Wild Places to Play
“In wildness is the preservation of the world” Thoreau told us. For Blog Action Day today, I want to share with you why I think that preserving small remnants of wildness is crucial for our children. And the world.
As the Badlands appeared ten thousand feet beneath the plane a few jet-minutes east of Rapid City, I envied the pilot’s view of the rugged outline of Black Hills north of town, and south, of the high dome of buffalo-browsed Custer State Park. Presidential visages of Mt. Rushmore loomed not twenty miles from my daughter’s house. What a wild kingdom our newborn grand daughter Taryn and her six year old sister Abby might come to know here!
Fifteen minutes from the airport, we turned into the driveway of a hillside suburban home. Since we were out that way in May, they’d had some landscaping done, and the front yard was orderly, trimmed and tamed. The back was fenced now, a green quarter-acre rectangle with the standard swing set that incorporated what passes these days for a tree house with a yellow plastic slide.
But by the second day of our visit, we realized that that Abby spends most of her “play time” indoors. In the midst of so much sky and magnificent geography, she might as well be living in the ‘burbs of Anyplace USA. In her neat, manicured back yard, there are no “rough edges” to challenge her muscles or entice her curiosity and imagination. There are no unknowns to explore and discover in the way she does when she creates her own play for entire afternoon here on Goose Creek once or twice a year.
Abby doesn’t experience wildness near home that at her age I knew so well in a Birmingham suburb long ago. I see now how very important those intimate microcosms of the greater landscape have been in kindling in me and others a connection and attachment to the natural world. They are the seed-beds of belonging to the places and planet where we live, and so many of today’s children never know them.
I’m talking here about patches no larger–and in many cases much smaller–than our grand daughters’ back yard: a vacant lot on the cul-de-sac; a steep bank on the edge of the grammar school property; the hedgerow at our uncle’s house; and the pond where my mother took me to fish-and more often than not, I abandoned my pole and explored the muddy banks instead.
But those half-acres childhood wilds are harder to find these days, and they have become less permissible places to play on one’s own. Unvisited, they no longer seem necessary or magic or special in the way they were for me and my friends. Today’s children play indoors. They are taxied to and from team sports in the SUV. The children are safe in their fortress-homes.
While dinner cooked, Abby and I played “hide the croquet ball” among the foundation plantings. Beside the house, angular, crushed native stone mulched the junipers. We sat down and began to turn the shards of rock, looking at the sparkly flecks in the granite, choosing out the waxy-translucent pieces of quartz into a separate pile.
“Abby, did you know that every one of these little rocks was once part of a mountain?” She was amazed to know this. Sitting tailor-fashion in the shade, we talked about how the mountains had pushed up and over time worn away. We talked about sand and soil, about plants and erosion and rivers and beaches.
I mentioned how a rock tumbler could do to these stones what the abrasion of water had done over time, making them smooth, polished and like jewels. Abby reminded me of this machinery a dozen times before we left to return to Virginia. Could she have a rock tumbler? I think I know now what the maternal grandfather will be sending the girls for Christmas this year.
Meanwhile, closer to home, parks are being created in downtown Floyd. Trail systems are coming together across the county. Farm land and woodlands are being preserved in conservation easements. And so many Floyd County kids still have the possibility of those safe, rough edges in which to grow their confidence, imaginations, muscles and sense of kinship with the natural world.
We should be thankful for these wilderness realms accessible to our young people. It turns out they are probably more important than we have realized for the healthy growth of personalities, character and a well-adjusted mind and attitude in later life.
So many of our great historical figures relate their early visions of connectedness to earth and society back to their young years reading in tree houses, building forts in the woods, chasing frogs beside a farm pond, and seeing the shapes of the future in clouds from a private sanctuary of shrubs just beyond the edge of things.
Give your young children and grand children the permission, freedom and encouragement to enjoy their own wild kingdoms near home. This legacy you bestow may go on and on, so that a little girl a half-dozen generations from today will chose to fashion her own bow-and-arrow from a piece of string and a limber stick she finds in the woods rather than spend the day shopping for new earbuds at the Sky Mall.