We have such a brief opportunity to pass on to our children our love for this Earth, and to tell our stories. These are the moments when the world is made whole. In my children’s memories, the adventures we’ve had together in nature will always exist.Richard Louv
I grew up in a rural town about an hour’s drive north of Pittsburgh. My family’s three-bedroom ranch sat on top of a wooded hill. Our yard was full of tall trees, some perfect for climbing and some more suited for leaning against while reading everything from Judy Blume to Nathaniel Hawthorne. Beyond the willow tree at the end of the yard was a hill. If we rode our bikes down that hill fast enough, we could gain enough momentum to get up the next slope. It didn’t work the other way though, no matter how hard we pedaled. Two majestic oaks stood on either side of the field like guards standing watch at the entrance to the woods. Our property was adjacent to Mr. Huston’s fields, the setting for many rounds of cornfield tag and picnics of peanut butter sandwiches and cheese curls atop the perfectly rolled hay bales. If we walked through the woods down the winding path, we came to a creek full of fish and tadpoles. It was also a venue for rock skipping and stick javelin competitions. My brother was always better at skipping rocks than me.
It was behind the garage where a stack of old tires and a pile of sticks left for burning captured our attention. With ingenuity and a little luck, we dislodged one of those tires and rolled it across the yard. Mud and leaves, pine cones, and rocks were collected and dumped into the center of the tire along with water from the same hose we used to quench our thirst on hot summer days. We stirred together our concoction with the biggest stick from the pile that didn’t have thorns. We tossed in a handful of purple “johnny jump-ups” and bright yellow “buttercups”, as we called them, for seasoning. An old coffee cup attached to another stick became the ladle. We never tried it, but we knew it would taste like the best soup we ever had if we did.
Those fourteen acres in the middle of nowhere were ours for the taking. We walked out the sliding glass door anxious to explore and to conquer. We made our way through ‘crab apple alley’, sometimes scooping one of those fallen apples from the ground, catching the other off guard with a sticky blow to the back. Those tart apples ripening in the sun perfumed the memories of my childhood. We walked through the woods, stopping short when a chipmunk or a bunny crossed our path, respecting our role as trespassers. Stopping to rest on fallen trees and benches of rock, we observed a caterpillar inching across a nearby branch, or a bird feeding her babies. We studied the petals and leaves of plants and the textures of bark on the trees. A lone bumblebee and the wind blowing through the treetops was the soundtrack as we determined our next move.
We only took a few steps in before the cornfield swallowed us whole. The stalks towered overhead and their leaves were like outstretched arms pulling us deep inside. Our feet sunk into the rich soil as we ran through the rows, the leaves slapping at our faces. The thrill of the moment made our hearts race, but we felt relief when the cornfield spat us out, releasing us from its grasp. We walked away, our cheeks red from the whipping as the sun dipped into the earth. The darkening sky nipped at our heels, chasing us home. A hot meal filled our bellies. A shower washed off the dirt and the sweat, but the call of adventure was baked into our souls. The crickets chirped a lullaby and the nighttime breeze drifted through our open windows as we dreamed of what wonder awaited us the next day.
We didn’t know those days were fleeting. Walking sticks would just be sticks and cornfields a familiar view from the window on a long trip. Our adventure was now found in a concrete jungle or along the carefully planned streets of the suburbs. We no longer answered the call of the wild but the call of responsibility that came when the doors closed on our childhoods. The wide-open days that began at sunrise and ended at sunset were now divided into tiny blocks on papers we consulted more often than our Bibles. The bunnies were shooed from our gardens and bird nests were knocked from our backyard porches. The bees were disappearing and the crickets’ song couldn’t be heard over the hum of the air conditioning in rooms with windows closed tight.
We were all grown up and our worlds would never be the same. Like a natural event that forever changed the earth’s landscape, those short years in our childhoods forever shaped the people we would become. As children, we played, but it was so much more than that. We experienced. We tried. We failed, and we learned. We connected the dots and we carried those connections into adulthood. When faced with something new, it was easy to get scared. Just like those observations in the woods, closer inspection brought greater understanding and revealed beauty which we might have never seen. Mr. Huston’s cornfields taught us to step boldly into unfamiliar territory. Sometimes we would find success, and sometimes we would take a beating. Either way, relief would come at the end of the day with a hearty meal, a hot shower, and the comforts of home.
To get to the top of the climbing tree, we had to choose which branch to grab next. Sometimes we hesitated and it took us longer than it should. Sometimes we climbed so high, we didn’t know how to get ourselves down. Thankfully, when our tree was firmly planted, all we had to do was take the next step. We easily navigated the highs and the lows, secure in our footing. Those days spent running through the cornfield, exploring the woods, and looking up at the puffy white clouds in the big blue sky were some of the best days of our lives.
We looked like we were only playing games and making a muddy mess, riding bikes and skipping rocks, but it was so much more than that. We celebrated a thousand little victories. We took risks. We got hurt sometimes, and we got back up. We learned compassion and respect, and more about ourselves than we ever did in any schoolbook. The fourteen acres we grew up on were full of beauty, tall trees, rolling fields, and creatures great and small. Our whole childhood was wrapped up in those fourteen acres, and all the love, memories and lessons that came with them.
One Final Thought: If you have not read Richard Louv’s “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder”, you really should.