In 1976, when I was eleven years old and my mother a newly remarried divorcée (when that was still a scandalous thing), we moved to a rural county in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Given that my new sixth grade class was in a small school in the heart of Appalachia, and that I had just been fitted with a pair of giant plastic glasses, and that the barest budding of breasts had begun, this move had the potential to be very traumatic.
Fortunately, through an odd twist of fate, we moved to a county one-over from the county in which my father (yes, the recently divorced one) had been born and raised. So, despite being obviously a come-here, I found myself sitting in a classroom with three other kids who shared my last name—in a part of the country where heritage is everything.
My mother and new stepfather—hippies, I now suppose, as I look back—secured free lodging in a recently vandalized house down in a hollow between two mountains. An abandoned caboose sat perched on a stack of railroad ties in the front yard. For the first week we had no running water and only a spider-riddled outhouse in the back yard, quite a shock for a kid from the suburbs of Richmond. The kitchen held an old enameled wood cookstove and a back door that opened out to a rickety woodshed. To reach the house, one traveled down a mile-long, one-lane dirt road that crossed two creeks and passed through an old abandoned arsenic mine that the locals had taken to using as a dumping ground.
Okay, they were hippies, definitely.
Each morning, to get to school, I walked a mile uphill to the bus stop (down in the hollow, we could hear the bus bumping along Lick Ridge Road a good half-hour before it reached the place where the road ended, picked up the rowdy Bain boys, then turned around and headed back to me). Each afternoon I walked a mile (downhill) home, stopping at the dump to search for any interesting new additions—giving wide berth to the dog carcass that seemed always to be there—and drinking deeply from the second sandy streambed.
This move may have been socially limiting, but it was nature-expanding. I went from the girl who cared for two hamsters in a cage in the corner of her bedroom, to the girl who slept in a converted attic, lulled to sleep by the cacophonic trilling of spring peepers and chirping crickets, and woke in the morning to snakeskins wrapped around the rafters, evidence of a mass overhead shedding in the night.
Thus began my real awakening—to a mysterious world that had been there all along but to which I was suddenly privy. And despite the many, drastic changes, this new world didn't scare me. Instead, it felt like home. It made sense to me in a way that the before-world, the rest-of-the-world world, did not, and probably never would again. It was the blossoming of my geekdom, my nature-girl geekdom, and it was glorious.
Eleven is a great age for obsessions. And I threw myself with abandon into this one. I suspect every geek—no matter the ilk—upon finding that first calling experiences the same sudden surge of belonging, the feeling of having found the long-lost family into which one was meant to be born. The passions of the geek awaken, and, for a time at least, they overtake us.
Perhaps this is the truest definition of a geek—one who happily puts on the blinders that shut out the view of everything peripheral, someone who can spend hours at a certain type of task simply because, for those hours, there is nothing else in the world more interesting or engrossing. What non-geeks don't understand is that being a geek is all about love—geeks are the most passionately obsessive people on earth. And they are devoted to the objects of their desire. Sure, I'd had a few brief flings before: the Greek gods, The Sunshine Family dolls, anything macramé, and Cracker Jacks temporary tattoos. But when I met Nature, I knew right away she wasn't like the others. I knew this relationship would last.
The story of this great, blossoming love affair with Nature was as important for the rest of my life as the "coming out story" or "salvation testimony" might be for another. It changed me; it gave me a place where I would forever feel welcome. No matter my transgressions, Nature always took me in.
In our new abode, without television or neighborhood children to keep me occupied, I prowled the grassy areas searching for crickets to feed the spiders that spun their webs in the corners of my porch. I climbed the tallest pine trees I had ever seen, sat in their swaying tops and shared my secrets, caressing the bark and brushing away ants that I suspected were a nuisance to the tree. I took off my shoes, rolled up my pant legs, and waded into the pond, capturing tadpoles whose own legs I watched bud and grow daily as their tails shrank. I learned to recognize the spun-sugar appearance of a praying mantis egg case and kept one over winter until spring delivered me a roomful of tiny mantis nymphs (much to my mother's horror). I searched the underside of milkweed leaves to find the Monarch's minute pearled eggs, then returned every day to watch the caterpillars emerge and feast and grow until each one hung upside down and spun itself into an emerald chrysalis with glittery gold accents. I hoarded my precious birthday cash to buy seeds and bulbs to plant in my hand-tilled, mini-garden, sometimes pollinating the resulting blooms by hand if I felt the bees and butterflies weren't doing an adequate job.
I read field guides for fun and learned to identify birds by appearance, flight pattern, and call. For my birthday I begged to receive National Geographic's giant bird book, complete with a floppy 45-rpm record of common birdcalls tucked into the back sleeve. I memorized the scientific names (terminology being an important aspect of any geek enterprise), migratory range, and the distinguishing marks that keep a Downy Woodpecker from being a Hairy Woodpecker from being a Pileated Woodpecker.
I decided I would be a scientist and practiced rolling the options off my tongue: ornithologist, entomologist, herpetologist, ichthyologist. Which one should I choose?