Memories of a Free-Range Childhood

Aldo Leopold, ecologist, author and founder of the science of wildlife management, once wrote that there are those who love wild things and sunsets, and there are those who do not. While I agree that there are people who prefer to relax on the couch and watch television than to sit on a grassy hillside to watch the sun sink down over the mountains, I don’t think that people are born disliking nature. Children are drawn to animals and are natural “tree-huggers” (as well as tree-climbers!) If they dislike or fear nature, it’s because of a traumatic experience or because they’ve been sheltered from it because of growing up in an urban, human-centered environment.

We are born loving nature.  Author Edward O. Wilson, in his book Biophilia, wrote that humans’ attraction to animals and natural landscapes is biological and a result of evolution. But because humans are social creatures, even a thing like a love of nature can be socialized out of us. From an early age, we can be taught that nature is something to be studied, commoditized, feared or used for entertainment. Or, we can be taught that nature has inherent value, that it sustains and nurtures us, and that we cannot be separated from it without endangering our own physical and mental health. Nature, we teach children, is either something “out there” or it’s something that is a part of us and that we’re connected to.

People of my generation or older often remark about what a different world they grew up in. They reminisce about wandering all over town with their friends as children, playing in the lakes and streams and woods and making up games with found objects. When I was 10 years old, my friends and I used to walk around the ball fields behind my house with a fishing net and catch butterflies, which we would then put into a jar and observe for a while before letting them go. We would bike ride up and down the streets, visit garage sales, buy candy at the corner convenience store or ice cream cones at the Dairy Queen. Our mothers never seemed to worry where we were or if we were okay. They just asked us to be home for lunch and dinner, which we would happily do after an entire day of exploring the neighborhood.

I didn’t live in some idyllic pastoral valley far away from urban crime, either. I lived in inner city Detroit, and this was the mid 70s. My husband grew up in State College, Pennsylvania, and his memories of a free-range childhood are similar, but consist of more natural settings: dark forests, forbidden fishing ponds, and a small mountain anchoring the town.

My earliest memories of nature outside my neighborhood were weekends spent either on Lake Huron or at smaller, interior lakes, either boating or picnicking on the shore. I was afraid of the deep, black water, but my parents encouraged me to swim in it anyway. Entire afternoons would be spent in our motorboat, with the plap-plap-plap sound of the waves hitting the sideboard as my dad cast out his fishing line or my mom handed out sandwiches. When I got older, my family and I took a road trip across the country, and it was in a campground in South Dakota that I took my first walk in the wild woods. That vacation was a big part of why I now live in Colorado, and why I love to hike.

My parents were protective, but they didn’t teach me that nature is something to fear or abuse. Our vacations, which were mostly road trips with our aluminum trailer in tow, took place in the countryside, in campgrounds, on scenic byways and national parks. Nature was a reward, a place to rest and rejuvenate, and a place to find that wildness that was so lacking in the inner city where we lived.

In the 21st century, things are different. Many parents fear letting their children out of sight of the backyard. The public school system teaches science, but not place-based ecology. Children learn to analyze nature but not necessarily love it. Nature is taught as being necessary for economy, as having value only as an object to be quantified, studied and turned into profit. Loving something requires having a relationship with it, and it’s hard to have a relationship with numbers, pictures in a book, or cells seen through a microscope.

When children are given an opportunity to have a relationship with nature, either through trips to the lake, or by observing backyard animals, or fishing in lakes and streams, they develop memories that influence how they perceive nature later in life. Rivers have value for more than just electricity generation. Forests have value for more than just timber and pulp. Oceans have value for more than just gas and oil exploration. These wild places are necessary for our survival and our humanity.

They will grow up knowing this, not because they learned it in a textbook. They will know it because they dream about being in vast, natural places or because they long for the sacred peacefulness of a glassy lake at dawn. They will become lovers of wild things and sunsets.