Photo credit: Tasha Thomas
I grew up in a house in the woods in the middle of North Carolina. My mother is a biologist, and she taught my older sister, Dana, and me the name of every plant and animal on the property, which we informally named Poison Ivy Acres. Our father also has a deep love for the natural world, seems happiest outdoors, and can identify any tree in the region. I quickly learned the power of naming things, and the power of identification. Though the poison ivy in the forest where we played posed a real threat, I knew what to watch out for: those shiny, jagged leaves of three. I knew to eat the blackberries and to leave the holly berries alone. An ornithologist, my mother can identify just about any bird in the United States by its call or field marks. Once I knew a bird’s name and its physical characteristics, or even its song, I not only noticed the bird more often — I saw it more clearly. When I learned which bird sang a three-note song that sounded like “drink-your-TEA” and saw the trill pouring from its beak, the birds I observed on the ground were no longer small, dark, nondescript things, but beautiful towhees, with orange sides and amber eyes.
More details became clearer the more I learned. A starling is like a grackle, but with a yellow bill. A sycamore tree has white bark, fat leaves, and round seed heads that look like sweetgum balls from afar. A sweetgum has darker bark, star-shaped leaves, and spiky seed heads. A red-headed woodpecker is crimson from crown to neck, as if wearing a red ski mask. A red-bellied woodpecker has just a little red on the top of its head and no red on its belly at all. My sister and I always thought it should be called a “red-capped
Dana and I loved to name things ourselves, especially by the creek where we played every day the weather was good. The rock that jutted into the water and was comfortable to sit on was The Boat Rock, and the rusty, crumpled metal pipe we liked to bang on was The Piano. Other names like The Big Rock, The Beach, and Crayfish Rock (where my sister once saw a crayfish) were even less creative, but at ages five and seven, we were aiming for utility. The names served their purpose: they helped us map our kingdom. They made it ours.
Our parents raised us to be courageous, but they also raised us to look out for each other, and the latter certainly saved us from the more reckless aspects of the former.
There were foxes, coyotes, and black bears in those woods, but as we laughed, called to each other, and crunched through leaves, we never saw them. Within our realm, stretching from The Boat Rock to The Big Rock, we were afraid of nothing, though sometimes we waded far upstream, through other people’s land. As long as we stayed in the black tea waters of the creek, our creek, we thought we had every right to go where we pleased. Even the trash we waded through was magical. I remember the first airplane bottle I found on the creek bank. I later learned it once contained a few ounces of vodka, but back then I thought the tiny, clear-glass bottle with its elegant neck was beautiful — the perfect container for a love potion. I put the bottle in my pocket, and you can imagine the look on my parents’ faces later that day, when I gleefully showed them my prize.
Even objects I recognized, discovered in the woods, held new meaning. One afternoon Dana and I were playing in the creek near our neighbor’s blue log cabin, and we saw something shiny glinting from the rocky cliffs above us. These “cliffs” were probably just 20 feet high, but erosion had made them slippery and dangerous. We climbed up and found three stainless steel forks half-buried in the dirt between two rocks. You’d have thought we’d found three jewels. My sister was so excited she lost her footing, and I remember her hanging off the side of the cliff, holding onto the edge by her fingertips like a scene from a movie. I pulled her up, and we walked home with just a couple scratches. We named the experience “The Day We Found the Silver.”
Another afternoon in the woods, we were playing by a high sewage pipe that stretched across a little valley. It was almost a foot in diameter, so we decided we could walk across it and make our trip back to the house much faster. Halfway across, I slipped and fell on my back to the briared ground below — about a 10-foot drop. The wind knocked out of me, I could hardly breathe. Dana scrambled down, made sure I wasn’t dead, and ran to get our parents. In the end, I was fine, just shaken. She got help so quickly I hardly had time to worry.
Our behavior was so risky at times, it’s a wonder we never got severely injured in the woods. Our parents raised us to be courageous, but they also raised us to look out for each other, and the latter certainly saved us from the more reckless aspects of the former. As we grew older, our upbringing led to different paths, but they’re both inextricably tied to language and the natural world. My sister has followed in our mother’s footsteps, and she is now a professor of biology, conducting research and publishing articles about birdsong. I am a nature poet, and after working on the manuscript for 10 years, my first book, Big Windows
, was published earlier this year by Carnegie Mellon University Press. I first fell in love with poetry, and later decided to make a lifelong commitment to it, because the simultaneous clarity and mystery that I feel when writing a poem is the closest thing I’ve found to the magic of playing in the woods as a child.
Landing a tenure-track job and publishing a book were respective dreams of Dana’s and mine since we were teenagers. It takes courage to write and publish work — to believe that one has something worthwhile to say in the noise of the world, and to say it, and to work for years to say it best, even when hardly anyone, relatively speaking, is listening. It also takes courage to go after what one most deeply desires: to name oneself “biologist” or “poet” and believe it. But Dana and I were always going to be what we became. We learned identification in the woods where we grew up, and that’s also where our identities took shape. And as sisters, we will always look out for each other.
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is the author of the poetry collection Big Windows
. Her poems have appeared in the anthologies Best New Poets
and Women Write Resistance
and in such magazines as FIELD, Narrative, Copper Nickel, West Branch Wired
, and Pleiades
. She holds an MFA in Poetry from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Moseley has been a fellow at Yaddo and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and a recipient of an artist’s grant from the Money for Women/Barbara Deming Memorial Fund. She is the marketing manager at Algonquin Books in Chapel Hill and lives in Durham, North Carolina. Visit her online at laurenjmoseley.com.