Maura Kelly | Longreads | November 2017 | 15 minutes (3,727 words)
Growing up in suburban New Jersey, I never got the whole nature thing. In my middle-class town, surrounded by neatly engineered housing developments, the little “nature” I knew was unnatural. The grass of the boxy lawns, stripped of dandelions, shined a uniform pesticide green. The most memorable tree of my youth lived like a caged beast in an indoor shopping mall; Shel Silverstein would’ve wept to see it, imprisoned between the food court escalator and a fake waterfall with wishful pennies glittering on its floor. In my state, even the ocean was tainted; the beaches of the Jersey Shore were a riot of oversized umbrellas and slick men in banana hammocks blasting their boomboxes. One summer, so much trash washed up on the sand that it made headlines, hypodermic needles and all. The Garden State, so-called, but it wasn’t exactly Eden. Since I never went to summer camp, since my parents had no country hideaway, I was a kid who thought the Great Outdoors wasn’t all that great. A tree by any other name was just as boring as every other tree.
All that began to change slowly during my undergraduate years in a postcard-perfect New England town. There I began to understand how beautiful nature could be. I still didn’t want to commune with it or anything. (Camping seemed like a fantastically bad idea; why anyone would want to sleep on the cold hard ground in a place without a proper toilet was beyond me.) But the trees surrounding my campus and the mountains around my college town pleased my eye in a way that was new to me. There, in New Hampshire, I also went on the first hikes of my life. But despite my burgeoning Romantic sensibility, I saw those excursions up the mountain as little more than a chance to exercise while hanging out with friends. As for opportunities to stop and smell the pine needles, I was determined to avoid them. All I wanted was to rush to the top of Mount Cube and race back down again — fast enough to burn some calories — and I got annoyed when anyone tried to slow me down to ooh-and-ah over some dumb mushroom.
After college, I eventually arrived in that city of all cities, New York. I loved it. I couldn’t believe it had taken me so long to get there — to the center of the world, so it seemed, with all the great art museums, the great jazz places, the great movie theaters, the great performances of Shakespeare. The city helped me to notice an aspect of myself, the intellectual epicure, that I’d barely noticed before. It was a thrilling discovery. In New York, my brain was fed the richest of foods, my ambitions were fueled, my expectations for myself raised. By then, I’d lived in four other U.S. cities, and I felt sure I’d found the place that beat them all, where I’d stay forever.
The years passed and I had what I half-jokingly call “my nervous breakdown.” Half-jokingly, though it was no joke. A perfect storm of events — a break-up, a career disappointment, a professional trauma — knocked me down. I couldn’t eat or work, I could barely read or write, and I especially couldn’t sleep more than three hours a night. I couldn’t go out in public without disintegrating into tears — on the subway, in restaurants, at the gym, during a friend’s book party — triggered by the least little thing, like a long wait or a sad song. I was frequently overwhelmed by vertigo that felt as much physical as metaphysical. It felt at times as if I was slipping down some vast mountain into the abyss, unable to stop my steady descent, like a character out of some Edgar Allan Poe horror story. This went on for months and threatened never to end.