “A lot later.”

I eyed the turf beyond a field dense with Queen Anne’s lace, the tall white heads rising up like clouds over a frozen seabed. I wondered whether they used chemicals to purge the grass of clover and dandelion, whether those toxins trickled down to the lake. I suspected the soil and the water were contaminated.

Yet we returned, again and again, to fish for whatever was left—bloated catfish or memories triggered by the shape of a certain tree. We returned to the water like babies yearning for the warm pool of the womb.

Sampson grew restless at the fishing spot. Leaving my rod with David, I grabbed his leash and walked him north along the footpath. I let Sampson lead me to the park’s small cave—a horizontal cavity beneath a rocky ridge that narrowed to a hole large enough for both dog and woman to climb through. I stopped just under the stone shelf and studied the cave walls, what I could see of them in the dying daylight. I thought of the history behind the cave’s formation, the wind and rain and years that shaped it. I thought of my own history, how a life accumulates and fossilizes, how my own experiences would shape the landscape of lives I left behind. 

A longing rose up inside me to return to the idyllic landscape of my youth, those lovely five acres in Belmont with the creek and the red oaks and the house my father built. Did my skin yet bear something of the musky corn stalks in my father’s garden? Why did I dream of the redwood house scooped into the hillside—our house, that mansion in my young-girl eyes? Whose ancestral spirits imbued the land there? Could they be calling out to me?

I had grown up, gotten married, moved away. I thought I’d forgotten, but that place on Belmont Road had lain dormant within me for years, staying with me like stick-tights on knee socks, unseen under pant legs. I considered going back, knocking on the door, smiling at the family who now lived there. If I roved the fields, explored the creek, would the land recognize me? There were risks, I realized. I might find nothing but a dried creek bed and overgrown weeds, might see that they’ve cut down the gangly persimmon trees. I might find the soil I combed lovingly for new potatoes tamped and still as a grave.

I had shrugged off the place of my youth, had surrendered my love of the outdoors as a rite of passage. This is how it happened for me. It started early. First I learned to brush my teeth and tie my shoes. Eventually, I gave up clubhouses and swimming in creeks. I knew when it was over, when my clothes and body had to stay clean and fragrant. I had to go to college, find a job. Then suddenly I woke up—at thirty-something, married, with three children. I was lucky enough to stumble from a malodorous manmade lake at a city park back into the arms of the wild—to find my way to a spot that smells lovingly familiar, of wet hay and sour slop.

I lured Sampson away from the cave, back to the lake. In a couple months, I would revisit this tiny inlet. I would find a place on the grassy bank to slip off socks and shoes, Sampson wading into the water ahead of me. I would close my eyes and remember other waters: my baptism in Wilson Creek, my mother bathing me in a white porcelain tub, my first glimpse of the ocean.

In the dusk, I glimpsed David at the lake’s edge, a swaying silhouette. Then suddenly, the water rippled, and David cranked wildly, jerking back the rod. I hurried back to the limestone landing. 

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