Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Wild Places

Among my earliest memories are playing in "wild places." There was, for instance, an undeveloped lot in our suburban neighborhood over on Christopher Street with a stand of straggly pines and a bit of undergrowth. There were no wild animals there and it could hardly have qualified as wilderness, but it was a wild place nevertheless. We called it "the woods" and it was a place we could play without civilization, in the form of grown-ups, telling us what to do.

Normally, we played with the kids who lived on Wembley Street, but the woods were a place where you might meet kids from all over the neighborhood. I would often go there alone, but usually it was in the company of a friend. We didn't tell our parents we were going there. We didn't think we had to because although it was technically farther away than we were normally allowed to roam it was accessible by cutting through backyards which, without ever discussing it, we figured counted as staying on our street. Our parents may or may not have agreed.

I was probably four or five when I started going there and not much older than that when they bulldozed it to put up another house, but for a time it was a land of fantasy, a place outside of time where I could really be Tarzan or the Lone Ranger or Batman. With no adults to remind or scold us, we arrived in the woods with only the "rules" that we had internalized and left with only the rules to which we had all agreed. We could say the words we wanted to say, play the way we wanted to play, and interact with both friend and stranger as we felt appropriate. Politeness, something that was very important to adults outside the woods, held no value here. The woods was a wild place and we were its pioneers.

When the woods disappeared, we had to roam farther afield in search of wild places. Bicycles made that possible. We spent hours riding our Stingrays along rough trails, the original "dirt bikers," on what we called Hampton's Land, a large tract of undeveloped land that really deserved to be called "the woods." This was private property, owned by "Hampton" who was rumored to roam his property with a shotgun looking for trespassers. Like with the vacant lot, this was a place that was special for us in part because being there was somehow illicit. We had never actually known any kids who had been "caught" or shot. In fact, we never saw anyone else on Hampton's Land other than other kids who were doing what we were doing, riding bikes and imagining themselves in another world.

Or were we imagining? The truth is that Hampton's Land, like "the woods," really was another world. The things that were true outside didn't necessarily hold true here. We were adventurers exploring newly found land. It was our right to name the places we found: "The Clay Pits," "The Sand Pits," "The Big Tree," "The Hill." Sometimes we "fought" with the other kids we found there, usually with a few choice insults before running away, although sometimes there would be the hurling of pinecones or dirt clods (but never rocks or sticks; friend and foe apparently knew better than that). It was a virtual world that puts today's computerized ones to shame in it's complete immersive-ness. It was a real place, but separate.

In many ways, when I reflect on my childhood, I realize that I spent a lot of my youth hunting for these wild places, these lands in which we were testing out and honing our skills as independent human beings. With no one there to instruct or steer or command us, we forged our own temporary societies, based upon the shared values of whoever chose to be there. There was one amazing wild place in the suburb of Athens, Greece in which my family lived for a time. An American friend and I were exploring some woods near the American Club when we emerged into a clearing that we slowly recognized as an abandoned, overgrown, outdoor movie theater. The projection room and other buildings were ostensibly locked up, but we found our way indoors with no problem. It was like discovering genuine ancient ruin in this ancient land. As we played, other kids arrived, Greek kids who spoke limited English. Our Greek was probably even more limited. At first everyone was cautious: indeed when they first arrived we hid from them, spying from behind a counter over which concessions had formally been sold. Then, emboldened by the fact that they seemed younger than us, we began to toss pebbles at them, ducking before they spotted us, giggling as they shouted in confusion. Finally, we revealed ourselves and we were soon all astronauts exploring craters on the moon.

I now recognize that many of my explorations and experiments as a young adult were simply more grown-up versions of seeking a wild place, spaces where conventional wisdom, conventional norms, did not exist, places where we, the kids, got to invent it, together, as we went along, making mistakes, of course, but also discovering that there are perfectly valid ways to create friendships and community beyond the straight-and-narrow ones with which we were provided by the work-a-day world. They were places in which we discovered things we liked and didn't like; where we could fully explore the possibilities of who we wanted to be; where we chose to be, but only as long as it worked for us, then, when it quit being good, we walked away. We were true anarchists in the best possible sense of that word.

These wild places are much more difficult to access today. Many children will grow up their entire lives without having the experience and it's both sad and wrong. Every day I hope that our school can be, at least in part, the sort of wild place children need.

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