When I was a boy in Phoenix, AZ in the mid-1970’s, there was a vacant lot on West Denton Lane, behind the townhome complex where I lived. It was a fairly large space—at least an acre. Half of it was rows of very tall palm trees, and though one could find lizards and scorpions there, it wasn’t that interesting, to us or the other boys I hung out with, as it’s very hard to climb palm trees, and there’s not much point in doing so.
But the other half of the lot was bare, brown, hard dirt, studded with mounds, each about three to four feet high, of soil packed down solidly. We called this place “the dirt hills,” and it was the place to play.
We would ride our bikes along trails, worn down by our predecessors, atop the mounds, doing jumps, attempting tricks, and—of course—crashing and injuring ourselves, but no too badly: bruises, scrapes, skinned knees and elbows. We would bring our plastic toy pistols and rifles and cap guns and play “War” there, using the mounds for cover.
As Phoenix receives no snow for snowballs, we would find or break off clumps of packed dirt and throw them at each other. The dirt clods would explode into a cloud of dust when it hit a target—a most satisfying visual—and stung just enough on impact to encourage caution. The two universally-agreed upon rules during these battles were 1) not to aim for anyone’s head, and 2) that you were not to throw dirt clods with rocks, so as not to seriously hurt anyone.
The summer between my 7th-grade and 8th-grade years, my mother and I moved from Phoenix to Greenbelt, MD. A suburb of Washington, DC, Greenbelt was (and the old part of it is still) a beautiful place built in harmony with Nature. Here were new territories to explore, new places to wander and play in. I fell in love with trees and the Lake, the new animals, the change of seasons (and snow!).
The “dirt hills” of West Denton Lane are gone: the lot was developed, and houses were built there. Much of the woods where I used to wander in Greenbelt were cut down for homes and office buildings, strip malls and parking. But I will always remember those wild places where I used to roam.
Many years have gone by since I was a boy. I married and had children of my own, settled down and bought a house of my own (on Maryland’s Eastern Shore). Along the way, I noticed that many children the same age as mine didn’t go run around like I did, or my friends, or probably you (if you’re a certain age). They had “play dates” and “structured activities” and spent more time “online” than they did outdoors. If they were outside, it was for team sports: soccer, t-ball and baseball and softball, flag football.
None of those things are inherently bad. But I felt like something was missing. So I introduced my two young girls to the little patch of woods on the other side of our backyard fence. “Go see what’s there, and have fun,” I told them. “I’ll be inside if you need me–just come get me.”
And that was how my daughters discovered their own “wild place.”
They went, explored, spent hours there, playing pretend games, picking flowers, climbing trees, collecting rocks, and doing who-knows-what: I never intruded. They took their cousins and friends there, shared it with them.
Seeing them inspired me to write a short essay on the joys of going outside to play. The essay sat on my website for several years, until my friend Patrick Eibel–now the father of a young child–found it, added some photographs he took, and made it into a short picture book. He presented me with a copy, and when I saw what he had done, I knew we had to share this.
After several re-writes, and gathering and tweaking images, we published Our Wild Place, to show children what possibilities await them, and to remind their parents of times they had. To encourage kids and grown-ups to engage again with Nature. To make them wonder, “What’s over there?” And to prompt them to go find out.
A child’s wild place is temporary. It either is claimed and overtaken by society, then tamed and transformed into somewhere “useful” in the name of “progress”–or it is eventually abandoned in favor of other, more mature past times. Our hope with Our Wild Place is to show that while time never stands still, some things are, nevertheless, eternal.
We hope you will join us in discovering–or re-discovering–a wild place of your own.
In addition to Our Wild Place, Kenton Kilgore is the author of Lost Dogs, the story of a German Shepherd and a Beagle-mix who survive the end of the human world, only to find that their struggles have just begun. Kenton also wrote Dragontamer’s Daughters, a two-part young adult fantasy novel based on Navajo culture and belief. Follow Kenton on Facebook for daily posts on sci-fi, fantasy, and other speculative fiction.