Thursday, October 15, 2009

Childhood Wilderness

The blogger downstreamer pointed out an article in the New York Review of Books by Michael Chabon. Michael writes about the loss of childhood freedom in his essay, Manhood for Amateurs: The Wilderness of Childhood:

“The thing that strikes me now when I think about the Wilderness of Childhood is the incredible degree of freedom my parents gave me to adventure there. A very grave, very significant shift in our idea of childhood has occurred since then. The Wilderness of Childhood is gone; the days of adventure are past. The land ruled by children, to which a kid might exile himself for at least some portion of every day from the neighboring kingdom of adulthood, has in large part been taken over, co-opted, colonized, and finally absorbed by the neighbors.”

The essay really hit home and triggered a cascade of memories from my childhood. I was fortunate to grow up, for the most part, in small towns with easy access to strips of woods with streams and even real honest-to-god forests with all the trimmings like deer, raccoon, possum and all the rest. I was even fortunate enough to live for a few years on the sea shore with all the delights and opportunities it brought.

In those days, especially in the summer, we were not allowed to stay indoors, weather permitting. After breakfast we were ordered outside "to play" and we did. My parents were not alone in the effort to get us out from underfoot and every other boy in the neighborhood was under the same admonishment to "go out and play". Somehow we all managed to hook up first thing in the morning and set out on our adventures for the day. We ranged far and wide, usually on our bikes but many times on foot through the woods. We would follow the creeks, sometimes for miles, just to see where they went. Some days we would be content just to try and dam up the creek and make our own swimming hole. Sometimes it would be building a fort out of found material and pretend we were defending it from unknown but dangerous enemies. On many occasions we would discover a house under construction and after getting permission from the builders collect the wood scraps and bent nails to make boats, race cars or tree forts. If we were really lucky we would be allowed to collect the little round metal 'coins' the electricians had removed from the electrical boxes being installed...wealth beyond all dreams. Sometimes we would report back home for lunch but mostly one mom would be selected to feed the lot peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or best of all, hot dogs. There were many days when our parents wouldn't see us until dinner time and only for long enough to gobble down supper and be back out for games under the street lights or lightning bugs or just hanging out with the occasional rock thrown at the bats that fed under the lights. It was always well after dark before we would be called for our baths and bed. I think little boys in summer invented the bath tub ring as our day of barefoot adventures in usually nothing but a pair of cotton shorts allowed us to collect a wonderful patina of dirt and grime. Somehow the Ivory soap managed to get most of it off but leave it on the walls of the tub in a great greasy circle that was testament to a day in the wilderness.

It is sad that the freedoms that many of us enjoyed as kids won't be enjoyed by today's children. Those seemingly endless hours of 'doing stuff' and exploring the world had a definite positive impact on who I am today and I am glad to be reminded of it. Not all of it was perfect and fun, as there was the occasional fight, or scrape or even a broken bone. I can still vividly recall the game of mumbly peg when I look at the long scar on my left ring finger today but on balance it was all glorious.

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