Saturday, December 27, 2014
Feet of Clay
I explore my childhood from a distance. Observing it from Colorado, from Greenville, from Charleston - anywhere but Orangeburg, cradle of my cradle. I am not sure why. There are no great traumas that I am hiding from. I am not claiming a perfect childhood, or some idyllic movie-like home town. But growing up the pains were large enough to teach without deep scarring, and the smiles were not so bright as to blind.
Still as I sit at my mom’s home in Greenville, I reflect on my walk this morning and the shimmering echoes of the past that it brought to mind. I marveled at the woods, so unlike the woods of Colorado. In Colorado, the land has seemingly swelled to create the space that is there. Its forest are populated without density, the gaps in even the thickest areas may be safely penetrated by the casual hiker or by snow skiers going thirty miles per hours. To get through the woods here you have to want to. The trees gather and cluster and crowd, deadfalls are fences and briars are barbed wire. They are challenges no child can resist and no skier would dare.
Thinking of the woods, I cannot leave a reverie of them without nodding to the trees. Here there are pines, and oaks, and maples, and others that tower straight and strong, racing each other for the clouds. They push against roads, to hem them in by day, and to add reflecting power to the headlights on them at night. They keep watch over you at the same time they keep you from seeing too far, bringing you the horizon and making it attainable. By contrast, I now live where trees feel like dwarves and protect you from nothing. They are unable to grow in sky-reaching enclaves and most of those that aspire to are gnarled in the effort. The exception is the Aspen with its white bark like some pure knight’s armor. They grow straight and true and tall after a fashion, but pretenders to the faith like cotton woods and elms have simply earned the reputation of trash trees. They grow fast, spread thin, and give into age with twisted forms that huddle bare in the winter reminding me of some desperate, Shakespearian hags.
Also as I walked, I could see the red clay of South Carolina wherever the grass thinned or some earth mover had just begun its work. I could remember when I used to play with it, imagining that I could form it with my hands, becoming a potter. I would make bowls and rustic mugs and thick red plates, but I knew nothing of the firing process required to harden these creations into the real thing much less what a glaze was. These childhood makings would melt as the fantasies they were with the first addition of creek water. I didn’t spend much time doing this, but enough time to know the clay, to recognize it as something more than Playdough or Silly Putty. Carolina clay has heft, a plastic density, a gravitas that no man made substance could come close to. I could look at this clay showing through the land at every opportunity and remember the feel of it between my toes during a warm summer rain. In some primal part of my mind, I believe that the clay that covered my feet was a binding agent for my soul, that I could leave the land but the land would never leave me.
These vision and others tumbled to me as I walked among my kin on familiar ground so similar to the pathways and hideouts I had as a boy. All around me tendrils of fog-like memory lead back to the swamp at the end of my street, the playgrounds where we played tag football, the streets and trails I would run, the faces that crowded my youth. I feel their pull, but I also feel safety from them at this distance of miles and years.
I can rationalize this vantage point on my life by saying to myself that I wouldn’t know ten people still in Orangeburg. That the circle of friends that surrounded me as a boy have themselves spread to points well beyond the banks of the Edisto River. But I know if I were to go back, and walk her streets, somewhere I would run across someone who would say, “Aren’t you a Handal?” In my heart, I know that I will never be completely removed from my home town, and I can’t explain why I keep my distance and have never waded into the complete nostalgia of her. Maybe I am afraid Orangeburg has changed too much. Maybe I am worried that my woods are now all housing developments, and the pine straw trails I used to run are now sidewalks or paved streets. I think if I am honestly admitting, the thought of Orangeburg scares me now, because it can’t be what it was. And that’s alright, there are some things that can be best viewed without perspective or without the confusing context of the present. Childhood is one of those things.