When I was a kid, fences seemed unimportant. Boundaries never really crossed my mind. I reveled in the freedom to explore not just my own neighborhood, but all the neighborhoods in walking or biking distance.
When I was 5 years old, growing up in Columbia, Maryland, the sidewalks were a bit like the road in The Hobbit.
“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
Although it would be another 5 years or so later before I’d actually read The Hobbit, I think I would have appreciated that quote, with a hobbitish laugh of my own.
The sidewalk was our road. My older brother and I would set out on the sidewalk and see where we’d be swept off to. As the years went by, we knew that city so well, that we could have mapped it with all the bike paths and the major features like the shopping centers and the lakes, and especially the creek that wound through the woods.
These woods, though not literally in our backyard, were easily accessible by walking across our street and taking the bike path down to where it began. There, we’d scoop clay from the banks of the creek and craft little indecipherable animals to leave on a play structure nearby where the sun would dry them.
The bike paths snaked through the entire city, pretty much anywhere you’d want to go. We’d walk or bike around lakes, through neighborhoods, through the forest that housed the meandering creek, and even into the busier areas. One could go miles without having to cross a street.
If we were feeling especially adventurous, we would don our army surplus store gear, a mismatched collection of clothes that we considered our uniforms, complete with custom dog tags. If it was night, we’d take the army flashlight and go on a mission near the creek. Sometimes it would be late, when everyone was relaxing with their reading pillow, and we’d be sitting inside the rain sewers, somewhere underground. In the dark, I imagined spiders at every turn, or worse beasts lurking in the depths. I imagined red eyes glowing at me in the darkness, but I reveled in the fear and the freedom.
Of course, we didn’t actually have permission for the night-time expeditions, let alone permission to go into the rain sewers. I think we waited about a decade or so before we told our parents about that bit of information. As a parent today, I admit I’d be livid if I found out my kids did this. Hypocritical, isn’t it?
Yet some part of me, after knowing my kids had in fact survived without a scratch, some deep part of me would be satisfied with the idea of them having lived in such a way.
Note to my kids, if you ever read this while growing up. Don’t do it. I’ll ground you for a year.
When I think about my kids growing up and the freedom that I had as a kid, I wish that I could give them the same daytime experiences. Let me repeat the word daytime. Daytime.
Unfortunately, where we live there isn’t anything nearby like the creek I used to visit. There aren’t any local forests in walking distance. There are no large hills they can drag sleds to during the winter, and no snow for them to sled down on. There are no lakes they can skip rocks upon.
Instead, there are little city parks spread out through the city, most of them small with a little field to play in and at least one play structure. While I am thankful that we have these at least, they are anemic, sterile versions of what we used to have. These are parks that have clean, organized layouts with cookie-cutter structures that we have seen a million times, and nature reduced to mowed grass, wood chips, and a scattering of trees. The one exception is a bit larger, with a duck pond, but it is too far for them to reach alone.
To me, it is not enough.
We do sometimes take them to real nature, where nature is less restrained and can burst forth in all its green glory. The closest is a reserve that’s a 15-minute drive out of town. Not close enough for kids to reach by walking, unless they were to spend all day getting there.
This is why, aside from taking the kids to places of nature outside town when we can, I want to give my own backyard a little more attention.
Right now, we have a back yard with trees, plenty of shade, but not very much to do other than kick a soccer ball around. There’s a broken tetherball set, a shed with black widow spiders lurking, a tire swing (this part is good), a table that’s not much good to use for anything but decoration, and chairs that are uncomfortable for most people to sit in.
I’m envisioning us turning this backyard, slowly over time, into a small pocket of nature. A place where imagination is freed, and where most activities involve nature more directly. I imagine a quiet, comfortable place to sit and perhaps meditate. I don’t know what else, but I’d want it to be a place that appeals to all ages, so that the kids enjoy being there as they grow up. I imagine an outdoor dining area, so we can have the occasional dinner out back.
They might not have a forest or a creek nearby, but at least they’ll have a backyard with a touch of wild nature. That at least would be something, right? It’s not quite as good as what I was fortunate enough to have as a child, but I believe we would all appreciate having the opportunity to connect with nature in our own backyard.