It wasn’t until we’d already been living in the house for two years that someone mentioned to my parents there used to be a two story chicken coop sitting right where my dad planned to put in a garden. In fact, the gossip was that whole place used to be a working farm over 100 years before we moved in – including an apple orchard. The remnants of agricultural prosperity were stone walls criss-crossing the backyard which my brother and sister and I liked to challenge each other to run and leap over.
A gnarled, too tall apple tree blossomed just behind our property line each year, but it had long since lost any connection to fruit bearing – some sort of reverse taming process had happened, the wild had reclaimed the tree almost completely.
My dad said the news about the chicken coop explained why the weeds in that corner of the yard grew a little taller than anywhere else. And why there was a faint stench of chicken excrement in the air after a good rain.
Our house wasn’t the original farm house either – that had stood much closer to the road than our current red colonial – which had been built in the 1980’s, about ten years before we moved in. The older house had burned down, but I couldn’t tell you if the story was salacious or not, at ten I didn’t think to ask. And the grownups didn’t tell me.
We owned a large-ish piece of land for the town I grew up in – but we really lucked out because our property abutted some type of swamp, or marsh, or wetland whatever other type of category that might, or might not, any day now, be getting protected status. This meant our backyard, for all intents and purposes was about twenty times larger than our actual property and included a stream, a gully, and more skunk cabbage than you could leap on in one afternoon. It also meant mosquitoes so big you could barely leave the back porch without getting eaten alive on summer evenings after sunset.
I don’t think the intervening years between farm, apple orchard, stone walls and up to the chicken coop and burnt down house had been particularly good to the property though. The trees had grown up tall, the weeds had choked out anything that ever used to grow there, the swamp was full of skunk cabbage, and there was poison ivy and mosquitoes in spades. In short, nature had claimed the yard.
The other thing that happened was that interim owners had clearly used the backyard and gully as a junkyard. My dad’s fondest wishes were for a large, lawned back yard, something a little less hospitable to those vindictive mosquitoes. A hammock would be nice too. He set us to work on this goal almost immediately after buying the house – we were hauling tree branches he downed mid-Saturday mornings, and seeding grass that would usually die halfway through the summer. He would smolder, and silently grit his teeth over each new piece of glass, and half broken beer bottle that we turned up raking leaves in the fall.
But, we discovered the best trash when we weren’t working because then we could roam into the gully, and beyond the border of our yard.
What do kids think is good trash?
We thought it was plastic animals, bottle caps, plastic bottles, anything that could be used to build a fort. We giggled about porcelain thrones, sat on the seat of an old abandoned plow, bounced on half decayed mattresses, and one day, found the skeleton of a cast iron stove.
That stove was beautiful – or at least, I dreamed that it could be. It was my first love affair with any kitchen item, which has since gone on to include vintage pyrex mixing bowls, bamboo cooking utensils, and most recently, tea-bag holders.
I desperately wanted to assemble the pieces. I was sure that stove, cleaned up, lovingly reassembled, and displayed in all her glory would be provide meaning and purpose.
We would be the coolest backyard scavengers in the history of the world. Alas, this was not to be. Not only were there too many missing pieces, when the leaves fell off the trees, it became apparent that we were really in our neighbors back back back yard, with no real purpose, and we felt like we were trespassing. My dreams… (what did I want that stove for anyway?) – of breathing new life into the stove faded – the illusion that it is was a treasure did as well.
Eventually I got older, I completely stopped thinking of those items as extraordinary. In my memory now it’s as though one day the gully, the wetlands, and the magical stove just ceased to be important, maybe even exist. The woods seemed smaller, and less full of wonder. Perhaps in reality it took longer to forget.
Now that I partake of my nature in carefully curated parks, DOC woodlands, and well-traveled trails the only trash I see are chip bags, and the occasional orange peel. I pick these up and put them where they’re supposed to go, because there is no question here about the difference between trash and treasure. “Litter” contains no connotations of wonder and certainly those plastic water bottles don’t enrapture me the way that stove did.
But I’ll keep my eyes peeled – just in case, as I stumble past a building or pile of rubbish half into a state of decrepitude, I come across a treasure as bewitching as that stove.