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Walking through my neighbourhood one spring evening, I caught the fragrance of wildflowers wafting from the side of the road.
It was the same perfume that surrounded me when I was a child, spending summer evenings in an untended lot near our house in another small southern Ontario town. The lot was tiny, just an unmown side yard next to a gravel road. But, for my friends and me, it was a wild place where we gathered regularly, from spring until the chill and early darkness of autumn sent us back into our houses.
We even organized ourselves into a club – the Nature Club – and christened the lot filled with tall grasses, buttercups and Queen Anne’s lace the Grasshopper Field.
At the core of our club were my brother Frank and me, and Mary Jane and Cheryl who lived the next block over. We were united by a fascination with insects and adventure, as well as a love of penny candy purchased at the corner store. A Wilson or two might drop by, or a Leon, but it was the four of us who gathered when we heard Mary Jane’s shrill call echo through the neighbourhood.
Our chosen meeting place was next to the overgrown honeysuckle bush. There we sipped nectar from the blossoms while discussing our various projects: building a fort, organizing a lemonade stand, riding our bikes to the canal bank to catch crayfish, scouring the ditches north of our house for tadpoles. Much of what we did depended on the time of year.
A hydro cut ran behind the houses of the neighbourhood. Hidden by trees and bushes, it was the Secret Ditch. Normally it was dry, but each spring, waist-high water from the melt and rain filled it. One year, we launched a raft. Made of elm logs from recently cut trees, scraps of board and about a thousand nails, it didn’t sink immediately, but slowly and inevitably, as Frank poled it down the ditch.
With summer, the Grasshopper Field came alive with butterflies and moths, dragonflies and damselflies, hovering above the flowers and grasses. Finches floated through the air and sparrows took dust baths at the side of the road. But it was mid-summer that we waited for. It was then that the grasshoppers emerged, at first as tender and green as the stalks they clung to.
By August they were mature, hardened and robust, spraying out in front of us as we waded through the thigh-high grass. On those hazy summer days, insects chirped and buzzed while the grass rippling in the wind sounded like water.
Of course, the adventure was in the chase – in trying to collect these various flying, hopping, crawling insects that populated the field. With patience and perseverance, we snagged them in cupped hands and then examined the intricate mandibles of the smaller grasshoppers, the colours and patterns of butterflies and beetles, the rippling legs of a centipede, the feathery antennae of a moth.
We held the insects carefully, kept them in jars briefly and then released them. We took out books from the library to learn more about them, and about the plants and the birds we saw.
But there was one insect we could not catch – the giant grey grasshoppers that blended in with the gravel road and took flight as soon as we approached. It was my otherwise lumbering and easygoing Maine coon cat who displayed unexpected talent at catching the elusive prey in mid-air, but she never shared the specimens with us.
With late August and early evenings, cricket song filled the Grasshopper Field. After a long summer, our thoughts turned to school.
In September, we still gathered on Saturdays, mostly to talk. Then, with the first cold nights of autumn, the Grasshopper Field became silent and still. The Nature Club would resume its meetings there in the spring.
Eventually the centre of our universe shifted. We began going downtown on Saturdays to check the CHUM music charts at Kresge’s before stopping for a Coke at Woolworth’s. We began taking on odd jobs during the summer – mowing lawns, babysitting, helping around the house. We were getting ready to be teenagers, and abandoned the Grasshopper Field in the process.
One day its owner claimed it, mowing down the grasses and wildflowers, cutting the honeysuckle bush and turning our once wild sanctuary into a suburban lawn.
I remember being surprised at how small the lot was; it had contained such large dreams and adventures.
In the woods behind the house where I now live, there are forts and lean-tos among the thickets and bike trails. There are also wooden survey stakes with orange ribbons attached to them. Childhood does not last forever.
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