I wrote Our Wild Place in 2006 as a proposed picture book, back when I was contemplating doing children’s literature instead of young adult fiction. Perhaps some time in the future, I’ll get together with my artist friend James Arnold and make it happen.
The genesis of this piece was that my daughters were 12 and 7 then, and for several years, they had been fond of spending many hours in the little wooded area between our yard and the neighbors’. There, they would play make-believe, look for fairies, pick flowers, collect leaves and interesting stones, and watch bugs and birds.
Fireflies and toads visit every summer; sometimes woodchucks and raccoons do, too; and there was even a pair of deer there one morning. It’s a small but magical place, just over the fence.
Kids today have a lot of electronic toys and “structured activities,” but I believe that what they really need is more free time outside, playing, exploring, and having fun without grown-up interference. Doing so develops their thinking–, observation–, and motor skills; promotes their independence; and cultivates an appreciation for the trees, grass, rocks, and wildlife that are hopefully not very far away from their homes.
When I was growing up in Phoenix in the mid-1970’s, I shared a “wild place” with the other boys in the neighborhood. It was an undeveloped lot: one side had rows of palm trees, where you could find little lizards and scorpions, but was otherwise not that interesting. Much more fun was the other side, a bunch of mounds of dirt, each about 3 feet high, that had been packed down and were nigh-rock hard.
We called this lot “the dirt hills,” and our predecessors had worn a bike path over and down many of the mounds, creating a challenging and thrilling ride. We found plywood and used it as ramps to jump over the car tires we found there, or we’d bring along our plastic rifles and Army helmets, divide into two teams, and play “War.”
It doesn’t snow in Phoenix, so instead of snowballs, we found or gouged out dirt clods to throw at each other, using the mounds for cover. Getting hit by a dirt clod stung just enough to encourage caution, and when it happened, the clod would explode into a small cloud of dust, a most satisfying visual for attacker and target alike. We rarely got hurt during these battles, because the agreed-upon rule among us was that you weren’t allowed to throw dirt clods that had rocks in them.
I moved away from Phoenix as a boy, and when I returned for a visit as an adult, the dirt mounds and trees had been bulldozed over, houses built where they had stood. A “wild place” is a temporary pleasure, even if it remains unspoiled: the thicket beyond our back fence is still there, but my girls have grown, of course, and they have abandoned it for more sophisticated amusements, as young people are wont to do.
Perhaps, some day, it may again be a “wild place” for other young explorers. Perhaps my grandchildren will be among them. I—and it—will wait to see.