Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Wide World Comforts Her

It was nearly a year ago that a good friend and I sat on a quilt in my backyard and marveled at how *calm* our both our intense children were as soon as we took them outside.
They drove each other to tears indoors, teasing, grabbing, bouncing quite literally off each other and my crayon marked walls, but as soon as they stepped outside, it was as if we had given the both behavioral meds!

Instantly calm, and happy to collect sticks together. We laughed the relieved laughter that only the parent of a "more" child can laugh...it was glorious!! It was like magic.

I shouldn't have been surprised.

Our girls have been lovers of the outdoors since they were infants. They never had any other choice, really! Barefoot Man took both of them for walks around the yard in the golden autumn air the first week they were born, Mirth in Oct and Lark in Sept. Lark had her first glimpse of our giant tulip tree and honeysuckles from daddy's cloth sling just a few hours after she'd suckled for the first time.

One of Mirth's favorite books is "When Sophie Gets Angry". It's about a little girl who has angry feelings exploding inside her like a volcano, and who finally feels peace when she runs into the forest and climbs a giant tree. Our favorite line is, "The wide world comforts her". That line is our favorite because it's so very true: it's hard to stay angry when the world around you is embracing you, dwarfing you, soothing you.

I'm currently reading a most excellent (if a bit rambling)book called "Last Child in the Woods", it's premise being that many children in our current society suffer from what he calls "nature deficit disorder". There are a great many thought provoking interviews in the book, as well as some really plausible theories about the connection between the apparent epidemic of ADHD and lack of unstructured outdoor play. It's a read that's well worth your time, and raises some really important questions about the effects of a sterilized childhood.

In addition to fleshing out the skeleton of some of my cherished beliefs, Last Child also brought back a flood of memories from my own girlhood. I realize that I was largely inspired, informed, nurtured and challenged by my own hand to hand experiences with nature. I'm made up of cotton plants and black eyed susans and bee stingers in my feet and grimy river dirt under my fingernails.

My favorite and most distinct memories are climbing the persimmon tree in our backyard, and squishing the rotten ones beneath my dusty keds. Of feeding baby birds with pairs of tweezers, watching my brother try and teach them to fly, and crying both happy and disappointed tears when ey finally did. Of squishing cool, plowed dirt between my little toes. Of tasting tiny green crab apples, of collecting nuts at my great grandma's house with mosquitoes buzzing my head, of crawling across the dirt to capture a blue tailed lizard (only to have it's tail come off when I grabbed it)

I remember rubbing brown dirt on my skinny arms and legs, and pretending to be friendly Pocahontas or brave Sacajawea. I remember flying out the door after piano lessons into the woods with my friends, brandishing stick-shaped pirate swords as we commandeered the musty old rotting tree house in the woods. I remember skimming my fingers over the fish smelling water outside my grandparent's boat, and the sting of my hair as it whipped my face in the wind. I remember making tepees out of big branches and moss and clumps of grass with my brother in the woods at my grandfather's cattle farm. I can still feel the rush of glee as I recall swinging on old vines over a small gully in my grandmother's back yard, and the flush of excitement that comes from escaping danger unscathed.

little Barefoot in a tree

I remember finding baby sharks in tidal pools and feeling an a deep connection to the restless, boundless sea as a teenager. Laying on my back and looking at the stars with my brother in our driveway, and dancing in the rain...something that brought me connection with my younger years and helped me not take myself too seriously. Of sneaking into the woods late in the night at summer camp with my good friend Lyn, and listening to the cicadas drone as we softly giggled under the watch of an enormous moonlit sky. Of feeling like we could conquer the world and dream our dreams out loud with no one around to make us feel self conscious.

Nature gave me a chance to process, to release, to try on new persona, to test myself, to teach myself "I can", to show me the world is bigger and more constant than my own emotions and thoughts. To quote my favorite girlhood heroine, it "soothed my crumpled spirits". It invited me to dream, and learn, and transport myself elsewhere.

Nate's childhood was perhaps even more closely connected to creation than even mine, and we share the ability to be almost instantly calmed and centered when we walk outdoors.

As an adult, I tend to thrive on order. I get a thrill from seeing all the laundry neatly stashed away, not feeling crumbs under my feet on the floor, and seeing my counters gleaming a cheery "hello" in the morning. (I am, admittedly, a little obsessive in my efforts sometimes. ) My family's life needs order and structure to run smoothly, and that's fine by me. I enjoy having everything in a reasonable state of organization. :oP

I also feel strongly urged let my daughters run wild a bit. Outdoors, unstructured, unfettered, uninhibited by rules about clothes or germs or climbing too high or messing anything up. While they might thrive on structure inside our home, their spirits and minds seem awakened when they get a chance to spend lots of time out in the wild, rambling, sensuous earth. They squish, they rip, they climb, they taste, they prod, they whoop with delight...and I'm trying my best to let them.

They need to feed their wild side more than they need educational shows or my calming techniques or nice, clean shoes. I need to remind myself daily to slap floppy hats on them, put on their old shoes and turn them loose. The world is their laboratory, their muse, their problem to solve, their challenge to conquer, their embrace.

The wide world comforts them. It comforts me, too. <3


  1. Yes my children are the same way!!!!!! In fact I myself crave to be outside!

  2. Hey, I found your blog a few years ago, and am the one who left you the crock pot cream cheese chicken recipe a long time ago, and still drop by your website to read (I hope that's ok). I just couldn't stand not leaving a comment anymore... because I just finished reading some books by Wendell Berry that echo these wonderful thoughts about the out of doors... are you familiar with this author? He's got the most brilliant way of writing about the outdoors, and community, and farm living, and God, and love, and life. I'm so thankful to have run across his books-- also heard him speak once last year at the Tivoli for a southern writers' conference. It's really informed my thinking on several things, as he really weaves in his life philosophy (centered in God, and work, and love, and especially community), and lives it out through his story. I've just read his book Hannah Coulter, and I am recommending it to you!

    Here's where I blog: www.xanga.com/hackenbizzl

  3. We live in a pine forest and my just-five-year olds say, "I love the nature." They find bones, feathers, pretty rocks and other treasures and, yes, are calmer playing in the big, wide world. Thanks for telling me about the Sophie book!

  4. susan- that's so awesome! What memories from childhood they'll have!

    sweetviolets- I haven't heard of those, I'll have to check that author out! You're always welcome to post on my blog. :o)

  5. This is Ash, by the way, posted under Nate's account name! :OP