5 Stories of A Little Boy in Nature
camping children nature deficit disorder
The Hilton Beach Club
I pushed a palm frond away from my face and crouched straddling a rocky creek bed. Frogs and fat grubs squirmed around my toes. My sister came up from behind and asked why we'd stopped. There was a spider on a pebble - minuscule, almost translucent green and yellow - staring at me with all eight of its bead-eyes. I remembered my older friend telling me stories of spiders with venom so powerful, it would rot your flesh. Was this tiny green thing of that variety?
We were hours from the cafe where we had left our mother, or so we thought. Following the stream, almost crawling through it on our bellies, we climbed out of the jungle into...a parking lot. We were just behind the building and waited for the man taking out the trash to go back inside before climbing out of the forest and running on the hot pavement, picking up our feet like prancing gazelles, back to our mother and her cappuccino.
I had walked the trail so many, many, many, many times, I had lost count. Every twisted root and the divot it made was a part of my gait, and I could walk that trail in the darkest of moonless nights, if I'd had the courage, which I knew I did not.
Now I walked past my cabin, lake on one side and woods on the other. The trail sometimes seemed like its border with the lake was fraying, or it was just so close to the water with trees leaning out and logs fallen across both trail and shoreline, that I always felt like the path was part of the lake, rather than border to it.
I remember the texture of the pines that jutted up out of the ground in the middle of the trail, where hundreds of children's feet had set a path on either side, like a stream of footprints in time. The tree-skin was worn smooth, but peeled off in thin strips like tissue paper. The trees didn't mind the kids idly picking at them; it was how we showed our interest and our deep preoccupation with the trees for these magical four weeks away from the cities.
At the end, past all the new cabins and the old ones that looked haunted at the end of the row, the trail opened onto a semi-circle of benches, all tilted and thrown up as if a miniature earthquake had struck just this point. Here, the land really had to admit it was time to become lake, but it held on stubbornly; behind the firepit was a small gateway of brush that led to the enchanted mudwalk, and the entire clearing was ringed in marsh and reeds.
I chose a bench that was more or less level, pulled out my book, and sat to read until the dinner bell rang.
Dinner was over and I was wandering off on my own, to be alone, because I was that strange kid that liked quiet.
I traced the shoreline of the lake until it went from packed dirt to bare rock and sat on a point that reached sloping down into the water, like the back of a whale. The dirt and moss encroached onto the stone and just where it ended I chose my seat. A claw of a bush rose next to me, the plant that had ventured the furthest away from the loamy comfort of the inner island.
It has always amazed me how detailed the tiny worlds of nature are. Find a patch of dirt, or grass, or forest, and get as close to it as you can. It need only be a few square centimeters, but you will see an entire city, rivaling the activity and complexity of our greatest. I once spent an hour every day for an entire week staring at a patch of forest next to my campsite, writing down my observations, and there was always something new happening.
Today, a spider was weaving a web in the bush next to me. I had never seen that in person, though I had seen it plenty of times on nature shows, captured and time-lapsed for the convenience of the viewing audience. Here was the spider in his home territory, working at his own pace, with such a drive and determined patience as would shame a student like myself. And the intricacy of it was astounding! I remember wondering how it knew to weave that web with such precise spacing, such accurate proportions. And it was tiny, but I was witnessing the creature's entire day's work coming to fruition. And to think I might carelessly walk through such a web and ruin such a labor.
I sat and watching for a long time but the spider's diligence outlasted my patience, and I finally returned to camp, hoping to beat the monsoon of mosquitoes that came every night.
The Spider Nest
In the middle of the field, right were it is split by the road, sits a tall bush, about the height of a person, and wide enough to engulf one. It was the perfect hiding place, so I pried apart its dense branches and clambered inside, not without a lot of cracking branches.
I made myself comfortable standing in the hollow space of this living cage and waiting for the game to start.
From a tiny white ball at my chest level, a tiny black dot emerged. Horror gripped me. Another dot emerged, and my worst fears were realized; they were spiders. Their legs gave them away, and here I was trapped inside a bush with them.
I started to climb out but with all the bustle I'd make, I worried I would get these baby spiders, which were multiplying by the second, all over me.
Or maybe I was just fascinated. In the cartoon Charlotte's Web, I'd seen Charlotte's babies being born, and I was surprised that the whole process really did look like that. The babies didn't go anywhere. They just crawled into the bush and disappeared.
I stayed and watched, completely forgetting the game, and forgotten by it.
Looking back, spiders played a big role in my childhood experience of nature, and I realize that they still do; whenever I climb trees or roll around in the dirt, I wonder if there are any spiders to watch out for. They are the one critter I expect to infest my clothes and spin webs all over me, even after I get home, and they are always nearby, living their strange, eight-eye lives. I once saw a spider wrap a cricket in silk and start to suck the guts out of it. Daddy-long-legs have always terrified and intrigued me (I know, they are not really spiders). Something about all those legs, the confidence and ability of such a tiny creature that can climb trees, SCUBA dive, make its house, and stand up to creatures thousands of times its own size.
But it is the natural world itself that made the biggest impression on me. Its influence is subtle, and when we are cut off from it, we don't always realize how significant it is. Instead, little concerns like money, popularity, grades, rankings, promotions, budgets, mortgages, social status begin to loom larger in our minds. They grow like swelling cysts, slowly enough that we don't even notice them choking us until it is too late. And by then, we may have forgotten how to breathe deeply at all.
I have one more story to share: The Playful Mountain
This morning, driven by necessity, I stepped out the door, even though there was two feet of snow on the ground, and walked into the mountains. I needed to remember why I had come to Boulder in the first place, and why I had insisted on living so near the trails above the city. I scrambled and stumbled through the snow, getting farther and farther away from town, until I was lost in silent snow and my world was nothing but the sound of my breath and the shuff-shuff of my wet shoes. I looked across a valley to see a mountain whose top was lost in the icy mist, and imagined that it went on forever, an infinite icepeak like something out of Norse mythology.
Up the slope, I spotted a twisted, fallen tree that beckoned to me. I started up on foot, then moved to a crawl, suddenly hyper-aware of my balance and the shifting ice that obscured the rocks that might help me climb. Slowly, I worked my way up, face right above the ground, hands and feet and knees as aware of the mountainside as they might be of a lover held tight.
Coming to the tree, I climbed underneath its branches, using the lowest ones to pull me through the snow, then I climbed out the other side and up a pile of boulders. At the top, I stood for a moment, then started back down in a crawl that quickly devolved into a butt-sliding avalanche that carried me giggling the hundred or so yards back to the trail.
I don't know why but that slide caught me by surprise. I was used to moving under control, but it felt like the mountain picked me up in her arms and gave me a ride, totally free of the danger that normally comes with tumbling down a steep rocky slope; I imagine it was what a baby feels like being tossed in the air by his father: exhilarated, but confident in his safety, and simply tickled.
I stood and brushed the snow off me, glad to have laughed so freely after so long worrying about my life in Boulder. I thanked the mountain, and hoped I hadn't upset any of the plants on the slope too badly. I was truly grateful for that small treat, and tried to remember the important things on my way home.
Photo credit: Anna "Rocketpack" Pusack