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Column: The world was small, but big to us

MARQUETTE — “It’s a million miles to the city from the hills and valleys we know; it’s a million miles to the city and someday we all want to go,” – Tom T. Hall

When I was a little kid, the world we knew was small, but it was big to us.

We seemed to have everything around us that we needed.

We had a big sandbox in the backyard to play in with our miniature mine trucks, Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars. We would watch the big steam shovel at work across the street, through the chain-link fencing of the old iron ore mine.

We’d try to create our own earthworks, made from sugar sand and that rusty-red dirt. We would dig with spoons and the small, garden hand shovels or claws.

We could also see the trains coming into town, real close-up. Our backyard had a big maple tree growing over it from across the neighbor’s fence.

My mom cultivated a garden of exotic flowers and garden-variety vegetables. Eating a fresh green bean, carrot or peas picked from the pod was incredible. I still feel as though I can taste the dirt and the growing in every bite.

I remember looking at Christmas catalogs. Those heavy tomes, a couple inches thick, packed tight with a cornucopia of delights. Of course, we skipped over the practical stuff, like clothes and shoes. It was something we kids waited for every year, all year long.

I remember seeing a swing set in one of those catalogs that my parents were planning to buy. Eventually, there it was in my own backyard. It had a slide, two swings and a glider that swung back and forth. It could hold four of us kids. We used to call it “the chariot” named after the rover from the “Lost in Space” television show.

When we got a little older, we used to play football between the two clothesline poles in the yard. Kicking a ball over the top of either pole was good for a field goal or an extra point.

In a similar set-up, a home run in whiffle ball was any time the ball would hit the roof over the back part of the house, above the metal flashing at the edge. In those days, I was a collector of football and baseball cards and bubble gum.

Along the three edges of the yard that bordered other properties, two had bushes and one had a small height of wooden picket fencing.

The bushes consisted of purple and white lilacs that bloomed in the spring and various berry bushes the birds would eat, but we were sworn away from. Two of the berries seemed to be of the same variety, just different colors – cherry red and Florida orange. I don’t think they were native.

There were also plump, white berries that were about four or five times the size of the other berries. A few chokecherry trees also grew along that fenced side of the yard, along with my mom’s flowering snowball bush.

This was all in addition to the incredibly wide world that lay “out there” in the woods or in the town. Wild animals and plants to see along rivers, creeks and lakes, up hills and mountains or down in the wet and swampy valleys.

I read about feeding birds and my parents bought a hopper-type bird feeder for the backyard. We hung butcher suet in an old, mesh onion bag. With the help of a beautiful winter flock of evening grosbeaks, this would be the beginnings of my enjoyment of wild birds.

I never spent time trying to learn birds of the western U.S. because I never figured I would ever go there for visiting or fun, let alone to live. Why would I go anywhere? This was our home.

Eventually, though it took a good many years, I began to wonder about the big cities and even the larger towns that seemed so out of my range and off my radar.

Tom T. Hall wrote a song about this kind of thing once. He said kids in his town wondered how far it was to the city. One girl said it must be a million miles and “the word got around.”

The song says, “It’s a million miles to the city from the hills and the valleys we know. It’s a million miles to the city and someday we all want to go.”

Hall said he and his childhood compatriots were told the cities could only bring them harm. This reminded me of the cautionary Aesop’s fable about the country mouse and the city mouse.

If you’re not familiar, the two mice were relatives. The city mouse traveled to the country to visit the other mouse but didn’t like the table fare available. He convinced his country cousin things were much better in the town. After a night of dreaming about what it must be like, the country mouse agreed to travel to the city.

There the two mice dined in a fancy home on a wealth of food leftover by humans after a luxurious dinner. But the two mice had to flee from a house cat, servants cleaning the table and a house dog, leading the country mouse to conclude she was better off back home.

“The Country Mouse stopped in the Town Mouse’s den only long enough to pick up her carpet bag and umbrella,” the story reads.

“You may have luxuries and dainties that I have not,” she said as she hurried away, “but I prefer my plain food and simple life in the country with the peace and security that go with it.”

In Hall’s song, the story unfolds in a similar fashion.

The kids there had heard of a town, but a city, “that’s something else.”

“The buildings are taller than oak trees, ah but we knew better than that.

Ain’t nobody could climb that high, the cities were wide and flat.”

The song then says that after time passed, he and his cohorts had all grown up and traveled wide and far. Like the country mouse, they realized something about their journey.

“The cities have changed the kids we were, we see it in each other’s eyes.”

Hall closes the song longing for those old days of kiddom.

“Lord, I’d love to go back to those hills again to the boy I used to be, where the leaves and the wind and the whip-poor-wills were part of the land like me.”

I’m coming to realize more and more than I’m a country mouse too, that’s been to the town and lived in the big cities – more than one – and I missed the smell of these north woods, especially at this time of year.

I especially missed all four of the seasons, the bracken ferns, the wild blueberries and blackberries, the songs of the hermit thrushes and the white-throated sparrows and the loons on the lakes.

I also missed my little hometown, with its concrete sidewalks I knew by heart as a bike-riding kid, it’s dilapidated, century-old, mining houses and its downtown once home to beautiful department and discount stores and small specialty shops.

Lots of the things I knew as a kid are no longer here, even the mine has shut down.

But there is something in the air that I can almost feel and taste that I can’t truly understand or explain. Let’s just call it a knowing, a getting down in my blood growing up here of the woods and the waters and the dark, nighttime skies.

My love and wonder for this place have never left me.

Deep inside, I am still a kid waiting to hear the noon whistle blow from the flooring mill or the Soo Line train pulling into town. So much has been shaken, changed, stirred up and moved around.

But the golden rod, the grasshoppers that used to jump, buzz and fly along the railroad tracks, the lake and the old creek where we used to fish have remained.

It is here with all these things that I reside.

I’m just a country mouse content with my dinner of wheat stalks, roots and acorns, with a dash of cold water for drink.

— — —

Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula.

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