I was really fortunate my folks moved to the outskirts of Winnipeg in the mid-’50s. Across the street from our rented, temporary home was an old church surrounded by fields of long grass. I used to go across to play in those Ernest Thompson-Setonish long grasses, very much like Brian in Who Has Seen the Wind. I was warned there might be garter snakes in them, imagined bigger, longer snake versions, but never saw one. (For the record, there are places in Manitoba where the slitheries can be found.)
The house that we moved into one street over the next year as I turned 6 was even more ‘back to nature’. There was a field and wood across the street, and a field behind us and on one side. Long hot Winnipeg summers were fabulous and filled with the magic Monarch butterflies and, like Joni Mitchell in “The Circle Game”, I even caught at least one in a jar.
My mother long had a green thumb–being raised on an isolated northern Manitoba farm–and so there was a full vegetable garden and many flowers in bloom through the summers. (She planted a lot of seeds from packages and the yard was quite colourful.)
I also had a mongrel with Corgi features named Scamp (after Walt Disney’s) as a companion. Because my parents worked, I would let him out at noon and after school, and we played together and I involved him in imaginary games outside.
Our front yard was lined with caraganas and lilacs to complete the olfactory affects in spring and summer. My father would flood me a rink on the driveway (we had no car) and I would imagine American Hockey League games with all the exotic faraway names–Springfield, Providence, etc., played by just me. One summer, as I dipped into James Fenimore Cooper novels retold by Classics Illustrated, my hockey stick became an imaginary rifle and I became, variously, Hawkeye or Daniel Boone, hero of my own imagined frontier adventures.
There was also a long wood which ribboned, uncut by man, to the shopping centre about 4-5 blocks away. I remember once walking with my Dad with our bikes through it and him cutting open a fresh tomato and salting it for us to eat on our expedition. It was a pure magic moment in the quietness of woods.
Yes, it was all pretty idyllic and it also helped, being car-less through grades 1-12, to walk everywhere in all kinds of weather. I still recall trips through the snow to call on friends, and one memorable Monday morning in grade 10, walking to school on a snow-covered street with my friends, imitating Dave Clark’s “Bits and Pieces” after hearing it for the first time the night before on The Ed Sullivan Show. That and long walks to my girlfriend’s house in late fall and winter. Nature was that close, ever-present backdrop to my growing up as a city boy.
Maybe one bike trip embodies and signifies this closeness more than any other. In grade 5, I convinced my mother to bike-ride with me across town and some 35-40 miles north via highway and gravel road to East Selkirk where my country cousins lived. I planned a route with a Winnipeg map through the busy North End, then north to (West) Selkirk, across the Red River bridge to a gravel road which wound its way through woods to the then-village of East Selkirk.
It was sheer madness. We left on a Friday after she got home from work, and ended up riding in darkness toward Selkirk, then in complete dark (no lights) the rest of the way. We didn’t even have lights on our bikes. Somehow we were determined enough to do this and arrived some 5-6 hours later. I still recall my father’s disbelief when we phoned him and told him we had made it.
The ride back was on Sunday afternoon and there was light all the way. We travelled on gravel beside the paved main highway with cars whizzing past us. My mother had her old bike which was tricky to pedal in contrast to my new 3-speed.
Later, in her late 60s after my father passed–without telling me–she pulled off an even greater feat riding 60+ miles x 2 by herself on the Trans-Canada to Portage la Prairie, on a single-speed bike. She started back as soon as she got there and made the trip in one day. She must have been quite the sight on that busy road!
My mother and father’s love of nature happened daily when they retired. They moved to an apartment close to Assiniboine Park, and walked there every day, usually visiting the zoo and conservatory. In the long run, that nature gene, theirs, has been successfully transmitted to me. I now need Nature around me each day, and it often anchors any trips outside Edmo.