• Joanna Mueller

Mulberries and Mud Puddles: Lessons I’ve Learned from Homesickness

Today I risked life and limb and went for a walk through the Little Darby Nature Preserve, 130 acres of jungle habitat twenty miles west of Columbus, Ohio. I can’t be sure, but I think its sole purpose is to preserve mosquitoes and poison ivy. It’s supposed to be mowed by county workers now and then, but I fear they’ve been lost — perhaps strangled by vines, or carried off by a herd of possums. Today’s high humidity made breathing feel more like snorkeling, and I would have been wise to bring a machete to hack a path through the vegetation.

God, what I’d give to be able to walk again along the dry, dirt trails of Peavine Mountain where I grew up, near Verdi, Nevada, where everything under the sky is laid bare, where hikes through the hills are unencumbered by flora or fauna. Well, that’s not altogether true. To be fair, the occasional scorpion may skitter across your toes as it gallops into the dusty sunset.

I’ve never accepted the old “bloom where you’re planted” nonsense. Unfortunately, twenty years ago, the fate fairies thought it would be funny to pluck me out of my dry, arid comfort zone and plant me 2,200 miles away in a mud hole. They were in cahoots with my then-husband, I’m sure of it.

I remember vividly my confusion about Ohio’s lack of clean, clear bodies of water. I had grown up with my feet sunk in the sand at Lake Tahoe all summer, every summer, and I just assumed all lakes in the United States were similar. Imagine my horror, then, to discover that Ohio’s lakes are little more than really big mud puddles fed by creeks and rivers that resemble watered down chocolate milk with floaties. There is vegetation absolutely everywhere, growing where things shouldn’t grow, to the point where you often can’t see the sky. It’s oppressive. It’s depressive.

My first summer in Ohio, I thought it would be fun to go camping, since that was something I thoroughly enjoyed in Nevada — roughing it, with nothing but echoing wilderness in any direction. Of course, there are no mountains in Ohio, and there is no BLM land for public use, so it was necessary to go to a state park to camp. When we arrived at our campground, I was devastated: it resembled a Wal-Mart parking lot. It was paved, except for fifteen feet of weeds between each site. My business was everybody’s business. We could hear people yelling at their dirty little kids. Obnoxious teenagers roamed the campground looking for trouble, and we had no way of locking our tent. We were kept awake all night — first by the roar of generators, next by the downpour of rain. We packed up the car and left at three a.m., and haven’t been “camping” again since.

Since being stranded here, I’ve grumbled about one Ohioism or another every single day. So why do I stay? Believe me — if I could pack up the love of my life and his kids, my own two grown kids and their spouses, and my awesome job, and take them all with me to the place that I love more than any other place… well, I wouldn’t do it. Because then I’d be the only happy one, and everyone else would feel like a fish out of water. So I stay. But it’s okay.

You see, my eyes are starting to open to a better view that I hadn’t noticed before. I’ve realized that there are some wonderful things about Ohio that I never could have hoped to find in Nevada. Among them: my apple trees. They are enormous and so full of fruit at the end of summer that we had to buy a bigger freezer. And then there’s the garden — I grew a zucchini last year that was as big as my thigh (and that’s saying a lot). And just yesterday, I stood under the mulberry tree with my stepdaughter and we stuffed our faces until our hands turned purple. Ohio has fireflies. Redbud trees. Cornfields. Snow rollers. Breathtaking autumn colors. Most of all, the people I love. So, even though my walk through the Little Darby Preserve was akin to courting pestilence, it was filled with a different kind of beauty that I’m starting to appreciate, finally, after twenty years. I think I shall go again tomorrow, but I’ll wear bug spray. In the meantime, I think I better go check for ticks.

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