In River Horse, William Least Heat-Moon’s chronicle of his journey across America in a small boat, I came across the following quote by Washington Irving:
“I think it an invaluable advantage to be born and brought up in the neighborhood of some grand and noble object in nature: a river, a lake, or a mountain. We make a friendship with it; we in a manner ally ourselves with it for life.”
The physical world around us indelibly stamps itself in the young body of our lives. Many years after we have left the place, or the place has left the earth, telltale signs of these early impressions are still found within us in the length of our strides, the tilt of our heads, and the height at which we expect to see the horizon.
For those of us who grew up knee deep in nature, we indeed were dealt a great advantage. Those of us who grew up in more urban environments, could have made friendships with such grand objects as a park, a grove, even a single tree outside our window. Or perhaps we were taken in by the dank confidences of storm culverts, or the excavated mounds cast off from the creation of new buildings, or an aerie of hawks nesting on the roof top next door.
For me, here in Baltimore County, it was the tall grass, old apple trees and an abandoned fort across the street from my home that we played in on lazy summer days. We did not know that it was called Fort Garrison, one of the oldest colonial structures still standing on the east coast. We did not know the military, social or geographical history of this place.
The fort’s charm for us children lay in its quotidian memories – the fireplace and sleeping nooks, the tiny windows and felt loneliness. For us it was a lesson of the interplay between people and place, nature and civilization, the stones and the orchard. It spoke of how people entered into the realm of nature as guests (for nature was most certainly the host in that vast 17th century wilderness) and how they could behave well, or badly.
My grand noble object, then, was neither nature nor building, but the way the two were together.
The fort stands there still, not far from where I live now.
And I am still seeking to understand all the lessons it, and its lost orchards, have taught me.