There was a field beside the half house in Ottawa where we lived. I was the chief engineer and reigning monarch in this field. In the summer I trampled down all its paths, thoroughfares winding from our backyard to the neighbouring yards. Intimately acquainted with the long grasses, I could recognize them by their scent alone, the tallish one that looked like wheat and smelled like cereal, the bunchy one with wide, flat, wet blades that had a swampy stink. I could map the anthills. I knew the holes where creatures might live, mice or snakes. I never saw them, but I knew they were there. Occasionally someone dropped a candy wrapper or a waxy coffee cup, usually on the East and South sides which abutted busy roads. These instances of littering offended me.
In the winter I created whole edifices of ice in the field, sanctuaries where I reclined on a three-cushioned snow couch, or checked to see if there was anything tasty in the icebox. After a fresh snowfall – in Ottawa, there was a fresh snowfall every other day – I tamped down the pathways with my plastic-bottomed boots after school, road maintenance before homework and TV.
I knew exactly how the veins splayed out on the surface of a maple leaf. I understand dandelions with botanical precision, dandelions in all their vicissitudes, from the tight little button-buds of their yet-to-be-blossoms, through the bright yellow glory of their flowering into miniature suns, staining fingers and cheeks. I knew the hollowness of their green stalks, the milky substance secreted inside those long, tender shoots. And of course I knew their eminently enjoyable reproductive technique – thousands of tiny, fluffy white parasols, freed from their moorings with a puff of breath, floating so gently on the barest of breezes, defying gravity.
I was six, seven, eight years old, and I was part of nature. The stale air and cheap furniture inside our half house was the foreign country, the strange prison to where my parents said I had to return in the evenings. Outside, my body recognized all the other carbon-based life forms as family.