Pilgrim at Shit Creek

A mother comes to terms with her son's childhood in the urban environment.

  • Trees grow out of a Baltimore, Maryland, wall.

    Evan Helfrich
 

My husband and I are raising our little boy in Baltimore, Md., a city with a vibrant music and art scene, racial and socioeconomic diversity, and a scrappy, post-industrial appeal. But it is also a landscape of urban decay and eight-lane highways, with a harbor so polluted that incidental skin contact with its water can cause diarrhea. This wasn't in my plans. I grew up in southern Colorado in the foothills of the Rockies, beneath the magnificent, motherly Spanish Peaks, known to the Utes as the Wahatoya, or Breasts of the Earth. I always assumed any children I had would grow up much as I did, perpetually sticky with sap, losing snakes behind the piano, more familiar with the real Milky Way than with its chocolate-bar namesake.

But then I fell in love with an East Coaster who sees culture as I do nature: as necessary to life. We live in a charming if minimally insulated former millworker's house, blocks from the stream where the millwheel once churned. An elevated freeway now casts a permanent shadow over this stream, the city's first major source of drinking water, and the riverbed is a constantly evolving snarl of debris -- old tires, broken tricycles, fluttering wings of plastic tarp, bed frames, orange traffic hazard cones. We may not be up shit creek, but we're only steps from it.

Nature is here, too, I remind myself. A few times a week, I set out with dog and stroller for a long walk through the abandoned backside of Baltimore's largest city park, located nearby. (Overgrown parks and city lots are an unexpected perk here, where the population has dropped by a third since its peak in 1950.) It is not a healthy ecosystem. Curtains of invasive porcelain berry and oriental bittersweet weigh down the trees and, in spring, you can smell the stands of garlic mustard. But in early summer, wood thrushes burble here, and at least once a year I come home with a giant armful of chicken-of-the-woods mushrooms for dinner.

In our own yard, I've begun to replace the hostas and mums with natives: viburnum and goldenrod, little bluestem and Joe Pye weed. I imagine crouching down with my son when he is a little older, examining them and the insects they host. Milkweed bugs have already found their way to my lone butterfly weed patch in a neighborhood dominated by prim cultivars. I hope they do not devour the plants before the monarchs and swallowtails find them. In spring, we'll take binoculars and visit the yellow-crowned night herons that, improbably, nest along the stream. We'll go camping and hiking in state parks, and visit the ocean and the diminished but still grand Chesapeake Bay.

The wisest approach -- short of moving, which is, for many reasons, not feasible now -- is to come to know and care for the particular patch of Earth one finds oneself in, rather than yearning for another. Yet I find that wisdom isn't enough. When I remember drowsing in a high mountain meadow to the ambient drone of insects or gazing up at literally countless shooting stars, I cannot help but draw comparisons. In Baltimore, rats gnaw at the tomatoes in my garden and police helicopters drone overhead like giant menacing flies. There is a hole in my heart that will never be filled here.

What I am coming, begrudgingly, to realize is that my son will not share my sense of loss. My husband spent his childhood in what I would call a bland suburb, but his memories of exploring the creek that ran through his subdivision are as richly meaningful to him as my own wilderness experiences. Our son will find as much magic in discovering that the leaves of the ubiquitous jewelweed gleam like silver when submerged in water as I did finding fossilized palm trees among the piñon and junipers of southern Colorado. And in the end, perhaps my desire for him to have a childhood like mine is selfish. Maybe I simply want to relive my own.

Of course, nostalgia has also blurred the imperfections of my childhood home. Water was already scarce there when I was a kid, and a century of cattle grazing and coal mining had left their marks. So as my boy grows and becomes more alert to his surroundings, I resolve to become more familiar with the flora and fauna in this place and do my part to preserve its beleaguered woods and watersheds. The world was not in mint condition when I got here, and I have found it heartbreakingly beautiful nonetheless. That, above all, is my hope for my son.

Andrea Appleton is a former HCN intern.

High Country News Classifieds
  • NEWS DIRECTOR
    Based in the state capitol, Boise State Public Radio is the premier NPR affiliate in Idaho. With 18 transmitters and translators, it reaches 2/3rds of...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FOR MOJAVE DESERT LAND TRUST
    Organization Background: The Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT) is a non-profit 501(3)(c) organization, founded in 2006. Our mission is to protect the ecosystems of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • SMALL FARM AT THE BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...
  • FOREST STEWARDSHIP PROJECT DIRECTOR
    Become a force for nature and a healthy planet by joining the Arizona Chapter as Forest Stewardship Project Director. You will play a key role...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ranchers Stewardship Alliance is accepting applications for an Executive Director. This position will provide leadership to RSA, develop a fund raising plan, and effectively communicate...
  • WRITING PLACE: THE ANIMAS RIVER REGION WRITING WORKSHOP
    REGISTER ONLINE BY: Friday, June 15 WHERE: Durango, CO (location TBD) WHEN: Monday, July 16 Youth workshop: 10 a.m. - 12 p.m. (18 and under,...
  • EQUITY IN THE OUTDOORS COORDINATOR
    The Equity in the Outdoors Coordinator will lead community engagement, program implementation and development, and data collection for the Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement (EVOM). EVOM...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a personable individual who is passionate about conservation to join our Sandpoint Field Office. The Community Engagement Assistant will...
  • LIGHTWEIGHT FLY ROD CASES
    4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • EXPERIENTIAL EDUCATION INTERN/ASSISTANT
    Actively introduce students to Experiential Education, Outdoor Recreation, and Sustainability while engaging and challenging them to learn and participate in these diverse opportunities. Room, board,...
  • ENVIRONMENTAL INVESTIGATIVE MEDIA SERVICES
    In-depth investigations of polluters, lobbyists, regulators, elected officials and others focused on environmentally damaging projects in the U.S. and internationally. We specialize in mining projects,...
  • UNDEVELOPED 40 ACRES - SOUTHWEST COLORADO
    in beautiful Montezuma County.
  • TRUCK DRIVER
    Class A & B drivers, pass all DOT requirements and clean driving record
  • MARIA'S BOOKSHOP FOR SALE
    - Thriving Indie bookstore in the heart of Durango, Colorado. General bookstore with 34-year history as a community hub for Southwest region of CO. 1800...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    HawkWatch International seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our awesome team! This position will provide support in all aspects of the department. We are looking...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    will develop and execute Wild Utah Projects fundraising plan. Call, email or check full description of job online for more details: