Sunday, August 06, 2006

Last Child in the Woods

When I was a child my dad had a job that required him to spend a month or two at a camp on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with college students, leading Bible study workshops and training them in student leadership. He was encouraged to bring his family, so I and my two sisters and two brothers had what I consider to be perfect childhood vacations. The camp was isolated, rustic, and pretty wild, but not at all dangerous. Poison Ivy doesn’t grow there (too far north they told us), there were no large predators, and no poisonous snakes. We did run into bees a few times, which was educational in a painful way. My brothers and I roamed the entire woods. In spite of our tendency to fall in the lake we were given free reign. The rules as I remember them were to stick together (buddy system at all times), get to the dining hall in time for meals and have dry shoes at dinner. We climbed huge glacial boulders as big as two story houses. We explored paths and created new ones. We fished off the dock, caught snakes and salamanders and turtles, and built dams in the spring-fed streams that emptied into the cove. We tried to start fires by tearing down the NO Hunting signs, but it was always too damp. We spent our allowances on chocolate bars and soda once a week. We had no TV, but we sat in front of a lot of fires watching our shoes dry. We had no iPods, but went to cook outs on the beach and listened to the guitar players singing “It Only Takes A Spark” a million times. We fought over who’s turn it was to run up and ring the dinner bell. We swam in the freezing cold lake, pulled leaches off our legs, and tried to pass the swimming test so we would be allowed to take out a row boat or canoe and fish the better spots. We found an abandoned cabin in the woods away from camp and climbed over the fence to the strawberry patch and feasted till we had to lay back in the weeds and let our bulging bellies bake in the sun. We learned wildflower names, bug's habits, bird song, bark and leaf identification. We slept deep and woke early to watch the dawn over the bay. Every year I collected moss and tiny woodland plants to take back for a terrarium which never thrived in my suburban Cleveland bedroom. We collected fossils and learned to name those ancient shell and leaf patterns in the beach rocks. We hung out around the college kids and learned their music, their jokes, their intensity and passion for choosing a good life. We ate in the family-style dining hall, always sitting at a different table, singing Kumbaya before we ate and sharing the clean up chores. Sometimes we came racing back from the point too late for the meal and needed to be taken back in the kitchen for bread and butter while the dishes were being cleaned up. The camp director’s family, who lived there year-round, had a sheep in their yard that we would feed clover. We played ping-pong and foosball in the rec room on rainy days. Once in a while we went on family days to the tiny town where we joked they rolled the sidewalks up at night but secretly we loved the soda fountain where we could get funny sounding drinks like Polar Bears, Teddy Bears, and Pine Tree Floats. These are the best memories of my life and if I close my eyes I can still imagine being there running down the path. I remember the exact shape of those rocks, the color of the lake, the sound of the waves and wind. This place shaped me. Chai There! Reminded me of it last week in her blog.

There is an article in the May/June issue of National Wildlife, excerpted from a book I read last year that again made me so grateful for those childhood experiences. It is called Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv. I got it from the library but I immediately ordered a copy to be sent to my oldest friend Josh, because I knew it would inspire him as much as it did me. Josh has run nature camps and science programs for schools for many years and we hung out a lot as children in the scruffy woods behind his house in our suburb of Cleveland. It wasn’t as wild as Michigan, but it was wild enough. We swung on grapevines and built forts out of discarded boards. He was my little brother’s friend first, but by high school he was my friend too and I miss him. We used to go on walks and look at the stars together.

It’s different for kids today. Louv says “a child today can likely tell you abut the Amazon rain forest but not about the last time he or she explored the woods in solitude or lay in a field listening to the wind and watching the clouds move.” Studies say a lot of kids have more electronic media exposure time each day than their parents spend at work, but they rarely spend time outside just mucking around in natural wild life. Even a patch of weeds and dirt with a few worms qualifies as natural wild life. There is something fundamental we learn from connecting with other forms of life, which kids are missing out on if they don’t get that kind of free exploration. Time spent outdoors with out a coach or a game plan. Louv calls it “nature-deficit disorder; the human costs of alienation from nature. Among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses.” I highly recommend you get this book and read it, and then find a patch of dirt and set your kid down. Let them find some sticks and stones and a puddle and set them free an hour a day at least. If you don’t have a kid, do it for yourself. Take a walk, look for bugs or birds or wildflowers. Just hum and stare at the sky. If we all did this every day it just might make us all happier and healthier!


Alkelda the Gleeful said...

For the longest time, your username tickled a part of my brain that didn't quite remember what your name evoked. Suddenly, I remembered the Carl Sandburg poem:

The fog comes
on little cat feet.
It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

Repressed Librarian said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Repressed Librarian said...

As I was reading this post, I knew exactly the place you must have been describing. When you mentioned Chai There, I knew I was right. She is one of my IRL friends, and I, too, have been to this incredible place. I really enjoyed your vivid description, and I know she will too.

cloudscome said...

alkelda, I love that poem too! I used to have my first graders memorize it. They loved the music and image of it.

My user name comes from the Basho haiku:

Clouds come from time to time
Giving us a chance to rest
From looking at the moon.

RL - I was thinking of you and Andrea when I wrote this, knowing you would recognize it. Isn't it heavan, just as she said?

Andrea said...

I had almost forgotten about that ice cream shop! Oh, and they had some other concoction that sometimes we would make back at camp...something with chocolate sauce, marshmallow creme, peanuts, and malted milk powder...what were those called???

I was a foosball addict the summer I was there.

And just so I do include nature in this comment...did you ever see northern lights??? I did, just once, but they were incredible.

cloudscome said...

I mean heaven, of course. I am no good without spell check.

I don't think I ever did see the Northern Lights, something I regret deeply. One day I will though!

I can't remember the name of that ice cream concoction either... but it was my favorite one! We loved the fudge at Mackinac Island too.

Andrea said...

The fudge! Oh yeah. Good stuff. And I remembered the name of that ice cream concoction...Jersey Muds...YUM! Trying to think where I could get malted milk powder to make one.

More memories (now YOU'RE making ME remember!), some related to nature, some not...walking out to Whitefish Point after dark and realizing that light? On the path, lighting our way? Could only be coming from the full moon, and could only happen so far away from civilization.

Did they have Vernor's ginger ale back then? For a few years after I came back I could never find it where I live...and a few years ago, I suddenly could. Now I can get my fix whenever I want. Warm Vernor's with M&Ms...yep, that's a definite sense memory.

Lilian said...

Oh, this is a WONDERFUL post!! I had similar childhood experiences and I just yesterday was thinking that I wanted to write about them and I was also wondered how could I get my sons to experience something similar. My husband and I just talked about this issue too - the fact that we need to go for walks in the woods with our boys more often so they can grow up to love nature and the outdoors. Very good timing - I'll have hubby read this post too.