Memory plays with our present self, teasing us with the possibility of its mutability; if we remember differently, we may become somebody else, if not in body, in essence. I have many memories I play with, imagine differently, reshape and wrestle, and many I could not mutate if I tried. Perhaps that is the required state of mind, leaving some wiggle room, if only imaginary, and at once confirming the past that is embedded. We exist, can float even, somewhere in between. Amy Scanlan O’Hearn
There is one such memory I have of a conversation with my mother, one that I revisit with intense emotional clarity and physicality. In no way can I alter it. But my life may be entirely different today if I had taken heed of the advice she gave in those moments; if I had taken action. We are in the car, one of several hundred times we rode together—to the store, clothes-shopping, to church, to the doctor or dentist. I have no idea of the destination, only of a rare time alone with her; a fifth child of seven, it was my turn. It was my senior year of high school, and she asked me what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go, what I wanted to be; I was a directionless teen; each day held the view of a vague uncertain future. I remember turning to my mother and saying I don’t know—I don’t know what I want to do, but I don’t want a nine-to-five job, having little idea of what that even was. Without missing a beat, my mother replied, “Well, then, get out to the woods now.”
I long for a field outside my door, frogs in the grass, a feral cat in the barn, and a stream close by. I have had none of those. Aside from eleven years in the country, if that’s valid nomenclature for a split-level on a gravel road with woods at the back and a farm on both sides, where my six siblings and I roamed freely and wreaked havoc in cornfields and on properties not our own—considered by the locals as foreign, destructive, and wild children, not the stock from which they came. Since then, I have languished between the pull of the bucolic in suburbia, a limbo-land, a state of mind as much as a logistical disappointment. My father moved us to suburbia at the height of his career, and I have followed a path, married, and experienced motherhood and of late, middle age, in its realm. When my husband and I set out to move to Philadelphia twenty-five years ago, we spent a few days traipsing in and out of dark, cramped apartments until we settled on one with a second bedroom, or a space that had been walled off and called a second bedroom, which featured a window and a tree outside. A month’s rent would eat up most of our earnings, but I had figured out how to cook on five dollars a day, so we were excited about a life in the city. The day before we were to sign the lease, I checked out an apartment in a small town near my mother, a train ride from my husband’s office; it was the first floor of an old Victorian with two very real bedrooms, a front porch, and a tire swing. Twenty-five years later, my suburban state of mind has come to fully appreciate the tree-lined streets of my small neighborhood, tucked just off a major interstate, and I partake of the urban experience by hopping on the train when I feel like I need its pulse.
A converse pull of the city began with my father, who believed that an individual has only really lived if he has spent time in NY, and his NY years were the stuff of legend: faded match packs, torn black and white photos from The Copacabana, and tales from behind the bar at theStork Club. We got our dose of the city once a year when he hauled us, in a Chevy wagon, nine hours away from Western Pennsylvania; there, we tumbled into tiny adjoining rooms in some hotel or other near Central Park. “Have fun,” he’d say, handing us each a twenty, and we hit the streets, picking up cheap fashions and souvenirs, spotted and stalked celebrities, entered Central Park and exited it exhausted and lost many blocks later. We found our way back to the hotel, dirty and hungry. Chinese or pizza was ordered; on Home Box Office, we watched R movies my older sister ordered, in a gravelly voice, from the front desk. I watched Shampoo at thirteen and a year later, Taxi Driver, both frightening and enticing. But I didn’t really get the city. Its enormity, the unending blocks of concrete. Even the relatively unmanicured rambles of Central Park failed to satisfy. I never forgot the woods or let them disappear from my internal horizon, and I realize now that I am fortunate to have lived the past thirty-five years within a five-mile parameter of Hopkins Pond.
I have been walking the paths that circle the two ponds since I was fifteen, taking various routes into the park that surrounds them, depending on the hour, the day, or the year. At Hopkins Pond, I have experienced beginnings, come to several ends, and suffered all the strifes and highs in between. But no matter what phase of life, I take something away every time I go there. I pick up leaves, gather bouquets of weeds, and pocket acorns, stones, and shells. And if what I carry away isn’t clutched in my palm, I leave with something else, ions maybe, but much different than the ones radiating from the granite sidewalks or rock ledges of a city park.
The park at Hopkins Pond has no rock ledges, and the earth is the Jersey soil that erodes nearly before one’s eyes. I have seen birch and oak and beech rise and topple from the ponds’ banks onto their massive sides and disintegrate over time. With the sand and soil, the ridges are never too regular, and the paths are never too predictable, meandering regularly from their well-worn ways. Even in its shifted-ness, Hopkins Pond has been a constant in my life. My footprints around its course are filled with instants from a past I cannot escape.
I don’t ever recall saying I have to live near Hopkins Pond, but that’s the way it has been. My trips to the park and circuits around the pond have become a habit or tendency, a part of my life I would miss if I were to go without. I’m not a devotee of much, but I’m holding onto the woods, and there they are, so I go.
At the ponds’ north side, the path follows the frontage of the Birdwood estate. I guess that I have passed there several hundred, perhaps a thousand, times. A dignified estate with coppices and a slate roof, a low picket fence and icehouse-turned-artist studio, it sits angled and snug on the property’s rim. I have never seen a soul enter or leave the place; its occupants forever in residence. Once, I watched a gardener load a truck of fallen limbs.
In a marl pit at the far reaches of the estate, the first nearly intact dinosaur skeleton was discovered in the late 1800s. A Quaker family who had built the house was using a remarkably large bone as an umbrella stand, noticed by a visiting friend who also happened to be a paleontologist. With permission, he excavated an abandoned marl pit on the property and within months, the first standing dinosaur exhibit was on display at the Philadelphia Academy of the Natural Sciences, and the frenzy to unearth dinosaurs in marl pits all over the state of New Jersey was underway. While my appreciation for New Jersey is elevated by the discovery (almost as sexy as living in France near the Lascaux cave), my imagination is more so drawn to the excavated marl pit than to Hadrosaurus foulkii, or Foulk’s ‘bulky lizard,’ unearthed there. I read an article in The New York Times, from the late 1800s, of two boys gone missing one December and then found days later in an abandoned marl pit. I had no idea at the time what a marl pit was. I envisioned its depths murky and dark, its slippery slides without hold. The boys had lost their way, then lost their footing and fallen in. They died clasping one another. The reporter described them arm in arm, their “curly locks laid out behind them in the muck.”
On the ponds’ western rim once stood the Birdwood property mill. Above the smaller pond, a 22-foot fall mill generated the power that ground grain to grist and turned trees to lumber for the early residents of the area. I’ve seen pictures at the local Historical Society of the stone remains in varying stages of decay. Off the path, stones are strewn here and there. Vines encrust most, and I have lifted them to find salamanders impossibly alive and breathing in the jet-black mud underneath. Once I ventured off the path into the swampy stretch of land below the two ponds to find broken bottles and plates, rusted tin, and tubeless tires. From the scraps, I fabricate in my imagination the stuff of the daily lives of the mill workers and residents of Birdwood. I wonder about their joys and disappointments, about their illnesses and struggles, and with what ease they tossed their discards off the side of a hill.
If I walk to the ponds from the house where I live now and enter from the boulevard that runs along its southern edge, I approach the lower pond by a path that bends through scrub trees and raspberry brambles. I never take this path without startling the kingfisher. His squawk belies his timidity. So do his rapid movements as he darts from fallen limb to low-hanging branch, skimming the water’s surface fast and furious. I wonder if he knows I am there, or if I have overestimated his acknowledgement. Along this same overgrown stretch, I have spotted an owl on the skeletal remains of a tree. I have never seen another. Here, I encounter the egret and the night heron, a hunkered bird with a plumage that droops just above the water. Both birds study the movement of carp and perch under the slow and silt-bedded stream. The kingfisher squawks and the egret flies. Rarely does he tolerate my approach. I was as startled when we met once on a wintery path, the quiet of the snow and the barrenness of the landscape fooling us into solitude. That same day, I flushed a flock of mourning doves when the park’s joggers and walkers were few, and the birds had taken full reign. We met in separate occupations, theirs a secret society, and I lost in thought.
Some days when I am looking to walk farther, I cross a bridge and follow paths that run at the base of the Bancroft property on the eastern side of the park. Invariably, I recall my teen self, when I spent almost every afternoon in the park after school. In summer, spring, winter, no matter the weather, I huddled with friends, passing apricot brandy or a rolled joint; we were warm against each other, and isolated. I picture us on tree stumps or fallen logs, around small fires if we dared, laughing, telling the same stories again and again. The tips of our cigarettes illuminate faces and behind us, the darkness is impenetrable. I wonder how we withstood hours in the cold, only conscious of not being caught and if we were pursued, then running like gazelles though uncharted paths we knew in the dark. Once we were pursued by the police with flashlights. I twisted myself into a trunk, hugged the bush, and willed myself to be one with it. It worked. The voices and the flashlights faded and after the pounding in my ears quieted, I made my way to my friends, knowing where they’d be waiting for me to share the details of the chase.
More often, I go to Hopkins Pond alone, except for Bingo. But with Bingo I may as well be alone. We walk in tandem, her steps regular, timed as she traces the course; mine in rhythm, too, as I compose words in my head that may evaporate or stick when I return home. Bingo’s pursuits are intense, her scent of fellow canines urgent, of chipmunk, rodent, and fowl deliberate. There have been several times she turned to me with some small creature in the clutches of her jaw. I scold her and she drops her prey, disappointed for an instant but well prepared to begin again.
Another treasured companion to Hopkins Pond has been my son, who, like an ichthyic descendant, was immediately drawn to the shallows of the waters, and he crouched there, angled, and scooped minnow’s eggs and trout. His optimism at catching something never waned, even in winter when he cracked the ice’s rippled ridges and tempted fate on a pond’s surface to see the carp he knew were lurking underneath. A favorite spot of his was on the gnarled branches of a cedar that formed a web above the pond’s surface. He straddled there and lowered bits of his peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to a massive snapper while I sat nearby, watching closely and fearing the thing might take him whole if his hand got too close. On the concrete bridge that spans a stream from the lower pond, my son and I have danced barefoot around slippery eels pulled from the brackish water. The same sludge-like mess into which he kicked a treasured tackle box and sneaker while we hopped around the slithering black bodies at our feet. Even into his late teens, I could coax him to the pond, to the surprise of the kingfisher’s screech and the egret’s ancient crouch. When he visits now from NY, a walk to Hopkins Pond is a worthwhile endeavor. He has also felt the charge.
As I mount the hill at Birdwood, I am careful to watch the gravel beneath me, cautious of new rivulets or of crevices in the path as it ascends and brings me into view of the upper pond at the path’s rise. Emergency lights blare, and I stiffen. Out on the ice, orange tape flaps and waves between cones. Young men in yellow frog suits carry a pole that resembles an elephant prod. They move slowly toward the middle. It is cold. Blocks of broken ice lay scattered, tipped sideways and piled askew next to a large hole in the pond’s center. I can see the thickness of the ice—a good six inches—and wonder the last time the pond was so deeply frozen. My heart sinks as I imagine the probable scenario—young boys, skating, engaging in horseplay; someone has fallen through. But as instantly, the fear dissolves and I look again at the young men in their rescue gear, like moonwalkers, head to toe in bright spandex, belted at their waist, helmeted and surreal, creatures from under the sea. They glide across the ice with boyish grins, and I am suddenly relieved—a drill, a simulated rescue operation. As the young ‘rescuers’ frolic out to the ‘danger site,’ their counterparts—potbellied and wizened old guys on the shore—huddle by the truck. There is no imminent danger, only in the extreme cold a tragic possibility to be avoided if they practice and prepare. I am relieved that my pond is not tainted, and that the worst I will associate with it are my own transgressions, where I spent and maybe wasted some hours of my adolescence, skipped school and partied, where I stashed marijuana in a fallen tree. I once saw a man jerking off in the brush, and on the rise at the upper pond’s far northern edge, in my boyfriend’s truck, I ‘lost my virginity.’ Everything short of death.
Photo at the top of the page is of a scene at Hopkins Pond and was taken by Amy Scanlan O’Hearn.