Wild Child

A good friend lamented recently about her kids’ lack of contact with any kind of real wilderness. This city has some beautiful parks and gorgeous landscaping, but untouched nature? Not so much. Louisiana at large has a decent share of relatively raw wilderness, but it’s swamp, accessible only by boat or chest waders and a burly fearlessness of alligators. Not exactly the kind of place you can bring the kids to of a Saturday afternoon.

Her kids are little, as are mine, and I surprised myself by launching into a diatribe about how little kids don’t need wilderness. Me– Alaska Woods Woman– defending the lack of wilderness?

The conversation stuck in my brain for the rest of the week as I tried to tease out the details of such an unexpected opinion.

in Alaska the kids played with dirt and rocks
here they play with dirt and rocks

I believe that part of our patriarchal heritage is an over-obsession with Big Important things, and a tendency to disregard or even disgrace things which are small and humble. That’s the premise of this whole blog really– recognizing the value in the small-scale, the influence of each individual home.

Likewise, I think our Big Important Brains tend to overlook the everyday small wildernesses around us. We don’t think it qualifies unless there are black bears or ancient redwoods or unscalable mountains. But consider an ant hill at the park– what wild nature unleashed! Consider the wind shushing in the rows of planted trees, a thunderstorm heedless of a whole city’s urgent traffic needs. Consider the explosive cockroach population in my very own kitchen. No matter where you are, there is the natural world. She is so yielding, so subtle, so humble that she completely conquers everything.

And I will tell you a secret. Kids know. Especially little kids. They don’t need big tracts of protected wilderness because they are still wild themselves. Until we beat it out of them, kids still recognize wilderness on an intimate scale everywhere. Have you been for a walk with a one year old recently? If not, go now. Borrow a toddler if you have to. They are a lesson we need to take, over and over again. Kids are incredibly receptive to nature, until quite old really, but especially when they have just learned to walk and before we drill the ethics of speed and efficiency into their wild little brains. They stop to consider each new thing, experiencing the world in rich, unhurried detail. A stick is utterly captivating. An insect climbing the rough bark of a tree? Breathtaking!

The hard part for us is allowing them to interact with that intimate wilderness. How often do you let your kids set the pace on a walk? I can hardly manage to circumnavigate our block at their pace, which can take more than an hour. Have you ever tried to take your kids for a walk and had them get stuck just outside the gate? Come on already! How interesting can it be, it’s still our own goddamned yard!

Even if you recognize the essential and enduring value of their natural discoveries, it is nearly impossible for us to slow down to their sauntering wild animal speed. But that speed, or the lack of speed actually, is key to reverencing wilderness on an appropriate, sustainable level. We need to slow ourselves down, open our souls to whatever wild world happens to be in front of us, believe in the importance of the miniscule.

And I guess this is why I bristled at the idea that kids need wilderness. Not because I don’t fully understand the visceral satisfaction of watching my kids interact with an untouched natural landscape. I won’t lie– I am really looking forward to bringing them back to Alaska. But because I think the whole concept negates their particular power, which we instead need to exalt! Kids are our emissaries to the wild world. We just have to open the gate and let them out.

It is very hard when you live in a city, I can attest to that. Especially at that most receptive age of just-learned-to-walk. They seem magnetically drawn to a.) the street or b.) someone else’s porch. There is such a narrow strip of land we are allowed to frolic in, in cities. Parks are great of course, lots of open space for uninhibited exploration. But there is something I think particularly valuable about just opening your door and walking straight on into adventure, even if that adventure is only 5 feet wide.

You don’t need to read books or get professional advice on this matter (unless you have an older kid who’s been reared on chips and tv…) The expert is your own child. I would venture to guess that no matter where you live, the most remote wilderness homestead or inner city block, if you allow your kids access to the outside world they will find all on their own:

  • dirt
  • rocks
  • sticks
  • leaves
  • flowers
  • water
  • bugs
  • squirrels
  • birds

Does the backdrop matter? Do they internalize the angular structure of houses and power lines vs the organic pattern of mountains and forests? Maybe. I do think exposure to pure, untouched wilderness becomes more and more important as they get older and their vision opens out. But unless you are going to live in that untouched place (making it therefore “touched”) these experiences will always be anecdotes to their otherwise life. Short my personal fantasy of post-industrial return to aboriginal life, we are going to have to work this shit out in the cities and suburbs of our modern world. We are going to have to open our minds and hearts, and work to see nature wherever we are.

Better yet, let’s just stand back and let our kids show us the way.

Related Post: Kid-Walks

12 thoughts on “Wild Child

  1. Kids need to enjoy and understand the small scale of nature before they can understand the big picture.
    My kids are still obsessed with mud and water. There is no need to introduce them to anything more until they have understood mud and water!

    Just back from a walk by an urban river where they lay on a fishing platform for ages just poking sticks in the water. Actually I joined in as well!

  2. I agree with you about getting kids exposure to natural elements. I’ve been struggling a bit though as we live in a big city. Though I don’t mind soil, leaves, trees etc and would never call them dirty — everything here seems to be covered in dog pee/poop, pigeon poop, garbage etc. I’m having a hard time not cringing as i watch my daughter climb behind a bush to make snow angels in city soil.

  3. Aside from the Squirrels (which we don’t have here), I agree with you one hundred percent. I live in suburban canberra, which is a city with lots of open spaces and national parkland all through it (hard to explain, but there are long stretches of semi-untouched space between the suburban centres, and a lot of hills/mountains which are not build up right around and between suburbs – and in fact none which are – mind you some of them have cows or sheep on them), but as much as I love to take my kids to the river, I also love watching them play in my own yard with sticks and dirt and climbing trees (in the older kids’ case).

    Partly just because it reassures me that I haven’t yet completely destroyed their imagination with television binges!

  4. Well put CJ! When you live in suburbia it is sooooo tempting to drive for an hour or more to go ‘somewhere’ to give your child the ‘nature experience’ when all they wanted to do was literally get on the outside of their house. We are lucky in that we live across the road from a very nice little area that has a winter creek in it (also because it’s storm water run off, but you can’t win them all!), and my kids, during those long days of winter and constant raining periods, are soooo happy going over there even if just for an hour. We throw the ball for our dog, scratch pictures in the dirt with sticks, throw rocks in to the creek, and build bridges with fallen branches. It can turn in to quite the adventure – and literally about 15 seconds from our front door. It’s safe, and if it rains big, we can all run inside via the laundry door and strip off to get dry again.
    But yet they still love walking, slowly, even to the park around the corner, or ambling around the brook up the road, at their own pace, and I don’t mind it either. The things they find, the animals they see that I would completely miss, are priceless to them.
    Thanks again,

  5. Thanks for chewing on this some more. While I agree with you pretty much completely, I’ve also been bummed lately worrying about C’s lead level — having to run over to get his hands out of his mouth after he’s been playing outside, and having to wash his hands all the time, and generally worrying over dirt in a way I’ve never done before and deeply resent. I know all urban areas aren’t as bad off as New Orleans, but it’s definitely an undeniable part of playing outside in “nature” here, and that really sucks.
    I just finished reading Last Child in the Woods, an interesting, if too long, book about the importance of kids having solitary experiences in nature — older kids of course. For now, the sidewalk/backyard/mud puddle should be just fine.

    1. yes! lead. (and also as another commenter mentioned, intensely concentrated areas of pet poop.) i had a psychological crisis when we moved here and i had to rearrange my thoughts about dirt, which i’ve always considered one of the cleanest and most healthful things around. it is a scary conundrum. i don’t envy you.

  6. Ah… this made me feel a little better about the suburban doldrums. Still looking forward to that meadow/forest/etc. outside of my future bedroom window, but you are right about kids. I often find my 3 year old with his cheek on the ground in our small backyard “just resting.” He knows how to feed his soul.

  7. Have I mentioned how much I enjoy your words, perspective, truth, chutzpah?

    I do. So much.

    Thanks for coming back, time and again. (No shiny happy words about packing; sucks, no? Except! On the other end, lots of boxes. Best toys ever.)

  8. A wonderful, well written perspective of a child’s world. Just today my twin girls came inside with sopping wet hair to tell me they put their heads in a puddle. Even though I looked at them in shock and made them wash their hair, deep down my heart was smiling. Pretty in Pink and Wild and Free! I love it! Thanks for sharing! :)

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