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"just look for the cow mailbox"

sara.gladwin's picture

           I grew up on a main road, in a ranch house made out of red brick. The size of the house becomes even smaller when viewed within the expansive frame of green grass and long driveway; qualities that remain out of character with perceptions of suburban aesthetic. When we tell others how to navigate to our house, we say, “look for the cow mailbox at the end of the drive way, and you’ll know you’re there.” I once counted every cow I saw in the house, coming up with the number seventy-two. Standing in our living room is where you can really sense the pervasiveness of this bovine theme. At first glance, you will see our salt and peppershakers shaped like cows, the various figurines, several plates, two butter containers with cow shaped covers, one cow shaped gravy bowl; all neatly arranged behind the glass cabinet or on the shelves built into the opposite wall. During your second glance around the room, you will most likely begin to see past the army of miniature livestock. Your eyes will probably settle next on the large painting of a rural farm scene, framed between two shelves. There is a donkey at the forefront of the landscape, painted on a spacious pasture between a fence and a red farmhouse in the distance. Turning now to the living room window, on the wall between the glass cabinet and the shelving, we encounter the backyard. It does not resemble the neat, rural farm scene, but rather, a graveyard of unfinished gardening projects. Despite being enclosed by a tall, wooden fence, I can see over into the neighborhood behind us. Each house mirrors the one before it, and is surrounded by small, clipped bushes. Comparatively, the neighborhood landscaping is unadventurous. It isn’t long before you are drawn back by the orange honey suckle which drapes over the fence, the hostas encircling the base of two large tree trunks, and the marigolds lining the pathway leading to a small outdoor patio. It is unfinished, but always evolving. I forget how old I was when I first learned that the painting hanging in our living room was copied from real life; it was almost exactly what you would have seen years ago, looking out that same living room window. I grew up on what is left of my great-grandfather’s farm, in the only building that survived the ever-growing tidal wave of suburban neighborhoods. However, amongst the changing environment, there are still monuments to an agricultural past. Just to the right of the backyard entrance, there is a large black bell mounted on a pole and nestled into the thick green around it. Today we rarely hear the bell ring, and I can’t quite recall the sound itself, only the memory in which I became aware of the bell’s presence. I remember shooting up from the ground, lifted by my father, so I could ring the bell for the first time. It was a sound that travelled far, and it was then that I learned that the bell was used to call in anyone working in the fields for lunch. Now we do not ring the bell, because there are no fields to work in, and no workers to call in for lunch. The bell functions only as a tangible piece of history; something we can all point to if we happen to be in desperate need of small talk. Still, I carried a sense of pride in this history; a spine-straighten pride that became grander at the mere sight of the long, wooden cylindrical-shape leading up to the now soundless bell.

              I grew up being told that my personal ancestry was important; without ever really having a complete understanding of what made it so valuable. In the third grade, I could proudly include in my ancestry project that my family’s place here in the township predated the creation of the town itself, but when asked to elaborate on the meaning of this statement, I had no answer. I am still not sure of the answer to this question.

These are the things that make up the framework of my identity as child. As layers of experience build up, it easy to forget my beginning, constructed on the back of a small, black and white figurine with slender, shaky legs. Forgetting is easier, especially when my beginnings echo a past that I will never truly know; reflect the influence of farm life when it is romanticized and turned into a decoration for your home. Despite not consciously and daily reflecting on these roots, I believe I have been instilled with a strong sense of feeling invoked from the collective memory that a place or object can hold. I do not fully understand what the bell means within its original context, but can put my hand on the thick post holding it up and know that I am connected to something larger. I learned early on that places, and even ‘inanimate’ objects, could keep historical memory alive. I can stand in my backyard and be transported; I can know deeply how much my existence and formation of my identity began long before even my parents were born.

I am doing this 360 because having a love and desire to protect the environment is not something that comes innately to me, or was taught to me by any measure. However, my strong value in the connective potential that place can hold draws me in to these conversations, allows me to explore the ways in which place becomes infused with memory, and memory allows the present reality to reach into the past. These questions of place give me an entry point into the environmental issues that I have more difficulty engaging with; they show me how important it is develop a sense of place that goes beyond what you physically see in the present light. It is means of not only breaking down the separation between one’s self and one’s environment, but a means of becoming more connected to a community of people.


jccohen's picture

bovine themes and connective potential


I love the line, “The bell functions only as a tangible piece of history; something we can all point to if we happen to be in desperate need of small talk”; for me, this carries the visceral, visual, and also ambiguous sense of this house, a farm and not a farm, a piece of history and also a recently past and still-present context of your life.  The bell itself has a strong materiality, evoked by both your sensory recall of pulling it for the first time and your current experience of that ‘thick post.’  Connection happens via time and ‘inanimate objects,’ identity as some kind of outgrowth of ‘historical memory.’  This makes me think of Cobb’s references to the growth of the individual child as a sort of reiteration of evolution in the larger/whole world.  And it’s quite a beautiful and mysterious evocation of how the movement of time is implicated in this notion of connection (or Daloz’s word, ‘interdependence’). 

You note that ‘a love and desire to protect the environment is not something that comes innately to me, or was taught to me by any measure,’ and I want to say that this is an important, actually a key (dis)orientation from which to approach what it might mean to do “environmental education” in a way that attends to imagination and community in ways we are looking to discover…