When I was a kid, the woods were my second home. My friends and I would come home from school every day, get handed a snack, and then get thrown out of the house until dinner time, expected to entertain ourselves in ways that didn’t bother any grownups. Most days, we’d trot down the well-worn trails into the woods behind our neighborhood, where we’d climb trees, build forts, splash about in creeks, investigate the detritus dumped in the woods, and otherwise have unstructured fun beneath the untended wild canopy that’s fairly typical of most suburban communities.
Years later, when I lived near Albany, New York, I kept on exploring my local woods, eventually creating a photo essay series called “Hidden in Suburbia.” The premise behind this project was that I did regular deep dives into the woods around my community, never going more than five miles from my home, essentially recreating those childhood days of walking into the woods and being receptive to whatever I found there. Given the deep history of that part of Upstate New York, there were truly some amazing, forgotten finds back in those woods, which I was always happy to share.
Fast forward to 2019: I moved back to Des Moines, Iowa, a couple of months ago. My daughter (mostly raised in New York) and her boyfriend (a Des Moines native) live here, so it’s been wonderful to be close to them again. Last week, on one of the rare nice days we’ve had here this spring, my daughter’s boyfriend and I decided to go on a trek through the woods where he spent his own time as a kid. We had a great day, slogging across creeks, pushing through brambles, scaling post-industrial escarpments created by generations of landfill dumping, investigating all sorts of illicit detritus left in the woods, trekking across a meadow that generations have used for dirt bike riding, quietly tiptoeing away from a homeless camp we found, and just generally enjoying being in the moment, there in the woods. It was a full, rich day.
But you know what we didn’t see while we loped about in the woods? Young people, nor even any signs that they’d been there. We saw no tree forts, no stones placed to facilitate creek crossings, no cairns, nor any other evidence that these woods were routinely accessed by the kids who live around them. That seems sad to me, on some plane. Yes, I know that today’s children have opportunities for all sorts of global engagement via their televisions and phones and tablets, but still, I can’t help but think that climbing trees and damming creeks and building forts gave me more meaningful, resonant life skills than anything I’ve ever accessed on a computer, and what a loss it is if kids don’t get to have such experiences anymore.
Do you have a young person in your life? If so, here’s hoping you have some woods near your home, and that you can take them out for an unstructured adventure therein. I guarantee they will love it, and 50 years hence, they may be writing about it as I am today!