In my earliest memory I am sitting on the tiny seat of a toy firetruck, feeling the joy of a fine toy. Out an open door, I see yellow sand. The waves aren’t visible in my recollection, but with some imagination, I can hear them.
The house was a rental near Malibu. My father worked at RAND Corporation while the University of Minnesota went on summer break. He’d come to love Los Angeles during the war, when he was sent to boot camp at Fort Ord. The sun and sand attracted him, of course, but so did the sex parties.
It was paradise for my dad but hell for my mom. She loved him enough to give the parties a try, but after she suffered a sexual assault in the midst of ‘free’ love, her depression worsened. My sister told me about the assault much later, but my memory of the firetruck might be a marker of it. Despite the exciting toy, that little boy felt lonely and sad.
When we returned to Minneapolis, I skipped through a lawn gone to seed, its grass as high as my thighs! But someone had thrown a rock through the picture window, and I picked up on my parents’ dismay. This was the beginning of a pattern that lasted decades: sparks of ecstasy against a backdrop of sorrow.
In my forties, psychiatrists gave this pattern a name: Bipolar Disorder.
Early in my life, ecstasy often came through biology, though I didn’t call it that yet. When I was eight, we settled in a coastal town between UCLA and Malibu. Our house enjoyed a panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean, Santa Monica, and—on a clear day—the mountains ringing LA. The beach was an easy bike ride away, though pedaling back meant an uphill slog. I spent many afternoons in the sage-scented coastal mountains, and I often felt high in them. And this was before I found the relief of pot smoking.
During the summers, I’d live a month with my grandparents on their Indiana farm. Usually, I was the only kid around. I’d go on solo walks in the woods beyond the fields, trailed by clouds of mosquitoes. I’d swim in the small pond and sunbathe on its shore, hearing the occasional ‘plop’ of small fish. For kicks, I’d run naked through rows of corn stalks that rose above my head. The days weren’t exciting, but I felt safe. When outdoors, I’d sometimes break out laughing for no reason I could name.
At camp, it was the nature program that wowed me. The greenhouse seemed like its own ecosystem, alive with green leaves, black soil, and terraria housing turtles and toads. The earthy aroma intoxicated me. Once we rode a few miles in the back of a truck, then watched as a tractor pushed a dead horse into a ditch and piled dirt on top of it. The counselor who led the class must have thought the bloating, stinking carcass would teach us something about nature. If he wanted to give us a visceral understanding of death and rot, he succeeded. Few of our lessons were that unsettling. Most days he’d lead us on nature walks. As we tromped the shores of a nearby lake, startled bullfrogs leapt toward the water, long legs trailing. He’d caution us to walk wide circles around the copperheads undulating in the shallows, but I wanted to get close, to see them better. I was loving Life’s mix of horror and delight.
Once my grandfather took me to a place that sold chickens. The birds lived in a pen in a small warehouse, and I was told to pick one out. A worker carried my selection out of view. I heard a loud thump followed by a manic rustling sound. Then came the roar of machinery. For the first time, I took stock of a long steel box that ran along the back wall. The worker returned and fed the dead chicken into one end of it. A tubular vent blasted feathers out a window, where they settled atop a pile of down. Soon, a plucked carcass emerged from the far end, on a conveyer belt.
Later that day, Grandpa opened the carcass with a gleaming knife. He pulled out multicolored guts and held up a slimy tube for me to examine. At one end was a fully formed egg, but at the other were mere hints of eggs, no bigger than peas. I marveled at the silent parade of life coming into being, my first biology lesson.
In LA, my elementary school had a ‘gifted’ program that taught us about nature. One day the teacher cracked an egg into a shallow bowl. Floating on the surface of the yolk was a fan of blood vessels and a coiled embryo with a tiny beating heart. I don’t remember much from my elementary school classes, but the memory of that embryo is vivid. Back then, I did not feel sad for the doomed life form, but now I do. It must have ended up in a trash can, or a toilet.
Such experiences helped me grow infatuated with nature, with all its rot, predation, copulation, and growth.
I loved the outdoors, too, but without the Boy Scouts, I’d have had trouble learning the skills needed to camp in it. My father liked to trundle his jeep over rough fire roads above the coastline, but he rarely took me with him and wasn’t much of a camper. My grandfather taught me about farming, but he’d given up camping when he quit hunting after retirement. No, it was the Boy Scouts of America that taught me how to live outdoors.
Because I entered so much younger than the boys around me, my first couple of years with the Scouts might have caused me to dislike camping. For the first few trips, I felt excluded at best and bullied at worst. Then luck rescued me.
Our troop was camped on an avocado farm owned by a fellow scout’s family, in the desert east of LA. Aside from the lush, irrigated trees, the land looked bleak, the vegetation scraggly and sparse. While other kids ran up and down the orchard rows, I hung back, too small, ignored, and shy to join them. Some of the boys took turns driving a tractor. I watched from a distance.
Then the gun appeared. The landowner stuck empty bottles into dry silt on the far bank of a wide wash. He handed a .22 rifle to the older kids and showed them how to chamber a round, sight, and shoot. Sitting off to the side, I watched them raise puffs of dust at random spots, missing nearly every time. These boys were surfers, not hunters.
Shyly, I asked to shoot the thing. The adults looked skeptical. Maybe I should wait a couple of years before handling a gun. But they let me try.
I’d been shooting rifles at camp for years. I’d even earned certificates for marksmanship. Sitting on the bank opposite the targets, I steadied the bolt-action .22 with my elbow against my knee. I lined the bead up with a point a little above an airplane-style vodka bottle, hoping to compensate for distance. I shattered the vodka bottle on my first try. The boys whooped wildly, proud that one of us had scored a great shot. For the first time, I was part of the tribe.
My marksmanship was good enough, but the bottle was small and the distance long. I surprised myself when I hit it. The fact I did feels like a grace. It made those early years with the Scouts much more fun, and our monthly camping trips became highlights of my school year.
A lucky pull of the trigger helped me enjoy camping, which set me up for my John Muir Trail trek. And without that, I might never have gone to college, much less found my way to Mindful Biology.