by: B. Marie Jarreau
Like tendrils, no like ribbons, no like fingers or ladders reaching up through green clouds – the shafts of sunlight that shone down through the leaves begged me to climb up and to see what secrets lay amongst the mitten-shaped foliage in the crown of the Mulberry trees.
I was somewhere between 10 and 13-years-old and this was my favorite space in the entire world. As number two of six children, it was important to me to have a favorite, private, special place filled with secrets. A shy, introverted child - it was sometimes crucial to my mental well being to escape the crowd. The Mulberry Patch was mine, and they all knew it. My older brother didn’t care, at 14 or so he had his own worlds to conquer and my younger siblings obligingly did not disturb me in my little green forest place.
Secrets Through the Windows
It was mine and it was magical! Well, it was ‘sort of’ mine. The thick green expanse of berry-filled trees, vines, natural treasures and mysterious creatures were actually on the next-door neighbor’s side of a wooden slab fence that ran the length of the two properties – but the mulberry trees at the very back of their yard, refused to be contained inside the man-made boundary and spilled over the top of the five-foot tall fence over to our side of the fence. There were open spaces in the boards of the fence and lovely rounded knot-holes that served me as inconspicuous windows to the natural secrets of the woodland.
My four-foot wide domain was marked by the wooden fence on one side, the solid side of a cinder-block storage house, about four-feet distant, on the opposite side. Another higher, thicker, wooden fence behind it all marked the rear wall. A concrete sidewalk that surrounded the building provided a solid, dry floor on which I could sit and contemplate the world of my little corner forest. Unless the rain fell heavy, I was protected in my special place even from the warm summer showers by the thick canopy of leaves draping from the trees completely over the sidewalk area and onto the building’s roof. I loved being there in the rain. The sound of raindrops filtering gently down through the leaves, against the fence or the roof of the building was my own private symphony.
The environment that surrounded me was, in my own mind, like a friend or like a teacher with the secrets it offered up, or like a comforter when I was depressed about one silly thing or another. Situated at the back of our own yard, some 50 yards or more from the house, I could go there and feel completely on my own; I treasured those times.
A good deal of my love of being outdoors, of learning, and of the natural world was fostered and nurtured by that little postage stamp space of a natural setting.
See, Hear, Feel, Smell, Taste
There was so very much to see and feel and hear and smell and taste within that exotic space: where the sidewalk ended a richly organic area of soil separated the concrete from the wooden fence. Layer-upon-layer of seasons-and-seasons of fallen leaves, bits of branches and berries and bug body parts had been deposited beneath the mulberry canopy for years.
Lying belly-down on the cool shaded concrete sidewalk in the summer heat, I would spend great expanses of time rummaging through the moldy leaves and debris with a stick or other piece of hand-size dried branch. Carefully, I overturned the bits of leaves and other organic ‘fluff and duff’ watching for anything that moved. The top layer of the ground was littered with leaves and bits of leaves in various earth-tone shades; green, yellow, brown, gray, wet-black; depending on the degree of decomposition that had taken place. Peering deep into the decomposing material there - my nose usually only inches away to focus as close as I could for ‘crawlies’ - I took in the earthy aroma of rich healthy organic soil. I still love that smell.
Some days brought me luck in finding little pearls hidden beneath the moist, smelly material. Less than half an inch in diameter the little off-white colored orbs actually bounced as some were (first: accidentally) dropped onto the concrete walkway. I learned from my frequent visits to the local library that they were probably snail or salamander eggs and larger ones - snake’s eggs. That was intriguing, I had seen small snakes around our yard and garden; and snails - with their little spiraled backpacks - hurrying along in slow motion, but I had never seen a salamander! With the very idea that
salamanders might inhabit my little woodland patch I spent many hours silently, immobile watching carefully, waiting to see a salamander. I did eventually get to spot what looked like a yellow-spotted brown salamander. The fleeting glimpse was enough for me. I was not quite up to handling ‘slimies.’
The woodland floor could be noisy with insects and birds also digging through the duff for a tidbit to eat. I could sit for hours just watching, listening and focusing on the colors and the slightest movement, but sooner or later my attention would be drawn to another angle. Dark gray, oval segmented pill bugs were everywhere. They could cover a dead bird or a piece of rotting fruit like an army of mini-armadillos. My younger sister, Sheila, called them “roly-polys.” There were occasions when she and I would spend time rolling them back and forth between us in imitation of the boys’ game of playing marbles. Colorful spiders, beetles, slimy-shelless-slugs, green-jeweled or fuzzy brown caterpillars, folded green or brown tree-frogs with golden eyes were all among the treasures that fascinated me as I focused on the floor of my private forest.
The Great Lizard Escape
Even the old wooden fence could be crawling with life, especially lizards! They were truly my favorites. At any given moment a jade green anole lizard would brazenly stand on top of the wooden fence and with piercing beady-black eyes stretch upward on his front legs and dare me to come closer! Sometimes, besting his threat, I’d slowly reach behind him and grab his tail to dangle him high overhead. Usually, he’d simply and magically drop himself away and leave me standing their holding onto a wiggling piece of lizard tail! There was just something really ‘gross’ about holding a living, squirming, lizard tail between my fingers without a lizard attached to it!
It was quickly added to the composting duff.
From time to time on a summer’s afternoon, I could hear in a distance my brothers arguing over the proper size of folded, rolled-up newspaper-baseballs before they’d begin their afternoon game, but this was only background noise to the natural chorus overhead in the mulberry canopy. I could hear more clearly the “n`ack - n`ack” call of bright, blue jays. Sometimes just a fleeting glimpse of a blue and black streak amongst the green leaves was all I saw, but I knew it was a jay. Hefty, raucous birds their big wings rustled the leaves, loudly - but they didn’t care. They considered the trees their own domain
The ‘poof’ of bright red color against the jungle green was more usually seen in fall and I loved the beautiful crimson colored Cardinal birds. Robins and sparrows and an occasional wren, her tail stuck up in the air, and sweet singing warblers were all part of the chorus performing in the woodland stage. Sometimes a really unusual streak of orange would dart through the tree tops. I would learn later that this might be a Baltimore Oriole on annual migration to the Yucatan. The Yucatan, a far off place to which I was also destined to visit in years to come, had not yet crossed my area of knowledge.
Rare Winged WarriorsAnother rare sighting in the New Orleans area in those days, and I didn’t see them often, were hummingbirds! When one of these little winged warriors happened into my mini-forest I could barely contain my excitement.
I remember the first of few sightings - first I heard the high speed buzzzzz. Initially, I was annoyed thinking one of my brothers had thrown a rock at my head. Then I saw the tiny flying bird, just a bit larger than a cicada.
The hummingbird, green-iridescence in the air, darted by with its wings moving about a million-miles a minute! I really wanted to call out to the boys and my sister so they could see it, but knew that my call or their loud and boisterous approach would only scare the bird away, or the boys would climb all over my woodland paradise bent on capture. In my quiet contained excitement, I simply enjoyed the sight and sound as the hummingbird visited several tall yellow wildflowers standing in the sunlight just outside the shade of the trees.
The cicadas were another species of fascinating creatures, whose ear-piercing screeches could be heard in the top of the trees. Their one or two-inch long clear, hardened, discarded larval jackets left clutching onto the trunks of the mulberry trees could, in some years, be very numerous.
Slithering Snakes Not Slimey!
Along with crawlies, climbers, scratchers, flyers and even occasionally some nasty ‘stingers’ in the form of wasps, mosquitoes, horse-flies and fire-biting red-ants there were also slithering snakes in my neighborhood jungle.
Though ours was a neighborhood of single family homes in the midst of the city we still were not that far from waterways and small bayous. That moisture supported lots of life forms throughout the area. Green garter snakes, striped garter snakes and what I think was an occasional mud snake – almost black on top with reddish splotches on sides and belly – could occasionally be seen sliding along a branch, under a log or even along the fence. I’ve always had a healthy respect for snakes and enjoy seeing their vibrant colors. They have reason for existing just as birds do, they are part of the scheme of things though we may not understand nature’s blueprint.
I was intrigued however, when I finally gathered up enough daring to identify and capture a harmless green garter snake with my bare hands. I had spent a good bit of time watching them and I just had to know what their skin felt like! I had come to understand that snakes were ‘slimy.’ The fascination came as I was prepared for the feel of slime but instead felt a sensation from the skin of the snake - of tiny solid shiny scales. The movement of the scales as the snake used them for locomotion tickled my sensitive young hands so that I finally dropped the little guy to the ground. I could now understand how they moved with such speed. He was gone before I could focus on where he/or she might have landed!
World Travels from the Mulberry Patch
There were times when I sat, perched on a fallen log beneath the tree canopy, not quite in tune to the sights and sounds of my private jungle but rather focused a million miles away. Aside from being my personal place of refuge, the Mulberry Patch was also my very favorite place to read and study. Sometimes I was in the real Brazilian rainforest, or deep in the Pacific Ocean diving in the Mariana Trench studying rare sea creatures, or I might be traveling through Tibet. Sometimes from the comfort of my private woodland place I followed Marco Polo across Asia and into the darkest unknown reaches of China.
I first devoured a copy of a National Geographic magazine beneath the mulberry canopy, reading until my mother finally urged me to quite trying to read in the darkening, evening light.
That mulberry patch - I’m sure - is long gone by now, wiped clean of its historic inhabitants by Katrina some years ago if not ‘developed’ before that, but it will always remain in my mind as my first “window to the world.”
I have since maintained the same curiosity as I had then - maybe not with the same drive but - a little like Marco Polo, “to know about all the things that are in the world."