Our society is teaching young people to avoid direct experience in nature. That lesson is delivered in schools, families, even organizations devoted to the outdoors, and codified into the legal and regulatory structures of many of our communities. Our institutions, urban/suburban design, and cultural attitudes unconsciously associate nature with doom -- while disassociating the outdoors from joy and solitude. Well-meaning public-school systems, media, and parents are effectively scaring children straight out of the woods and fields. . . . The postmodern notion that reality is only a construct -- that we are what we program -- suggests limitless human possibilities; but as the young spend less and less of their lives in natural surroundings, their senses narrow, physiologically and psychologically, and this reduces the richness of the human experience.
~Richard Louv in Last Child in the Woods.
Yes, indeed. There are deer ticks, and mosquitoes, and snakes outside. There are brambles, and high branches from which one can fall, and there are evil strangers who snatch children who are alone.
But those are not the only dangers. Being terrified of nature, never knowing the Earth, being scared indoors to the video games: these, also, are deep and desperate dangers for the children who will live during water wars and decreasing resources.
When I was a girl (and, oh, it was a million, million years ago! And, isn't this how all the stories of all old women start: When I Was A Girl? It's funny how the stories of girls never start: When I Am An Old Woman. Well, a few of mine may have. Ahem. Well, then, and so it is and so I am, but, my Dearest Darlings, a million years ago, when I was a girl,) one of my great joys was to walk, every Saturday afternoon, down to The Creek. It must have been two or three miles away from my home, and I mostly went all alone, down to the bridge, the bridge over the tiny run, the tiny run surrounded by swamp cabbage and ferns, the bridge that was covered with an arch of branches, a cathedral for me, and my first love nest (even then, I saw no contradiction, which shows that you can lead the girl to Catholicism, but, well), where I went to furiously neck with my first real boyfriend. Then, (both before, during, and after the boyfriend) down another long street, with less frequent houses and bigger, more wooded yards, past the Swiss Chalet house, and past the people who kept horses, and past the vague friends of my mother's who had three daughters and where I saw, glimpsing just the covers, some of the first feminist books I'd ever seen, and then, then, then, into the marshy woods. That entrance was always marked for me with a special sense of stepping into what I would now call Fairie: marsh plants growing ankle-high, muck, and the sort of deep shade that, even when your real, Earthly body is sweaty and hot from the late August sun, gives you a bit of a bone-deep chill and the realization that you've stepped into "Otherness." Through a bit of those marshy woods, where the Goddess knows why I never saw the obviously-lurking snakes, and then, finally: the sandy bank of The Creek (the boulder-strewn water, running ice cold and full of tiny fish, dragon flies, and slippery algae), and the Deep Deep Woods on the other side.
The oldest Catholic daughter in a family of baby after baby after baby, slipping away from my home was all that kept me sane. All week long, I did it through books, though my mother's most common refrain was: "Get your nose out of that book (hint to Mom: I don't read w/ my nose) and [set the table, fold the diapers, go watch your baby brother, peel the potatoes, scrub the pots, etc., etc.]" And, on the weekends, I did it by walking to The Creek. And, there, finally, I could be really alone. And, there, finally, I could just be absorbed in nature: watching a dragonfly dart for a quarter of an hour, hearing the way that water sounded as it ran over algae-covered rocks, smelling the damp sand along the bank, full of the scents of decaying plants, minerals, and last-night's dance of salamanders along the shore.
One time, only, I took my baby sister down to The Creek with me.
I imagine, because I want to blame her, that my mom was really stressed that day and that the price of my hour or two of freedom was to take my baby sister with me, although my baby sister was the one of my siblings that I did really love, so maybe the fairies made it so that I would have to bring her.
And we walked, her with her little, little girl steps and her trusting, sweating hand (cruelest memory of all!) in mine, all the way down our street, and over the bridge, and past the people who kept horses, and past the Swiss Chalet house, and past my mother's feminist friends, and into the marshy woods, and onto the bank of The Creek.
And, then, somehow, I lost her.
I've gone back -- awake, in dreams, journaling, in trance -- a million, million guilt-wracked times to try and remember how on Earth I could have done such a thing. But at some point, I was a bit further down The Creek bed than I normally went and I had lost my baby sister. Full of terror, I started back up The Creek, calling and sick with fear. What if she'd drowned in The Creek? What if she were hurt? I called and called and begged her to answer, but I was alone in a way that I'd never been alone before, alone in a terrifying silence, alone as if I'd stepped through time, stepped between the worlds, stepped where I hadn't meant to step. I kept calling and, eventually, the mocking calls of what I told myself then were "older children" began to answer me, pretending to be my baby sister.
And it was then that I may have grounded for the very first time, run my roots into the minerals that I knew so well, and demanded, myself a child, that what were surely the Fae stop making fun of me and help me find my baby sister. And, you know, they were ashamed, and they said they were sorry, and, suddenly, there she was, my baby sister, sitting happy where I'd left her on the sand, surrounded by swamp cabbage, dragon flies, boulders. I slumped in an ice cold sweat upon the sand, then grabbed her hand and walked, as fast as her baby legs would let us go, back home. And then I made myself forget and always went alone, by myself, to The Creek, from thence forth.
A few decades later, when she died in a freak car accident, when my father's stricken face turned to me and said, "She's dead," there was a tiny part of me that wasn't surprised, that realized that the time we'd had with her had been won fair and square, and by an unaware bravery, from the Fae, and that I'd always known that, some day, jealous, they'd come back for what they'd taken and then, unwillingly, surrendered in shame.
Decades later, when I was recovering from breast cancer and a test came back suggesting, strongly, that the cancer had spread to my liver, I awoke from a deep dream and realized: If I'm about to die, there's only one place that I need to see again: The Creek. And, so, I did not work that weekend, although I should have done. And I rented a car, city dweller that I'd become, and I drove to the end of the road lined by the Swiss Chalet house and the house of the people who kept horses and the vague friends of my mother's. And I came to the marshy woods. And I parked the car.
And I knew myself home. Home in the wild. Home where, pace R. Frost, they would have to take me in.
And, so, yes, I understand the modern movement to keep children safe indoors, to warn them of all the real (non-Fae!) dangers of the out-of-doors. But, if I had two daughters, I'd still let the older walk the younger to The Creek.
Who knows what my baby sister saw during those years and years that seemed to be 15 minutes? Who knows who was really making deals with the Fae? Who knows why she stayed (with us) so long? Who knows how much I still long to follow? Who knows why I've never told this story before?
Picture found here.