Notebook of Secrets

I started collecting secrets when I was just six years old. At the time I had no idea that these sparkling treasures in my possession—under my bed, hidden in boxes of various sizes in the back of my small closet and in the pages of my field journals—would ever amount to anything other than what they seemed to me: sweet curiosities.

From the beginning, when I came across something interesting, I studied it from every angle using my field kit, complete with hand lens, tweezers, metal dissecting probe, cotton gauze and collection boxes for specimens. The field kit accompanied me wherever I went, wherever I roamed over the grassy hills of my father’s farm in rural Oregon. Many examples of scat are recorded in that early field journal, as are the sightings of birds from every season, the level of the small creek that runs through the corner of the east field, and the growing quantity and general health of the mint (a perfect blend of both peppermint and spearmint) which my grandmother planted there when she scam across the sea from the Black Forest in Germany. Feathers, leaves and even an occasional insect are crudely taped in the first pages but as my 6th year unfolded, I became more resourceful with language and began labeling and recording with the precision of the old botany texts I found in the attic of the farmhouse.

I called these field journals my “notebooks of secrets” and the name survived the years. Imagining I was a sleuth collecting clues, I filled my note books of secrets with any facts or details I could uncover.

By the time I was ten, my family knew the habits of their resident collector, encouraging all my ramblings even while I knew the work to be done on the farm sometimes overwhelmed my parents. They asked me to help with certain chores, and I willingly finished them, telling myself I'd be back to collecting secrets the following day. Sometimes my parents would sit me down at the table, cleared of dinner and dishes and ask me if I wouldn't rather walk down to the neighbor's house to talk with a girl my own age. I know they began to wonder what I would make of my life.

Since my field journals contained the seasonal levels of the creek and a wealth of information more local and much more precise than what the Farmer's Almanac could provide, my father often consulted me before he planted or harvested anything. The curves of the creek and the rise of the hills nearby directed my wanderings; before long, my eyes remained glued to my field journal, or the ground beneath my feet. I became a student of the earth and water below me, more so than a student of the sky. With ragged rips in the knees of my work pants, palms infused with dirt and the open smell of the earth, water and sky following me, I returned home to a patient family who always asked, with interest, about my findings that day. I delighted in the retelling.

On April 5th of my 16th year I collected what was to become the most important secret of my life. Field journals lined my bookshelf--organized by year--and that morning I quickly picked my current journal from the right half of the third shelf. This notebook of secrets was already jam-packed and in danger of losing a few pages which were peaking out from its spine. Spring in Oregon (a time of mysterious weather) often required knee boots and a raincoat; that day was no exception and I insured my comfort with a wool sweater and wool socks as my under layer. Off I rambled as if it was any other day, my well-worn path ahead of my and my eyes to the ground.

As I made my slow way down along the creek, I realized this was the first really rainy day we'd had in quite a few weeks. Clouds--we'd had aplenty. April in the Willamette Valley is known for its cloud cover and over the years I'd documented 15 different ways to describe clouds as they moved through the skies during all seasons, but today was a downpour of big, round drops of rain and I was glad to be wearing wool. I noted the rise of the creek in my field journal with diligence.

The section of the creek I retrieved this information from was at the first wide bend through the pasture and as I recorded my notes I noticed that the bank of the creek was muddy and slick; as I walked to my measuring spot, the bank actually slid down into the river. Glad it wasn't me sliding into the chilly water, I hoofed my way back up to the top of the bank and continued on up the creek, passing two soggy steers who didn't seem to mind the rain, focused instead on tearing tufts of grass and looking thoughtfully eastward. Unlike sheep, who tend to become weighed down and tip over with too much water in their woolly coats, cattle could be trusted in a heavy rain; I knew they would find their way back to the barn eventually, but I noted their presence in my journal just the same.

After finding myself back on semi-solid ground, with small tufts of sprouting grass to aid my footing, I continued my slow way farther along the creek. The clouds and rain seemed to create more of a darkness which was enhanced by the trees in the outskirts of the little forest that completely covered the creek farther along. As I stepped carefully I hummed a little: "Pretty Saro" was a tune that matched the tone of the day. "Down in some lone valley, in a lonesome place, where the wild birds to whistle and their notes do increase. . . "

In fact, the increasing bird song was noticeable the closer I drew into the forest proper. The birdsong began to demand my attention--blue jays were the most outspoken but there were also the red winged blackbirds near the grassy edges of the creek. These sighting were logged into my field journal and I walked carefully onward. As was my custom, I soon came to my resting rock--large and smooth--overhung with the oak trees and their leafing branches. It was here, on this rock chair, that I recounted the animals I had sighted on my trek so far. I sat silent so as to find how many more I might be lucky enough to see, even through the rain (for again the cloud cover in combination with the cover of the trees, a vibrant green filter, caused the natural light to seem more like dusk than day).

I looked out from my hood, spying nutria working along the edge of the creek, and crawdad in the creek, both clumsy and awkward in their movements. I scribbled about them in my journal. The quiet surrounded me once more.

And like a breath of pure oxygen, the gris from the bubbling creek and the rain drops glancing off, gently struck my cheek; I realized that this was my most surprising, most important secret of all: This life of mine was for me; the happiness and joy I felt on a daily basis were with me because I enjoyed what I was doing with my time. I could continue to live a life of observation of the natural world if I chose to.

Up until this spring day, my 16th birthday, I hadn't realized that the wild world of my father's farm brought so much joy. Being outdoors with things wild and growing made my heart sing loudest. The secret: I could choose this life for myself and I would be completely happy. My family would revel in my happiness.

I nearly ran home, this new secret tucked in my field notebook like a book mark. From that day forward, it marked the beginning of my real life. Everything that came before that day was my internship.

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