When I lived in Florida, I avoided nature at all costs. For me it was a place of spiders and snakes and mosquitoes and lightning strikes and fire ants and tornadoes and floods and, increasingly, forest fires. You couldn’t even jump into a pile of leaves for the scorpions. (How does one get through childhood without jumping into at least one leaf pile?)
Status quo was heat and humidity and sweat and sunburns. Mostly, I hid indoors, and went into full-blown panic if my air conditioning broke down. In fact, life was hopping from one air-conditioned oasis to the next. All my windows were painted shut. Having that contentious relationship with the great outdoors, I kind of had the mindset that I was surviving in spite of, rather than because of, nature.
It’s amazing how quickly my attitude changed when I moved to the Pacific Northwest. Here, I don’t even own an air conditioner. During the warmer months, my windows practically stay open. I have a new-found love for fresh air. During those same months, I have dinner on my back porch every evening. I’ve yet to encounter a mosquito, let alone anything else that might bite me. I don’t even own any bug spray.
Here, I get outdoors every chance I get. I’m starting to look at the rainy, grey winter months (which I confess I’ll never get used to), as the penance I have to pay for the exquisite gifts of spring, summer, and fall. This is the first time I’ve experienced seasons in 40 years. They’re magical.
Perhaps nature is more than one entity. I like its personality much better here than I did in Florida. Here, we’re friends, not enemies. And I didn’t realize how much my life lacked for not having that friendship until it finally came along.
Every day here in Seattle I drive past little homeless encampments. They seem to be everywhere. They gather under the overpasses, in the little clumps of forest, and even on the sidewalks. Their tents are ragged and dirty, and usually they sit amongst a field of garbage. It’s heartbreaking to witness, especially during a pervasive harsh winter drizzle.
This always stirs up a complex stew of emotions in me because I spent a good portion of my childhood living in a tent. Yes, we were that poor. From an adult perspective it astonishes me that we as a family managed to sink that low. But often you can only deal with the cards with which you have been dealt.
There are many aspects of tent life that people don’t even think about. Here are some.
-You never know when you’ll have “company”. My sister once crawled into her sleeping bag and was hit in the knee by a scorpion. We had to rush her to the hospital. My other sister accidentally stepped into a fire ant hill and had such an allergic reaction that her throat closed. Another hospital visit. Since our tent experience was in Florida, we also had to contend with snakes, spiders, mosquitoes, lizards, mice, and cockroaches.
–People will accuse you of being lazy. There was a complicated set of circumstances that caused us to live in a tent, but laziness wasn’t one of them. I have worked since I was 10 years old. There wasn’t a single member of my family that wouldn’t have moved heaven and earth to get out of our situation. It’s just really hard to focus on shelter when you are struggling to obtain adequate food and clothing. This pervasive attitude that poor people need to just snap out of it and get with the program has got to change.
–None of your possessions are safe. Ever. I’ve yet to come across an efficient way to lock a tent. I never knew when I was going to come home from school to find that things had been taken from me.
–It’s impossible to stay healthy. I had bronchitis for, literally, years. My lungs are permanently scarred. You’ll also be exposed to ringworm, scabies, lice, colds, flu, athlete’s foot, sunburn, heat exhaustion and hypothermia.
–There’s this constant state of shame. As a child, you’re self-conscious enough without having to hide the fact that you have substandard living arrangements. You don’t invite friends to visit you. That would be totally out of the question.
–It’s nearly impossible to stay clean. Sweep and scrub all you want. You’re going to track in sand and mud and bugs. Think of it as camping times 1000. And your shower and bathroom facilities are going to be 100 yards away if you’re lucky, and that fact isn’t going to change if you’re sick or it’s raining or you have to pee in the middle o the night or the temperatures are in the low 30’s.
–You have no privacy. Forget about having a room to yourself. You have nothing to yourself. And you are most likely surrounded by other people who live in tents as well, and just as with the general population, a certain percentage of them are bound to be predators. And again, tents don’t lock.
–Nothing in your life will ever be dry. Try storing clothing long term in a tent some time. Now throw in your school books, your food, what few worldly possessions you manage to keep from getting stolen. Then mix that with a thin wall of tent fabric between you and every torrential rain. Toss in humidity for good measure, and the added threat of mold.
–Expect to battle depression. As if the constant anxiety of worrying about where your next meal will come from isn’t enough, now cover yourself with a wet wool blanket of gloom so that everything seems to take ten times as much energy as it should. (And it probably does, because you’re constantly sick.) Then multiply that by years on end and tell me how easy it would be for you to maintain a positive outlook.
Most people drive past these homeless encampments and think, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Not me. I think, “Please, God, never again.”
After having lived in Florida for 40 years, I have much to be traumatized about, believe you me. Hurricanes, scorpions, rising sea levels, gun-toting vigilantes, insane politicians, free-ranging pet boa constrictors, rampant conservatism… you name it, Florida’s got it. But as is often the case, it took leaving my toxic environment to discover just how seriously it had affected me.
Even though I’ve been in the Seattle area for a year and a half now, and know that I could leave my door wide open 24 hours a day and nary a harmful bug would enter, I still have residual anxiety from my Southern roots. There, you have a constant battle with disease-laden, gravity-defying, hyper-multiplying, two inch long, DISGUSTING cockroaches. They crawl over your bed while you sleep. They get in your hair. You can’t leave any food out, even for a minute. It really freaks me out when they run across the dashboard while I’m driving down the interstate. I’ve even had them scurry into the shower with me when I’m all naked and vulnerable. Shudder. I have no doubt that there are at least a thousand cockroaches for every human in that state. It almost feels as though these creepy creatures have invaded my brain.
Although my rational mind knows that the odds are very good that I’m not going to see one of these things crawling across my pizza ever again, I still am terrorized by them at least once a week. One of my dogs tracks in a dead brown leaf and I see it out of the corner of my eye and nearly jump out of my skin. The brown hair that I slid to the side to unblock the tub drain but forgot to dispose of makes me shriek like a little girl.
You’d think I’d have this all figured out by now, but it seems to be a gut reaction that is ingrained in my very soul. I’m calling this syndrome “Posttraumatic Roach Reaction Disorder”, or PTRRD. It’s debilitating and pervasive. I need medication.
So, imagine my horror when I discovered that these bugs are so novel here that they have their very own display, complete with a domestic straw broom to scuttle over, at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo. I watched the locals gaze at them and say, “Ewwww… gross.” and I wanted to scream, “You people have no idea what a dangerous game you’re playing!!!” If even two of those things get out, this city will be up to its ears in roach droppings by sundown.
I can’t even drive past that zoo now without feeling something creeping across that place on my back that I can’t reach. Forgive them. They know not what they do.