July 15, 2003

Marginal Land: Suburbs and Place

Ms. Dickenson may have been on to something with her prairie consisting of only one flower and a bee. Where I grew up, a quarter acre vacant wooded lot and a small boy was enough to make a wilderness. Like so many kids in the boomer generation, my early years were spent in the suburbs on the edges of an expanding metropolis and I learned about life from the midst of a pseudopodial subdivision sprawled out beyond the old city center, up out of Jones Valley and onto the low mountainsides of the far southern Appalachian ridges around Birmingham, Alabama.

I grew up in city limits but was happiest when I imagined myself to be in the 'country'. From the relative wildness of vacant lots and wooded neighborhood margins I was able to pretend to be a pioneer... like the very popular Davy Crockett of the times... and lived in wilderness. It was here rather than in the ball parks and community pools that I first felt an attachment to place, in the larger sense of living not in just a neighborhood or city but in 'a place with trees like these, mountains, rocks, creeks that look just so'. Playing in the woods (even though that was only a fraction of an acre in some of my favorite wild places) I sensed that here I was closer to 'native land', and so I was closer to being a native myself; and of course playing 'cowboys and Indians' in those tiny woods was part of that connection to an earlier time when men were closer to 'the soil' than any of our white-collared fathers were.

Just what there was about those suburban woodlots that fascinated me so I suppose is not too hard to say. Surely important was the fact that it was 'unimproved' and there, the way things were is the way things were, everything was in the place it should be and managed to get along quite nicely on its own without man's help in any way. There was an authenticity about that I liked. I remember being fascinated by nature as an economy, a 'sacred grove' in a sense where God spoke it into being and so it was. Then too, there was in these quiet groves a strangeness and mystery in the darkness and stillness; there was a Presence there. And in a child's imagination, anything might crawl, fly or slither from behind any random tree. And sometimes they did... snakes, birds, coons and possums. I picked blackberries there in the spring, shot my BB gun, throw rocks at cans, whittled a slingshot, and lay on my back and watched clouds for the first time in those woody patches of suburbia. And as I grew older, I required more of the unspoken nutrient that this remote and natural kind of place offered me.

Summer camp figures into this longing for open natural space. From an early age, I was exported well beyond the limits of the city to a rough and beautiful pine forest to summer camp. I went as a camper at age ten, and found my woodlot magnified a thousand-fold, living in a cabin named after an Indian tribe, smelling nature, hearing the rush of the falls, riding horses in woods, paddling canoes under arching branches where snakes basked in the sun, swimming in the warm brown creek water, being an indigenous person. I came back to this same camp as a junior leader, then leader, and finally for two years was on the staff of upper class high school kids who were life guards, tended the horses, lead games and hikes and music, and got to come all summer for free plus a few dollars pay. This experience was an extension of those joys and necessities I first experienced at the edges of suburbia. The more I got of it, the more I wanted.

Along the way, I had become fascinated with fishing, which possesses its own isolation, otherness and wildness. Mostly I fished alone and from the shore, and more often than not, I'd find myself thoroughly distracted by some little thing in the woods along the lake and forget fishing entirely. When I was old enough for a BB gun and then a small caliber rifle, I thought maybe I'd find satisfaction in hunting, but killing things was not the manly adventure it seemed to be when Davy killed him a 'bar' and so I never became a hunter after all. In high school and early college, many of my friends followed their fathers onto the golf courses that spread into the countryside with the expanding city where they went to find relative solitude, wildness, otherness, hoping to discover it by chasing behind a little white ball. I worked on a golf course one summer, but this sport seemed to miss the point and left me empty, and I'd wander off into the rough turning logs for salamanders, out of the way from humming projectiles hit with sticks by grown men who paid large sums to have an excuse to get out under the sky. I ultimately accepted that, for me, I needed no excuse, that being there was the point, and guns, rods and reels, clubs and other toys were merely tangible justifications for immersion in natural places in a society that seems to expect 'a reason' for grown men to be happily outdoors.

All of the wild places I explored as an older boy with my rifle or fishing pole, out on the edges of human habitat south of Birmingham, are every one of them under asphalt now, covered with condos and shopping 'mauls', nicely landscaped, tamed, private or unwelcoming public places. Even the rocky cliffs I climbed south of town... the very southern teminus of the ancient Appalachians, I later discovered... are now covered with expensive homes, gated mountainside communities, and in the valleys, private fishing lakes and golf courses. To return to these places of memory and discover the transformation is like finding that a favorite wild, free creature has been broken and harnessed to servitude and does not recognise me any more. Even the edges from youth were not far enough away for lasting wildness, and perhaps it is this experience in some sense that has compelled me to find remoter places, not just to visit, but in which to make my home.

And so today, we live every day well beyond the edges of a town so small there are no suburbs. I have a vast woodlot around me, two creeks full of bright fish and sunlight, tranquility by the skyfull, and no neighbors to disturb in my rambling walks. This perhaps is the 'place' I felt I belonged to long ago. I have to wonder if I did not start moving here while picking berries with small hands, behind my suburban house in a secret patch of woods.

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Read other posts about "Suburbs" or Edges and how they impact our sense of place at this week's Ecotone BiWeekly Topic.

Posted by fred1st at July 15, 2003 07:43 AM | TrackBack

I too grew up in the fringes of suburbia - military bases to be exact. They always seemed to have unspolied area on the borders. In Spain it was a swamp, in Florida it was woods and on the other side of the woods, The Gulf of Mexico, in Utah it was the desert mountains, and on Kwajalein Island, less than a mile square, we discovered a bounty of subterranian excitement in the tunnels left over from WWII. It wasn't quite legal for us to be down there...

Today - I don't feel safe letting the kids explore beyond the back yard unsupervised. Not that there is anything left in the suburbs to explore. It's all been paved over or fenced in. We try to make sure the kids have plenty of time alone, to read, build with Legos, etc. and otherwise figure out who they are and what they like. However, I can't shake the feeling that they are missing out by not doing that sort of stuff while wandering through woods that although only 1/2 mile from home, seems like a 1000 miles at the time.

Interesting that my memories of place from growing up are tied not to home or the neighborhood - but the fringes that my parents didn't really know about.

Posted by: Chris at July 15, 2003 09:02 AM

I've been thinking about how odd it seems that my memories of childhood seem so connected to vast woods, exploration, and freedom when in fact, I lived this part of my life in a sprawling neighborhood. Granted the houses were smaller and the lots bigger than in most neighborhoods being built today, but they were still encroaching upon the same landscape, the same wildness that gave me my start in life, whether real or imagined. I don't see suburban kids finding wildness today, physical or mental. They have plans and schedules instead. Of course, I'm probably just having a nostalgic knee-jerk reaction to this aspect of our new lifestyle. Perhaps it isn't better or worse, just different. But, I hope I can find a little wildness for my own children one day.

Posted by: Wendy at July 15, 2003 10:03 AM

The place memories I have from childhood are from those unparented places as well, although there was no wilderness at the edges of our Los Angeles suburb. Those wild places would have been well-used in my neighborhood, and I wonder if they would have shaped me differently, brought me to a love of the wilds sooner.

But what's similar to your experience is that as kids we found that wildness in places so small. Surrounded by lawns and concrete, we crowded into the hollow of a hedge or climbed the branches of trees to hold our play. The strip of mint bush behind my house, alive with grasshoppers was as necessary and known as a nearby woods might have been.

Posted by: Lisa Thompson at July 15, 2003 10:09 AM

Those 'edges' where we explore alone (and safely) are important to growing understanding of the natural world, and I think we need to comprehend this when designing communities in the future (as well as 'back yards', Lisa). I'd be happy to see more unimproved woodland and pasture, even in acre patches, adjacent to living spaces in suburbia. These are playgrounds as much as treeless places inside fences.

Posted by: fred1st at July 15, 2003 10:14 AM

That spot under Grandma's currant bush, and the "trail" between it and the rhubarb, were wilderness for sure! What I see kids missing today is freedom - of all kinds. Sometimes I wonder how we grew up without carseats and crash helmets, hydration packs and phosphorescent electrolytic liquids, let alone being allowed to roam anywhere so long as we were home by five. Good post, Fred.

Posted by: beth at July 15, 2003 04:22 PM

Angst over those lost days is more than nostalgia. Not only did the wild places connect us to nature, they nurtured our creativity. We were free to explore and imagine.

My own children live in an older neighborhood that has been tamed. We keep the corners ragged and they have a 'garden' where they are able to dig and play and build and be themselves. I have dirt on my floors and sand in the tub, but my kids are creative and articulate and don't watch television all the time. However their parents may respond, I enjoy watching the 'clean' kids come for a visit. The 'cleaner' their home, the faster they seem to migrate to the garden. Many on their first visit can't believe that they are allowed to dig in the yard. It makes me sad for them and I wonder about the future.

What are we losing when imaginations are suborned to video and children are no longer free to play?

Posted by: punctilious at July 15, 2003 09:43 PM

I don't know quite what we're losing, punctilious, but I'll bet it's a lot... I love it that you keep a haven of playable dirt around for the local kids. From here it feels very "real."

When I was visiting my sister in Maine recently we took the two kids and one of their friends out to the woods where they were going to build a house for the fairies. These children are not lacking in imagination--they talk to themselves for hours in the morning playing with imaginary things we can't see--but they are never unsupervised. And they have more freedom than most of their friends. I, too, remember most vividly experiences I had when I was alone or with other kids, exploring the landscape (interior or exterior)....

Posted by: Pica at July 16, 2003 09:41 AM

I had the thought when reading these comments that maybe technology will facilitate kids having a little more freedom than they do nowadays. I'm thinking specifically of things like the Garmin Rino, which is a GPS equipped with a FRS walkie talkie: you can see on the screen of the GPS exactly where the party you're talking to over the radio is. This is one of these gizmos I don't personally have much need for, but perhaps there are some parents out there thinking this is a _really_ useful invention.

I don't think this outcome is actually very likely, but stranger things have happened in the relationship between technology and society.

Posted by: Numenius at July 16, 2003 02:37 PM

I visited Birmingham for the first time just a few weeks ago. From the air I was impressed by the amount of forested hills there were surrounding the city. I was on business and on a tight schedule so I never got to visit them. But it seemed like a place where the "wild" was still a little closer to town than it is in some other places.

Posted by: bill at July 16, 2003 11:30 PM

I agree that suburbia sucks in general...but our concept of wilderness has been framed by popular literature. The reality was much different. People migrated to cities to escape poverty and lack of opportunity. Farm children in rural America worked the farm, they were not free to wander the woods.

I was raised in a very small town in central California in the 1950's. I had a Huck Finn childhood...but my parents provided the means by living in town and working 8-5. Our neighborhood wasn't very different than modern suburbia...just closer to the wilderness and less dense. We had a neighborhood general store and everything else was "downtown" some ten blocks away.

My friends who lived on farms were obliged to go home after school to work. Summers were not days of endless freedom and glorious possibilities but days of rising at 4:00AM to milk or work along side dad or mom on the farm.

We didn't see some kids...other than at church and community doings such as the 4th of July festivities or the Labor Day picnic...until school resumed.

Funny and true story...a friend, a New Yorker...born and raised in Manhattan... moved to Sausalito...bought a great house on a 1/2 acre wooded lot overlooking the bay. My friend freaked...she couldn't see her neighbors! She hated the quiet, the inablity to zip down the block to get a coffee, a bit of conversation or a book at 2:00AM. She wanted her dry cleaning picked up, her Chinese take-out, groceries and drugstore items delivered. The isolation totally creeped her out and she was in trendy Marin Burbs...not the country. She sold up and moved into an apartment building in North Beach (SF)...where she's happy as a clam...with the noise and hustle bustle. Not everyone craves space.

Posted by: feste at July 20, 2003 07:17 PM

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