The Great Jersey Kiddom Nature Experience

Jumping off the roof... Biking 'till ya barf as a test of physical endurance... Breaking the land-speed record for downhill sledding until being formally introduced to a tree...

These were all things one of my friends and I detailed recently as very real, once entirely logical past-times of Kiddom.

Ah, Kiddom. That time when virtually anything seemed possible, and sharp boundaries of good judgment often took on a somewhat hazy, more Guideline-oriented position in our enthusiastic, still-developing brains.

I suspect the brains of my friend Sarah and I had been stunted due to one of these boundary issues. If not before one particular day, certainly afterward.

Sarah had lived down the street from me for Practically All of My Life. Which was to say, a couple of years.

And at the very end of her housing complex, at the far back of a long winding drive, was the closest most of us New Jersey-born city kids ever came to Nature...

It was a small park by a brook.

Oh, the park wasn't anything to speak of. It had two metal creatures on springs you could bounce on-- at least until the summer sun got too hot, would heat 'em up until transparent waves reached the power lines, and they'd sizzle our shorts-clad thighs like flabby grilled cheese sandwiches.

There was a circular board on a reluctant lazy-susan type apparatus. Where, with enough energy, you could get to speeds of upwards 1/4 mile an hour. We were more likely to pass out of exhaustion from the effort rather than the thrill.

There was a rusty jungle gym, which soon became just a little too low for us to enjoy in any particular Tarzan antics.

And there were a set of swings, which squeaked their plea for oil the moment you looked at 'em.

Sarah and I liked the swings well enough. But we actually preferred the metal safety bars in front of them. They were designed to keep non-swinging spectators a sensible distance back. But we found them ideal for practicing Olympic-style uneven bars routines.

It was just as Sarah was going for the Gold one day, that I noticed the drops of blood on the ground below her. Sarah was one of those kids who got nosebleeds practically on schedule. I was sure there was a paper on her fridge at home that read:
  • Home from school
  • Homework
  • Snack
  • Nosebleed
Well, normally we were at Sarah's house the times her daily Nasal Leeching would begin. But with us out there in the midst of Nature-- a whole 15 minute walk from her house-- well, we weren't about to head home just because of Old Faithful.

No, we decided we would instead find something to sop up the bleeding.

And my, didn't those giant leaves over there by the little brook look handy?

We moved in closer for examination. Or rather, we both moved in-- but Sarah had her head elevated, so I examined. The leaves were beautiful. Great crinkled prehistoric-looking things on long stalks. Something straight out of Land of the Lost. A quick moment of discussion, and we ripped one off and Sarah pressed it to her leaking facial feature. It was working! We had done it! How resourceful we were!

Until we noticed the smell.

We learned later that this beautiful leaf, this fine example of botany was, in fact, Skunk Cabbage. And its stench which-- if we had been truly honest with ourselves, probably smelled no worse than we did as we radiated Olympic sweat and spilled soured Yoo-hoo from lunch-- sent us fleeing into the gently babbling brook.

Sarah began to wash her face, ewwing and shrieking as only a pre-teen girl could. And it was there, in the greenly leaf-dappled light, in the world of waterbugs and mossy rocks and the occasional oily rainbow swirling along the water, it was there we became very thirsty.

And we decided to drink of Nature's Bounty. We'd seen them do just like this on Little House on the Prairie. And Mr. Ingalls would never steer us wrong.

Well, when we arrived back at Sarah's, it didn't take much to determine we'd been up to something. Blood still traced around Sarah's neck. Leafy green stains still smeared her nose and freckled cheeks. Our shoes squelched. Our socks sagged damply around our ankles. Mud dotted our calves.

And in moments, the story unraveled of how yes, Sarah had had another nosebleed but we had completely taken care of it. We were wholly self-sufficient. We mopped up the blood and even enjoyed a nice little drink from the stream.

"Er, which stream?"

"The one by the park."

Here we learned a new word: contaminants. And that our region of Jersey was one of the largest pharmaceutical and chemical producers in the state. And how that particular creek stretched for miles, in and around this amazing mecca of export, until it eventually dumped into the Lackawanna River along the railroad tracks not far from my house.

A phone call brought this little geographic and manufacturing trivia to the attention of my own mother. Who made me promise never to drink from the stream or any other non-faucet water source again.

And I couldn't be sure, but Mom seemed to survey me more closely that evening at dinner.

It wasn't with anger, necessarily. Just this uneasy, furtive evaluation.

In retrospect I think I now know what she was looking for. She was searching for signs of a third eye, the bud of an 11th finger. Or skunk cabbage leaves to sprout from my ears.

This was North Central Jersey Nature, after all. You never could be too sure. Nature, we knew, worked in mysterious ways.

14 comments:

Jaffer said...

"... I noticed the drops of blood on the ground below her ..."

I thought Sarah got her period. Sorry, I couldn't figure out how old you were at the time.

Jenn Thorson said...

Jaffer- Nah, she was just the nosebleed queen of our part of town. We were probably about 8 or 9.

Jaffer said...

Haha ... there was one such fellow in my class back in grade 4.
He was good at soccer and we were sore losers and because we knew he'd bleed, we'd try to kick the ball in his face but after striking him about twice - he was asked not to play anymore due to his 'medical condition'

lfvelez.phd@gmail.com said...

When RJ and I were visiting the gardens at Heligan [Cornwall, UK], we toured a section of gardens meant to look like a hidden valley with a specially constructed stream and marshland, complete with exotic plants. Rhododendrons towered 20 feet in the air on the hillsides, and down in the marshy area, the signage told of this amazing plant, brought all the way from the US, called "the skunk cabbage". People were craning their necks to get a better view of the stuff, and we nearly fell off the walkway giggling....

Jenn Thorson said...

Jaffer- I think every class has that one kid with the nosebleed issue-- boys however deal with it in a slightly different way than girls tend to. :)

Lil- HA! Oh, yes, VERY exotic. And over here, we have some DANDELIONS... ("Oooh! Ahhhhh!") :)

Beer Drinker said...

They just called the one behind our house the "Shit Crick" and that pretty much kept anyone from taking a drink! Gotta love rural PA.

Jenn Thorson said...

Beer Drinker- So if you were out that way and someone asked where you'd been, did you really get a chance to say you were up Shit Crick and mean it? :)

Beer Drinker said...

I don't recall ever getting that opportunity, but that would have been pretty funny.

MikeWJ at Too Many Mornings said...

Oh my, what a funny-sad story this is. Funny because, well, it's funny when kids do dumb stuff like rub skunk leaves on their faces to stop nosebleeds. Sad, because kids can't play outside anymore because everything's too polluted and dangerous. I spent many a happy summer day playing in streams and lakes when I was kid. Now I worry too much about those third eyes they cause.

Chris@Knucklehead! said...

Great story! We had a nosebleed kid in our neighborhood too, his name was Mike. Maybe it's something about New Jersey.

Jenn Thorson said...

Beer Drinker- I kinda just like envisioning that. :)

Mike- Yeah, that sort of worry's been quite a few decades coming. Heh, I wonder if anyone's invented a Virtual Outdoors video game. Something safe where kids can go outside without stranger danger and pollutants. :)

Chris- Since Jaffer above had a nosebleed kid, too, and he's in Canada, I'd say the archetype must span borders.

jay said...

Good grief, I'd have had a blue fit if one of my kids had drunk from a stream in an industrial area!

Tell me, was your mother prematurely grey, by any chance? LOL!

Jenn Thorson said...

Jay- Heh, well, I appreciate the concern, really I do. But my family was of the "ah, you're not that hurt" kind of philosophy on things, under most circumstances. My dad felt doing a few squat thrusts was the cure for most ailments. I ended up walking around with pneumonia for a good while because complaining about ailments was just not really permitted in my family. So, um, no. :)

MikeWJ at Too Many Mornings said...

There's a great book about this subject called "Last Child in the Woods." It argues that today's kids are suffering from "Nature Deficit Disorder." I believe it.