Monday, March 16, 2009

Autumn Leaves and a Mild Sense of Panic (TJEd)

When you move from one house to another, there are always adjustments to be made. Where to put the silverware, where to pick up quick carton of milk, remembering the names of new neighbors. All of the moves I undertook during my adult life were pretty much within the same region (Southern California), except the last. In October 2007, my family and I moved from Corona, California to Lawrenceville, Georgia. Now, I was expecting to have to make some more significant adjustments than where to put the silverware, mostly on a social level. After all, we were moving from what many consider the most liberal State in our Union, to the heart of Redneck Country in the middle of the Deep South. And, there were some small adjustments to be made, like overcoming the shock of having neighbors actually visit us and introduce themselves the day after we moved in (one of them actually brought home-baked cookies and later hosted a “welcome to the neighborhood” shindig for us). But not nearly so extensive nor difficult as I had envisioned. The most surprising adjustment I had to make was primitively sensory.

We moved into our new home the first week of November. I was in awe of the turning of the leaves, something I had never really experienced before living most of my life in a two-season region (rainy and green for about a month, dry and brown the rest of the year). Thomas’s second floor bedroom window is very friendly with a respectably sized oak tree in our back yard. The week of our moving in, I would pass by his open bedroom door and notice the tree had changed its hue. By the end of our first week, the color had changed to such a brilliant, vibrant yellow, it seemed as though Thomas’ bedroom has been painted a new color. Then, suddenly, all of the leaves were gone, abandoning their trees to lay down a golden brown carpet on the earth. That is when the mild panic began visiting me.

In Georgia, Autumn means burning leaves. In open fires. In your back yard. In Southern California, an open fire demands nothing less than calling 9-11 immediately and letting the fire department know where they need to rush to prevent a blaze that could destroy hundreds, or even thousands, of homes. In our seven years living in Corona, we had no less than three major brush fires close enough to our home to 1) see from the front yard, and 2) warrant serious preparations to evacuate. The first was just weeks after we had moved into our first “ours” house (one we had bought instead of renting), and I was home alone with our brand new first child, still recovering from a difficult delivery. I stood in front of our house, swaddled infant in my arms, watching the gray plume of smoke in the not-too-distant distance, the unmistakable smell of smoke in the air, warily eyeing our 25+ year old shake-shingle roof made of actual wood, which was now old enough and dried out enough to catch fire rather easily. The second time, the plume of smoke rose straight overhead into the sky, ash was falling on the house, and the fire department had set up one of its operational bases in the park across the street. This time I had two small children, whom I packed up and took to a friend’s house across town, along with the family dog and the two cats I could catch on short notice (they were not happy). The third time was at night, there was a distinct red glow just over the nearest ridge, and we were watching the national news as thousands of homes all across California were being devoured by a dozen different raging-out-of-control fires, some of which took weeks to contain. Several of our own family members and friends were in the line of fire, literally, and were compelled to evacuate their homes by authorities, but all were, thankfully, unharmed.

So, the first time I stepped outside the back door of our new home in Georgia and smelled smoke, I was hit with a gut-wrenching anxiety-bordering-on-panic bred from years living in a fire zone. The only thing that prevented me from immediately calling 9-11 (and thus proving myself an incompetent foreigner to those parts) was the fact that our house came with its own fire pit in the back yard, and the sellers had kindly explained the best way to burn the autumn leaves without setting fire to the surrounding trees and houses. Breathing deeply, I called David. “Honey, there’s a fire somewhere.” He came out onto the back deck with me. “Yeah, someone’s burning leaves.” “Yeah?”. “Yeah, it’s fine honey.” It took me a month to get used to the smell of smoke so near my home. But, I did get used to it. Funny, but now the distinct smell of burning leaves is almost has homey to me as the smell of a mid-winter blaze in our own family room fireplace.

The second sensory adjustment was almost more primal than adjusting to the smell of fire, if you can believe it. It was the critter-induced rustling of the fallen Autumn leaves. We have squirrels everywhere in our neighborhood. And, I mean everywhere. And chipmunks, too, although they’re not nearly so bold as those darned squirrels. You can’t step outside the house without spying at least three or four squirrels bounding across the yard (they kind of run-hop, like drunken rabbits), scrambling up a tree, or dashing across a power line. When the ground is covered with freshly fallen dried leaves, there is an almost perpetual rustling sound, distinctly punctuated by scurrying, each time a human enters the zone. Now, in Southern California, a rustling sound usually means only one thing: a snake. And, it’s a fair bet it’s a rattlesnake, a critter you certainly do not want anything to do with, and certainly one you don’t want anywhere near your kids. So, again, stepping outside the door of our new home and hearing a rustling sound every time…well, it took a few weeks for the pounding of my heart to subside, and a few months before my heart quit its acrobatics every time I went outside.

The third sensory adjustment was more subtle, but has lingered longer. The rising sun is different here than what I was used to. In Corona, I had only a lace curtain across our bedroom window, because it looked out over our patio and secluded back yard. As the sun rose, bright light filled the bedroom, almost suddenly, making for a very pleasant, yet insistent, natural alarm clock. I loved waking to the rising sun, and pacing my day accordingly, shifting with the seasons. Here in Georgia, the sunrise is different. Not so bright, not so insistent. It sort of sneaks up on you, and even with the curtains drawn aside, it is so drawn-out and so subtle, the sunrise is not quite enough to waken you with a “time to get up!” I still have not adjusted, I still have difficulty obeying the sun, or even figuring out when it has actually risen, and rising accordingly. I hope this will change with a few more seasons. I hate relying on alarm clocks.

I’ve read a few authors who talk about “knowing a place”. Dr. DeMille talks about patriotism being linked to “knowing a place”. John Gatto writes about a similar sense of “place” as related to belonging and patriotism. After 2+ years of living here, I’ve come to know this place, even if I’m not yet entirely acclimatized yet. I’ve settled in a very primitive and instinctual way, as well as adjusting to the visual display that I love so much. There are times when I miss the new-found awe and wonder I felt our first fall and winter here; it has been replaced by a familiarity that almost borders on dismissive. But, I still find myself grabbing my camera and capturing images that make me smile and warm each time I look over them. I still love sitting on the back deck in the swing reading to the kids, even when we have to wrap up in blankets. I love the trees, and the fallen leaves, and the squirrels, and the slightly different tone of the morning sun. I love the bulbs pushing up in February, bravely risking being doused with snow or frost after their bloom, which seems to happen every year. I love the explosion of white blossoms on the dogwoods, so profuse in our little town, and madly clustered at the onramp onto the Parkway. I’m not quite far enough along to call myself a “Georgian”; I am still a “Californian transplanted”. But, I love my home, my “place”, as much as I love my country. And, I would do much to protect it.

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