Miss Bennet, there seemed to be a prettyish kind of a little wilderness at the side of your lawn. I should be glad to take a turn in it.
-Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Pride and Predjudice
I remember when I was in 5th or 6th grade I "discovered" a forgotten patch of earth out near the alley, along the path to the trash cans. So, you must imagine a rectangular piece of property, about 8' by 13', with a nice-ish flagstone path on one side, our yard on one side, neighbor's yard line on the other, and the...ahem...alley on the other. I'm sure I was either taking out the trash or feeding the bunny when my eyes were opened and--Lo!--I realized that here was a piece of land that could be my very own. It was filled with underbrush, 8" deep in old leaves, newspapers and a few wrappers blown into the mix, with low sprouting branches from some weed trees crowding the space. But I had a vision. And a kind mother. So, I called up the members of my book club who came over to help.
We called it The Paradise, this little patch no one seemed to care too much about, out near the alley. Though the local electrician had his workshop across the alley, its odd and ugly parts became invisible to us. We raked out the leaves and branches. We cleared out the bits of trash, feeling particularly triumphant. We snipped or simply snapped off the lower branches. We found some violets and hyacinths. We lugged two insanely heavy concrete bollards from the side of the electrician's workshop and a slatted steel grate and turned it all into a bench. I'm not sure we asked Mr. Lambert's permission to abscond with these items. I think I assumed anything 'back there' belonged to us. Perhaps I asked him.
We made a space to meet together, a small room with trees on three-ish sides. We made order and shaped a corner to beauty, both on that bit of earth and within ourselves.
We sat on our bench and looked up through the tree branches at the sky. We not-quite-little girls were silent together. Peaceful. Then, we talked quietly. And then together we offered ideas on what to name our special place. One of my friends who had a lot of chaos at home imagined how she could live there, what she could do if her parents died, and she needed a place to go. It was a deep conversation for 10 and 11 year-olds, but it wasn't a sad one. It was a hopeful one, in which we explored mortality and friendship and beauty and interdependence, a kind of mix of Little House on the Prairie grit mixed with Anne of Green Gables dreamery.
I remember how this friend would often ask if she could come over after school, "to work on The Paradise." I enjoyed The Paradise (and was proud of it and proud of what we'd done), but it mattered far more to her than it did to me. I noticed it even at the time. When we named our place I'm pretty certain we used her suggestion. And for her, "The Paradise" did represent something paradisal: a longing for something "ever greater" and yet it also was a place of peace for her.
I look out at my treeless backyard with a certain amount of helpless remorse. In suburbia, we're so careful of our yards! Do any of us have any overlooked patches a child could seize upon to develop in his or her own way? Have you noticed any losses to your children in the way yards are professionally landscaped--planned, mowed, trimmed, blown? What do you wish for? How do you allow your children to creatively shape the landscape? Is yardwork and gardening a family activity? Do you let your children "mess-make" in the yard? Do you camp or hike? Do your children and teens have any unstructured (by you) time outdoors? I'd be glad to hear where you're at with these questions.
My heart longs to give such experiences to my children and to give you what you need to facilitate these experiences in your own families. I hope Episode 13: Gardening as Humanizing, with Katherine Leaño brings you joy. And if I were you, I'd check out the booklist for this episode because it's incredible. I don't own most of these books and I wish I did! If I had to pick three books, I'd recommend Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt for ages 3-8 and The Vanderbeekers and the Hidden Garden for ages 8-13 and The Secret Garden for ages 8-98. And if you don't know how to get started being outside try I Love the Dirt! Also, there is a fantastic movement to spend more time outside. You can find that encouragement here.