It's funny how when you are a small child, even the smallest patch of nature can seem like a huge wilderness.
Growing up in Northwest Indiana provided me with access to abundant natural places. The Lakeshore Dunes and Deep River were two of my favorite places to roam, but the places closest to my heart were right in my own neighborhood. We grew up five kids in four families who were never separated for very long. From sunup to sundown we stayed outside. Even thirty years ago, a parent didn't have to worry if no hide nor hair came into the house for six to eight hours at a time. We took care of each other, us kids, and didn't comprehend that someday parents like ourselves would fret over the dangers lurking in society. We were free. At the curve of our circular block was the most tollerant neighbor in the world. It helped that it was an aunt and uncle of one of us kids, but honestly, I don't think it would have made a difference either way. There was a pond surrounded by trees with a footpath to the main road, a series of fields separated by woods, a small land footbridge over a creek, and loads of explorable corners. When I was a child, these areas seemed so vast. Looking back on this patch of nature as an adult I realize how small it really was. In Spring the little creek would run with snowmelt and the bridge was our favorite spot to look for tadpoles and turtles. In Summer, it was the buttercups shining yellow in the fields. The heady scent of mulberries lured us in with buckets that saw far fewer berries than the numbers which went directly into our mouths. Fingers remained stained for days. In Fall, colored leaves crunched underfoot as we came and went from school, always making sure we went the route of our beloved fields and woods. The Aunt and Uncle's black dog kept a daily vigil waiting for us to come through, as it guaranteed a few pats on the head and occaisonally a leftover lunch. In Winter, the pond lay frozen for ice skating and a hill built for sledding saw constant action. Snow days when school was called off were days of great celebration. When I think about my children growing up here at Hawks Run, I can't help but think that, to them, this patch of nature will seem like the entire universe. The wildlife here is so much more abundant and the acres of wild places are hundreds of times larger than my special place. But oddly enough, it is the little patches that my three year old and her friends seek out now, even with so much wild surrounding their world. A fifty foot path through a small thicket of trees becomes their hiking trail, and puddles are much more alluring than large lakes. Perhaps there is a valuable lesson here for parents. It really does not matter where we live. Children find their wild places in small patches of nature. They get to know these places intimately through the seasons. I smile as I see the picture of the girls above. Through thirty years, and four states, my childhood friend snaps a photo of our girls doing just what we did in our little place. Running, laughing, smelling, seeing, picking things up and putting them back. Nature is the universal play friend, and most likely, the best teacher.