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Commentary: A Walk in an English Cornfield

By Jennifer Gold

Buffalo, NY – I have a friend with two children, Lilli is four and Iris is considerably younger. When you are named after some of the prettiest spring flowers how can you help but be drawn to gardens. For this reason and that I have donated a small patch of my garden for Lilli. I told her mother it would be the size of a dining room table -- having no idea myself how much a four year old would want -- but I tired of digging in the lawn and it turned out to be the size of a micro-wave oven.

I worried about this knowing that we live in a culture of bigger is better but Lilli was ecstatic. "What a wonderful garden!" she exclaimed the first time she saw it. And indeed, when I could look at it through her eyes, it was wonderful. A small, white picket fence surrounding the freshly dug earth, a white violet plant in the center and next to that a tiny, plastic, garbage-picked, ballerina in a white tutu perpetually holding her arms to the sky inviting just the right amount of sunshine and rain to the miniscule patch of land.

After a thorough examination of her garden Lilli ran around the labyrinth I have created. I made it by mowing a path the width of one lawnmower in circles in the grass. And then, more ecstasy - she flung herself down on the long grass, rolled around and announced - "I'm rolling in the cornfields!" Now Lilli is bright, no doubt about that but what does she, at four, know of cornfields? Even such information she may have gleaned from story books could hardly have given her the exact feeling she expressed. Was she in some past life? Was she picking something up from me?

I walked in cornfields as a little girl, in Sussex, England. Visiting my paternal grandmother was stressful -- and that's another story -- but walking her terrier "Sally" across the fields from one village to another was a treat for any nature loving kid. And, as it pleased grandma to be left alone for a few hours it was double joy. Those fields had a thick, sweet, smell -- the yellow wheat, or barley, or whatever it was waved in the gentlest of breezes and it took nerves of nine year old steel to not imagine that a creature of horrific size and viciousness was creeping behind.

It never occurred to me that it might be a person. How much the children today miss by not being free to roam as we did. How much has been stolen from them. The ancient, narrow, path led straight across the fields, over styles, past trees and streams. It thrilled me to think that I was using a path where women had walked wearing long dresses and horses had been the only means of transportation. And as I walked I would pick ears of the growing grain and chew on the unripe, nutty, kernels. Did the farmers use pesticides then, probably, but maybe not in the quantities they do today. Anyway, it tasted good and I'm still here. The sounds and colors of those walks are still with me.

Black birds and robins, white, yellow, and orange and brown speckled butterflies, scarlet poppies, blue cornflowers. On the distant hill I could see the two windmills nicknamed Jack and Jill. Too far to walk but always there, one black and one white, their crossed arms staring towards the distant winds. The path led to the village of Ditchling, a quaint place with a postcard pond in the middle of the high street, and postcard ducks on top.

But my special and personal attraction to this place was a house said to have been owned by one of Henry VIII's wives. Anne of Cleaves. A long, low, dark house with mullion windows which I would stare at for so very long that the dog would get bored and start whining. The house was said to be haunted although she was not a wife to loose her head to the unpredictable king.

I stared and stared always hopeful that a pale female face would waft past one of the windows and raise a laconic hand in my direction. She never did. My father gave me a garden when I was about four. A small patch where I grew carrots, strawberries, potatoes, and radishes. I hated eating radishes but loved seeing their fat red shoulders push up through the dirt. They didn't lie about being ready to come out. Not so the carrots which I always pulled too early and then tried to push back and was so disappointed at their refusal to thrive after being yanked from their beds three or four times a week.

Dad grew other things, lots of them and I would make lettuce and raspberry sandwiches for my tortoise. Her strong, gummy, jaws munched up and down and a trickle of raspberry juice would ooze from the corner of her scaly mouth. I think she liked them and she did live for years and years. I think I should talk to Lilli's mum about getting a tortoise.

Jennifer Gold's radio essays are a monthly feature of WBFO News.