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My Not-So-Wild Wild Life

My minister asked us this morning to think about how we experienced nature early in our lives. Here goes.

I grew up in suburban New Jersey and, as a kid, my wild place was behind our house. We lived in the first house into our neighborhood, a busy road on one side of our home, a neighbor on the other, and backed by a rust-colored, 15-foot-wide stream lolling through a steep-sided creekbed. Picturesque, this was not. The “woods,” such as they were, were no more than 30 feet deep before the creek in our backyard and then widened to the right, between the creek and neighbors’ backyards. There were two paths through those woods, one that ran closer to the creek, one a bit closer to the homes.

Growing up, this seemed like all the woods one could ever wish for. We would play various hide-and-seek and play-fight games in this narrow strip that girdled the creek, all the way to a footbridge where the creek disappeared into a circular metal tube. It was maybe a quarter-mile total that, in my mind, comprised the Matawan Forest.

For some reason, we hardly ever ventured under or beyond the bridge and that point on the creek. And we rarely went under the bridge near my house in the other direction, even though it meant basically never exploring even 20 yards downstream from our house. If the bridges were inlayed with ancient runes and magical spells prohibiting our passage, they could not have done a better job of restricting our movement. Friends and I would occasionally put on our snow boots and take to the water, wading up- and downstream, but always within this limited waterway.

As modest as this sounds, I never thought of it that way. It seemed like an adventure, time in a wild space. My cousins from a town over or, moreso, those from Long Island, would visit and say, “Let’s go in the woods.” They were transfixed that we had trees and undergrowth and dirt and water and— importantly—we hidden from the eyes of adults. These were OUR woods. Parents did not come back here. My cousins reveled in it, and I reveled in their reveling.

The woods were not particularly wild. Deer would move up and down this strip of green along the creek and we would watch them pass. We had a goodly number of birds, too, and the occasional cat and maybe a stay dog. There were raccoons and some rodents that lived along the waterline in the creek, but they were mostly active at night and heard, not seen. The most persistent sign of animal life was a particularly feisty rooster, on a farm across the street, who announced dawn, by turns early and late.

My parents grew up in New York (Mount Vernon and the Bronx) and our previous house had sat smack in the middle of a neighborhood. I never asked, but I’m pretty sure this whiff of nature (and the privacy of a wooded backyard) were buying points. That previous house did have one significant benefit — a large oak tree that grew on the property line with a neighbor, who had built a treehouse in it. That had been our clubhouse and our refuge. It was a gathering place for the neighborhood kids. I was a bookish kid and my memories of being inside revolve around reading and TV. Being outside was about being around other people.

I’ve come a long way since my childhood. We were not a particularly outdoors family. We didn’t hike or camp. I’ve come to appreciate the outdoors on my own. I enjoy hiking. As an adult, it was a staple of family vacations to the Southwest and Maine and upstate New York. I haven’t done a lot of camping, but a love for nature was encouraged. One of our boys hiked the southernmost third of the Appalachian Trail last year in the early days of the pandemic. He has since moved west, to Utah, to be among the mountains and the desert. I understand his thinking.

The pandemic has shortened our ability to strike out on more ambitious hikes, so most of my walking and running now happens within 10 miles of my home, and the majority of my steps occur within my neighborhood. I know this piece of land in ways I never did before. Blindfolded and dropped anywhere in my neighborhood, I’m confident I could guess my position within 100 yards pretty quickly by the rise and fall of the ground and the way sounds reach my ears.

As I age, I find myself paying ever more attention to the world around me, ad trying to quiet the noise in my own head. I’d like to develop as a photographer, though I worry that my own eyes may keep me from getting too ambitious. But living, to me, is about moving. And touching the wild, even when it’s not that wild, is something I cherish.