I make my home among the rows of houses and shops choking Silicon Valley's edge. On the other side of the freeway, an emptying reservoir and yawning manzanitas crawl over the undeveloped hills to the ocean. On this side, the homes - tight little 1940's bungalows interspersed with towering McMansions that eat up entire lots, leaving no room for a yard, back or front - line up like soldiers along straight sidewalk-lined streets. The green grass of our parks stretch around wood-chipped play grounds and encircle open sand boxes. Any oak showing the slightest sign of disease is efficiently hacked down and a shiny play structure or water feature erected in its place. Wildflowers and weeds are trimmed back or sprayed. The occasional sparrow perches amongst the "topped" park trees and my boys can sometimes search out a lonely spider. This is our outdoors.
Last summer, tucked in my snug neighborhood, I read Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv. I struggled to turn each page, to read another sentence, and, as I pushed through each chapter, I felt more suffocated, more heartbroken and more scared for my boys, for their generation. We've created a generation of plugged in children, who are strangers to outdoor living, to unfettered wilderness and unstructured time in it. How likely would my boys be to wander off into the woods unsupervised, to build a fort there, to dam a creek, to unearth polliwogs, to truly interact with nature as the author insisted they must?
I looked around my own neighborhood - at our clean schools, mowed lawns, lack of climbing trees - and wondered how to expose my children to nature at her finest, or even at her lowest. The author urged that even those of us in more urban environments can look to empty lots (there is no such thing on the San Francisco Peninsula) or unmanicured corners of parks to explore nature through the seasons, to investigate the small creatures living there.
Determinedly, we set out in search of local wild places. We uncovered a few forgotten hikes amongst the tightly knit homes of the Bay Area - a few walks where wild flowers still spotted an otherwise barren hill and calls of birds could be heard. For the most part, though, those hikes were too demanding for preschoolers and our passage through them too fleeting. Still, we marveled that such places could still exist and treasured them for what they were - a touch of the natural in our otherwise unnatural life.
We offered nature a corner of our tiny yard, leaving weeds to roam, fallen leaves to disintegrate and one morning we discovered a newt hiding in the debris. We set out bird feeders, a bird bath, and plants that would feed and provide habitat. Again, success. Birds appeared from Lord knows where and our yard is now a teeming haven for pecking, digging and nesting. A sole toad made his home in our undisturbed cover crop and dragonflies hover overhead.
Still, though, I yearned for the idyllic vision of my boys splashing in a creek, catching frogs, crossing by way of a log bridge, discovering hiding places amongst overgrown trees. Visiting my family in the country, we caught glimpses of this dream but they lasted only for a few days. Until last week.
The boys and I met a friend at a local park one city over. We'd visited this park many times. The playground is enclosed to prevent escapees and the slides and tunnels are shaded by tall trees. While my friend and I chatted, I noticed some children entering the playground, barefoot, mud weighing down their pants. They must have been playing in the creek, my friend noted. The what?!?
It turns out, all this time, nature has held out, struggled along in a polluted little creek bed tucked in a ravine behind a favorite local park. We returned the next day and hiked down to the tiny stream. My oldest crossed a rock dam and fell into the water, losing his shoe. I laughingly retrieved it and received a splash from the little guy for my efforts. The boys collected a stick, a piece of floating bark, and an oak apple. They dared each other to wade in further, around the corner, past this rock and then that. They discovered water bugs, tip-toeing across the water, and searched for frogs, picking up the rubber band and empty beer can buried in the creek bed. Soaked with the city's dirty water, we then climbed up through a forgotten enclave of trees. We kept our shoes on to avoid cuts from the broken glass strewn across the path. The big boy discovered a hollowed out tree trunk. Perhaps an owl lives there, he wondered. When I lifted him to peek inside, he asked what the yellow thing was. I peered over the edge - trash inside a hallowed tree. My heart sank - just a little.
It is hard to stay down with robins skittering on the path ahead, the sound of a stream bubbling over small boulders, children racing ahead giggling. We crossed the creek again - this time over a rock dam and headed to the car, my pockets bulging with plastic wrappers and bottle caps. Here was nature, plugged with litter and invasive plants, but here she was nonetheless! We embraced her for all her sordid, resistant beauty and for her gift of an hour of childhood.