I was seven the year we stayed on our grandmother’s farm for six weeks, while our dad went to summer school at a nearby university. My brothers and I were allowed to ring the dinner bell just once.
A smaller version of the Liberty Bell perched on top of a weathered wooden post in our grandmother's backyard, next to her garden. When our mother was young, before tractors roared in the fields and drowned out other sounds, each farm had a dinner bell near the kitchen door to call workers in from the fields and barn. My brothers and I rang the bell to tell our cousins, who lived on the next farm, that we’d made the two day drive and couldn’t wait to see them.
We took turns pulling on the heavy wire that hung from the crank and released the sound. I don’t remember how many times I was allowed to launch the glorious clang across the garden and the wheat field, around the corners of the hen house and the granary, bouncing off the black walnuts and soft maples in the woods, tickling the ears of the cows grazing in the lane, and bounding across the wooden bridge over the creek, which might have sheltered trolls. But it wasn’t enough.
I hadn’t gotten to ring a dinner bell since.
The dinner bell that asked to be rung was mounted on a rectangular wooden tower. Plants spread from a wooden shelf below the bell, and U.S. and Washington state flags angled out on opposite sides of the structure. I was an adult now, so I only let the bell clang twice.
This time, the sound was swallowed up by the surrounding forest instead of soaring across Indiana farm fields. My hands itched to pull the cord again and again, to punch through the barricade of trees and bounce the joyous sound off the trunks of the Doug firs and Sitka spruce, let it echo across hollow clear cuts, and send it cascading down the rocky gorge of the Little North River nearby.
Before I had an excuse to ring the bell again, a slim woman in narrow blue jeans walked briskly around the corner of the bell tower. She wore a label-less #10 can hanging on a string around her neck.
"I’m glad you rang the bell," she said. "I was in the garden."
Ann, as she introduced herself, opened the office and we went in. She took the can from around her neck and put it on the desk while she checked me in to the campground. I saw raspberries filling a third of the can as I handed her the money. They might have still pulsed with the sugars the plants pumped into them under the summer sun. Ann told me that she and her husband had a large garden and shared its bounty with their guests. The blueberries weren’t quite ripe, but the raspberries were at their peak, and lots of different greens were ready. Greens! I needed greens.
A week earlier, I had escaped Boise’s 100-degree summer for a few days camping and hiking in the dripping moss and swirling fog of the Olympic Peninsula. When I left the national park I followed the blue highway, US 101, south toward Oregon.
I got to Forks, WA 50 miles later, after stopping for coffee to combat the hypnotic effect of the gray sky mirrored in the gray lakes I passed. Forks called itself the “Logging Capital of the World” before the northern spotted owl was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Forks was the dark vortex of the fight between owls and logging. Bumper stickers in town said, “I love spotted owls fried” and “Shoot an owl, save a logger.”
I had last visited Forks in 2006. I saw logging preserved in the Forks Timber Museum while the town struggled to attract enough tourists to stay alive. People still mourned the lost logging jobs in casual conversations with the few tourists.
Since I last visited, vampires have breathed new life into the town of Forks. Young girls and their families come to see where Bella Swan fell in love with Edward Cullen, a 104-year old vampire who drinks animal, rather than human, blood in the Twilight series of books.
I dug into mole enchiladas at one of the few places on Main Street that didn’t use "Vampire" or "Twilight" in its name. My late lunch could have kept a lumberjack going for two days and it advised a green salad for dinner.
An hour south of Forks, I struggled to keep my eyelids from slamming shut under the weight of mole enchiladas. Could I make it to one of the KoAs near the border with Oregon? There was a private RV park another hour south, at Artic (no "c"). The town had gotten its name through poor penmanship: the founder wrote "Arta," his wife's name, on the paperwork, but the clerk misread his writing. I sighed and tossed the map back on the passenger seat: private RV parks rarely welcome tenters. A women at a park in Oregon had once explained it to me, "Our RVers don’t like tenters."
Still, I glanced at the Artic Park sign as I passed. Wait, there was something else on the sign, below the picture. I turned around and drove back. From the lot of the Artic Tavern next door, I saw "Tenting," and "Bicyclers welcome" at the bottom of the sign. I pulled in and drove down to the office with the bell tower next to it.
While Ann was telling me about the park and garden, her husband Roy, a Garrison Keillor look alike, came into the office. He seconded Ann’s welcome to the park and garden.
Ann showed me the rows of raspberry canes before she went in to start dinner, inviting me to pick a bowl for my breakfast. Although she had been picking the fruit when I arrived, "everyone’s at a different height, so they see different berries." But please leave the Cascade berries, "we use them for wine." The Swiss chard, lettuce, and kale were waiting for me. "And you can add some things from the herb garden." Oregano, fennel, and something lemony. "Anything but the foxglove."
Roy was on the porch lighting the grill as I walked past their house to pick my dinner. I asked about the squirrel that had been dashing up and down the pine trees, cussing me out ever since I pulled in. Roy said it was a Douglas squirrel and that the two of them were on opposite sides of the War of the Bird Feeders. I wished him victory and went on to the garden.
My grandmother’s garden stretched from the dinner bell to the field that was in wheat the year our dad attended summer school. She mulched around the plants with straw to keep the weeds down and conserve soil moisture. I wished the smooth, dark, granular soil could have shown through, to contrast with the tomatoes, green beans, carrots, lettuce, strawberries, and rows of gladiolas. Grandmother often took a sturdy blue vase of the tall "glad" stalks to Quaker meeting on Sunday. I can still picture her walking into the meetinghouse with her determined stride, leaning forward slightly, with a slight hitch of age in each step.
We kids didn’t know what good food was when we stayed with our grandmother that summer. Vegetables and salad greens were obstacles to consume before we could go back to playing with the toad in the back yard, messing around at the creek, or watching the hogs in the barn lot. Home-canned morels were weird looking and gross. Lucky for us, our father didn’t trust his mother-in-law's skill at keying out ascomycetes: he didn’t want us eating those things. My mother and grandmother served themselves a few more.
I picked a sack full of Annie and Roy's greens and herbs for dinner and a bowl of raspberries for breakfast (berries consumed while picking not shown in photo). I tried out my latest Great Idea after I washed the greens: the net bag I had sewn worked great as a camp salad spinner. I sliced baby carrots from the cooler, added olive oil and lime juice, and ate the freshest, most biodiverse dinner I’ve ever had.
After dinner, I sat in my camp chair and wrote about my trip and my grandmother’s dinner bell and garden. As it was getting dark, a white truck pulled a trailer past my site and circled around to a spot on the other side of the loop. A man got out and walked to the office. A moment later, the dinner bell rang.
Roy walked over from the house and I heard him checked in the man and his family. The lights came on in the campground and a pool of light highlighted the two men standing in front of the office door, comparing notes on their travels and lives. They talked so long that the man’s daughter, a little older than I was when I rang my grandmother’s bell, walked up to the office to look for him. She waited for a break in the conversation and asked Roy, "Can I ring the bell?" Roy said, “Sure.” She pulled the cord.
The sound spiraled up from the bell tower to the Douglas squirrel’s nest. He lifted his head, then curled up again and went back to sleep. The sound traveled across the berry canes, salad greens, and herb garden to the forest. The trees didn’t seem to notice the sound, but I did. I was glad she rang the bell more than twice.
I hoped the girl had a grandmother with a dinner bell in her backyard and a farm with a creek beyond the garden. Or was this the first dinner bell she had ever heard? Did she spend her summers indoors, where the only bells she heard were electronic beeps? Had she ever even left her trailer to spend a night in a tent?
One of my earliest memories, a touchstone of my life as a biologist, is the first time our parents took us camping. We spent a night at Interstate Park, near our home in Minneapolis, a year or two before the summer we stayed with our grandmother.
I was enchanted with the stiff, musty canvas pup tent when our dad set it up in the back yard for a trial run. The two end poles kept it upright, more or less, with the help of several jute ropes and stakes. After a day of running on the trails and playing in the potholes at the state park, I was devastated when our parents put me to bed for the night in the car: I’d had my heart set on spending the night outdoors. There was only room for my oldest brother in the tent; my younger brother and I had to sleep closed up in the car.
Many decades later, I still love unrolling my sleeping bag in a tent or on a cot or sand beach. Even if I just spend a week in the next state, I get to escape my quotidian life and relive my childhood yearning to sleep outdoors.
I put my laptop away and walked over to the bathroom, accompanied by a hidden orchestra of crickets. On the way back to my campsite, the stars and the Milky Way astonished me, as they do every clear night I get to camp. I crawled into my sleeping bag and thought about the fresh raspberries I would eat for breakfast.