Brent Aikman was born and raised in Charleston, West Virginia. He tried to leave the mountains twice, but always found himself back in the heart of Appalachia. At the age of 7 he was sent to play outdoors, and he never fully came back inside. “I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” – John Muir
Editor’s note: Brent is a long-time friend of mine. From junior high through high school, and years of Presbyterian youth experience, we share many childhood commonalities. It was not until I attended his mother’s memorial service that I had the slightest clue what a powerful influence she had on his love of nature. Brent is many things. He is my old friend, he is a poetry student, he is a husband and a writer and a son and a brother. He is a lover of the natural world, and he is a gift to that place and all of us in it. I hope you enjoy this dipping and swirling ride into the mind of a child who is discovering frogs, and fireflies, and the greatness of trees.
Outside | by Brent Aikman
I was six years old when we moved away from the neighborhood I had known as “mine.”
Away from my best friend who lived next-door.
Away from the familiarity of the dead-end street full of kids, families, people, that at the ripe age of six, I could say “I know them.”
Away from the world as I had come to know it: Friendly people, the nice Valley Bell Dairy milkman who delivered milk to the house, “Shane” the ancient boxer dog that lived across the street, “Big Rock” down in the woods (It was really big, and it was truly a rock), and more.
Away from everything that a normal neighborhood, on a dead-end street, had to offer. We were ‘that family’ that moved away. We only moved about 4 miles, not far at all in adult understanding.
But to a six year old…
Ours was the third house to be built in the ‘new’ neighborhood. A subdivision of homes was being built in the woods. THE WOODS. We moved into the house in the fall, and I played in the woods around the house beginning then and through the winter. When I turned seven in April my mother sent me outside to play.
“No really, you have to go outside… and play… Go…”
So I went. Outside. Into THE WOODS.
My father was a chemical engineer. My genetics yielded neither the comprehension of mathematics nor science. Those numbers, those scientific thoughts, did not make it too far into my brain. I believe two conditions exacerbated this natural fact. First, if there was a window in the classroom, my eyes were drawn to it, especially when math came around. I just didn’t understand, nor did I really care about, multiplication tables and sums (I think they call this Attention Deficit Disorder these days). Second, I certainly was much more interested in being outside.
Outside, in the woods.
Late spring in West Virginia has a true magic about it. The world is a vibrant green that startles the eyes. Everything is in bloom. Nature is finally awake after long months of winter. You can see it in the trees as they reach for every drop of sunshine they can grasp. The wind is soft and moist with warmth suggesting that summer is coming. Every wild living creature is either giving birth or going through the mating rituals that will lead to bearing offspring and moving the species ahead a generation.
That spring the woods almost seemed in a frenzy. Birds flying, chasing, singing. Squirrels darting, playing, chattering. Chipmunks, annoying chipmunks. The cry of the red tailed hawk that sent those chipmunks running for their lives. Blue tailed skinks sunning on the rocks. The green snake, brown garden snake, black snake in the bush eating baby birds out of the nest. I did not need math or science in school. I came to an understanding in the woods. There is a lifecycle. Mating, birth, living. If the black snake eats one of three baby birds, it is not only the death part of the lifecycle, it is mathematics. There are now only two baby birds.
I understood science and math, just not in the classroom.
I would lie in the cool leaves on the forest floor, looking up into the fresh canopy of leaves. I could stay there for hours, watching, looking, and listening. Engulfed in the enormity of the woods, but yet not feeling as though I were lost, or small. I felt like I belonged. Unlike my time in school, here I understood what was being revealed to me in the math and science of nature.
Math: Trees grow one ring every year. Birds lay eggs, maybe one, maybe more. The hummingbirds that we see in our woods flap their wings about sixty times a second. Black snakes can grow really big. That one was over four feet long! A frog lays hundreds of eggs.
Once, I discovered an incredible secret outside. I found it, it was my secret, and I shared it with no one.
I had been watching the puddle for about a week. I finally gathered the courage to dip my hand in. I dipped, the egg mass oozed around my fingers. I held the gelatinous mass in my hand and looked at the single black spec floating in each little bubble. There really is nothing like holding a mass of frog eggs, freshly scooped from the standing puddle by the road. I put the eggs back after complete examination. I would come back to look at them again. Maybe I would not hold them again, I thought, but I would but definitely look. And soon, there would be frogs!
Science: When it rains, the toads come out onto the road so they won’t drown, to get warm, and they get squished by cars. Hummingbirds can fly backwards. Bumblebees, according to the man-made laws of aerodynamics, should not be able to fly.
I love Bumblebees.
Outside was where I wanted to be, but If I had to be inside, I would be in the kitchen. The kitchen of the new house had a window that was almost six feet wide. The sill was less than two feet off the floor, so I could sit on the floor and look out. I looked out at a bird feeder that was four feet long and 14 inches deep. A BIG bird feeder. No. It was a bird feeding platform. My mother would tell me what each bird was, if we would see it again, or if it was just passing through. I could sit and see birds that others may never see; Scarlet Tanager, Grosbeaks, Cowbirds, Nuthatches, Warblers, Juncos, American Redstart, the Common Grackle with its blazing yellow eyes, and Finches of purple and gold that would sing the rise of the sun.
There were wonderful surprises including the Wood Thrush, the most elegant Cedar Waxwing, Indigo Bunting, Solitary Vireo, Northern Oriole, and many birds that were the gift of “passing through.” There were Woodpeckers of all sorts and sizes; Downey, Red-bellied, Common Flicker, Hairy, and if we were lucky, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.
Then HE came.
There was a great thump, and it seemed everything stopped. It was the Pileated woodpecker, the largest woodpecker in North America. If I was lucky, I would be sitting by the window and get to look into his yellow ringed black eyes. I would hear him ask me if I was coming back outside. And I would run for the door…
In this time of the spring, in the dusk of the early evening, it starts. The fireflies rise. My grandparents lived on the west side of Charleston and had a very large side yard with a Magnolia tree that I could climb. I spent a lot of time at their house. And while there, I spent a lot of time in the Magnolia tree. I would climb to my spot and sit and watch the fireflies come out of the grass and off the branches of the tree and flicker around my head as they searched for their mates. The world was alight.
My grandparents’ yard helped meet my incessant need to be outside. There was an area of rose bushes on which to feast my eyes and nose; grape vines growing over the patio that brought in birds; a small vegetable garden planted in spring that produced tomatoes, string beans, cucumbers, and squash.
Then there were the oak trees. There were four (I counted them using my math skills) HUGE oak trees, each one at least four feet thick if not more. At seven years old, I was small. These trees were huge. Spring allowed me to lie on my back in the yard and watch, and look, and listen. Spring brought a sense of urgency to the oak trees with lots of birds flying, squirrels scrambling, and the chipmunks – always, the annoying chipmunks. The giant trees provided life and a home to many creatures. Me, I stretched out underneath the huge trunk and spreading limbs and took it all in. I watched the birds and the squirrels and would wait for dusk, for the lights to start twinkling in the trees. It was magical. While it was not in The Woods, my grandparents’ yard was held in high esteem. And to this day, I long to sit high in that Magnolia tree and watch, and look, and listen as the fireflies rise into the spring evening.
As a child, I found solace outside, in the woods. I had to move away from my friends, start attending a new school, learn new streets and meet new people. My world turned upside down. My own mother had said “go play outside,” and then Mother Nature wiped away my fears and helped me understand that no matter where I was, I could look to her, and suddenly all would be right with my world.
You can read more about the 2012 Essays on Childhood writers here.