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There is nothing unusual about a deer, I know. They are so populous we need to issue licenses to kill them every year — for their own good. The drive from the southeast corner of Michigan to the western coast of the lake in Wisconsin is measured in deer corpses on the highway shoulder. Most people I know have shot a deer, hit a deer with their car or know someone who has, can dress a deer, eats deer, or once stumbled over a garbage can stuffed with a deer’s carcass whilst playing football in the street.

deer in the woods

I know that seeing a deer in the woods is tantamount to seeing a squirrel or fellow hiker in the woods. Still, every time I see a deer in the woods, I am startled, and awed a little by the sight of something so big — bigger than me — something so lithe and graceful loose in the wild.

My parents found no joy in the outdoors; to them, “roughing it” meant finding a restaurant in a foreign city with a legible menu. Growing up, my biggest zoological excitements (outside the zoo) were garter snakes, exceptionally large spiders and the rare mole sighting — maybe skunks on dark summer nights, but mostly only their awful smell, and as I got older that only meant I’d have to scour the dogs. I guess a creature as large and majestic as a deer holds, to this day, a glimmer of city-kid mystery. It is rare that I don’t see a deer or four in Heritage Park — the bucks with a flash of white tail darting out of sight, the does with their long, still gaze under those big, ridiculous, vulnerable ears — but I can’t help but stand frozen and watch them for a while, until I start to think about those antlers, and what they could do to me, and scamper off.

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Books lead you to strange places. After learning about the cauldron that boiled Mad Anthony Wayne’s exhumed bones a few weeks ago, I was drawn to learn more about the young Revolutionary War general and his role in the settling of the city of Detroit.

After searching for out-of-print paperbacks on Amazon for a while, I remembered that I live next door to an especially good public library, and I put on a sweater and marched myself over there. When I arrived, though, I learned that all of the library’s books on Mad Anthony are part of the library’s non-circulating Heritage Collection.

So I slipped into the Heritage Room, where I failed to find the biography I was looking for but managed to become distracted in no time by the modest but well-curated selection of books on the Detroit area, the state of Michigan and the Great Lakes region at large.

michillaneous

A corner of the shelves in The Heritage Room is given over to the big binders that organize the city’s archive of newspapers and vital records, where my first instinct was to search for family names – specifically, an entry for my aunt and uncle, who were married in Farmington in the early ’60s.  Not that I need to – we have their wedding album – but it’s an affirmative comfort to see things on the public register. My aunt and uncle are dead now, and they didn’t just belong to me and my family; they were part of the world.

After fruitless leafing through the marriage books, my eyes were drawn to a fat blue binder, with collected news items about Farmington indicated on the spines: People; Land; Churches; Underground Railroad.

According to the Farmington Library’s online history index, an underground railroad station in Farmington is “part reality, part speculation,” but Mrs. Lillian Drake Avery, writing for the Michigan Historical Society in 1915, writes vividly (if anecdotally) about the business of freeing Southern slaves at a time when many people who lived through it were still alive.

first baptist church

Mrs. Avery writes that Farmington was “the principal station in Oakland County … and the conductor was Nathan Power, or ‘Uncle Nathan,’ as he was universally called.” She continues:

I have met only one man, now living, who personally harbored the runaways, Mr. Palmer Sherman … went out to his barn one morning in June and was considerably astonished to find thirteen negroes camping on his freshly gathered hay … It seemed that Uncle Nathan had more people than he could take care of and had directed this party to Mr. Sherman’s barn.

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In the six weeks or so that I’ve been back in metro Detroit, I’ve been spending at least an hour a day in the woods, walking and thinking (or trying not to think too much).

From my apartment, it’s a five minute walk to a steel-caged footbridge that carries me over I-696 to Woodland Hills, a rough, root-knotted walking trail looped around a brambly 74-acre nature park. At the back of the park, just past a trail heavy with goldenrod and dogwood, there’s a marshy pond, goose families, and a few no swimming signs.

bridge

shaded path

bench by the pond

Suburbs have long seemed like no-places to me — invented miles of strip malls, office parks, curlicue’d subdivisions with no sidewalks, their continuity interrupted by perpetually widening expressway corridors. The suburbs, especially when I lived in the suburbs, were inconvenient, alienating and colorless at their best — at their worst, resource-sucking, psyche-ravaging holes in space.

But Farmington Hills is my hometown and, for now, the no-place I call my own, and although I felt strange and scared to move back here, I am learning to reconsider the suburbs — or rather this suburb — as an honest-to-goodness place. It’s a complicated reckoning, especially in Detroit, where every attempt at so-called normal life seems infinitesimally examined.

berries

There’s a lot that has dazzled me about Farmington Hills and environs, a freshness that comes as a luxury of my many years elsewhere. My small suburban apartment complex is unquestionably the most diverse place I have ever lived, and the sprawling aisles of ethnic food at grocery stores — and the languages I hear there — are dizzying. And I still see good movies and good art shows and hear good music and hang out with smart, creative people — my biggest fear about leaving a “real” city and moving to a satellite suburb in a huge, fragmented metropolis.

But my search for a spiritual core of suburbia has taken me time and time again to several local parks, all of which I call, in casual conversation, “the woods.”

park blight

The woods are part of the natural history of a place and reminder of the human history around it that I often want to deny the suburbs. In Heritage Park – Farmington’s 200-acre jewel — there’s a pet cemetary from the 1930s where the Spicer family dogs are buried, near an English-style countryside manor, built in 1926, where Eleanor Spicer lived until her death in 1982. The land that’s Heritage Park now was her farm — she rode horses, raised sheep and often referred to her land as “the only unspoiled place” in the city.

(Aside: stumbling around the internet for some basic fact-checking has led me to this excellent guide to historic Farmington buildings and sites, organized by architectural style.)

Farmington’s abundance of megaplex movie theaters and big box-anchored shopping centers belies the city’s history. The area was first settled by Quakers; Farmington founded a post office and organized a township in 1827. My parents live a few suburbs over in Novi (apocryphally, the number six — No.VI — train stop); a half-mile from their house, nestled between two industrial parks, is a little farmstead cemetery started in the mid-1840s by the Knapp family. Just past the graveyard you can hook a right into Rotary Park, a 67-acre swath of barely-tended woodland along the Middle Rogue. I walk my mom’s border collies down a trail crashed with deadfall and overgrown with water grasses; the dogs like to race down the trail ahead of me and leap through the brush into the river.

huldah blanchard

dogs in the river sized

Today, Novi is the mall capital of Oakland County, with the Fountain Walk and Twelve Oaks and the Town Center causing immediate aneurysm to anyone who finds herself at the 696 and Novi Road interchange. Then again, my brother lives in Novi on a gravel road and has watched herds of deer (and an occasional coyote) caravan through his backyard.

The woods are also, like the suburbs, a kind of no-place. These parks seem less like parks to me than slices of Farmington unstuck in time, shaken loose from the tended lawns and chain restaurants and allowed to be what they have always been. Just as the strip malls I’ve known in Michigan don’t look too different from the strip malls I’ve known in Iowa, Wisconsin, or Indiana, I call all of the nature trails I love — Woodland Hills, the river bluff trails in Milwaukee, even those modest few acres that buffer my elementary school from the subdivision behind it — the woods. And all of them make me feel basically okay about wherever I am.

marshes

branches on the river sized

wade in the water

What am I going to do during the winter? Maybe I should learn to cross-country ski.

Making a Michigan left on Grand River yesterday, on the southerly side of Farmington Hills, I saw a Welcome to Farmington Hills sign that said: “Welcome to Farmington Hills: Home of Kirsten Haglund, Miss America 2008.”

I had no idea Farmington Hills was home to any Miss Americas.  I do not watch or care about beauty pageants, but as a little girl, I always rooted for Miss Michigan, whomever I thought had the best evening gown, and Miss Hawaii (who was usually exotic).

Haglund is probably now the second most famous resident of Farmington Hills, although her legacy is probably far more fleeting than that of our hometown hero, and one of my favorite TV characters ever …

Jessie Spano.

I drive by his house and I remember that he’s dead, although saying I’d forgotten isn’t quite right.

I liked him a lot. He was tall and a little bear-ish, mild-mannered, dark-eyed, an easy laugh, a consummate musician and music lover. He dated a few girls I knew and they all talked about him like he was the love of their life. And I believe that was true, at least true at the time.

His pretty old Civil War-era house on Shiawasee road was the last place I saw him, in the summertime a year before he died. It is banked by a long weedy yard and high firs on both sides, which gives the place the feel of a play stage, where an actor who plays Paul and an actress who plays me stand on a square porch, lit by a moth-flickering porch light, and drink Budweisers together and discuss Los Lobos.

When I drive by the house, it sends a flush of strange, surprising anguish over me. I guess I forgot the house was back there. That night I dream that I see him at a party, the same brilliant, gentle, totally Tennesee-charming fellow as always. I say to him, “I thought you were dead,” and I struggle to remember who went to the funeral. Maybe one of them will be at the party, too, so I can  confirm what I’d thought for four years to be true.

“Yeah, well,” he says. “So what?”

Because it’s not that I forget, when I think about Paul, that Paul died. I just forget that death is forever.

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