Adventures very close to home

Never go by the forecast. How many times was I reminded of that old woodsman’s adage when I was first learning my way around the outdoors? It was far better to be at the trailhead, prepared and ready for a break in the weather, than to bail out ahead of time and wake up to blue skies.

I learned that lesson again this weekend. I’ve been waiting for a dry day to climb Mt. Cardigan and pick blueberries, but the paper, the radio, and the web all called for rain coming in early both Saturday and Sunday, building to thunderstorms. Jim was busy both days; the kids were happy to stay at home after two weeks of day camps. I figured it was a good weekend to do the laundry.

Suckered! Saturday started out gray and murky but cleared by mid-morning and blossomed into a perfect summer day. You’d think I could have switched plans midday, grabbed the kids and the berry-picking buckets, and hiked in to the blueberry patches on Cardigan’s southern flank, but I didn’t. I stuck to folding clothes. Tomorrow, I thought; tomorrow, we’ll hike.

Except that we woke to drizzle on Sunday, caught twice by the forecast. Once again we stayed home.

Sunday night, Ursula helped me salvage some squishy peaches for a cobbler. While we peeled and sliced, she told me she’d spent the weekend checking in on each of her special places around our yard: the aged apple tree behind the house, with the branch that droops down low; her tree house back at the edge of the woods; the phlox patch by the mailbox where she likes to sit; a secret tunnel through the raspberry canes. Her “most magical place” centers on a fire-blackened tree that stands not five feet from the road in a small grove of pine and maple. She’s been going there since she could walk, in all seasons. I asked her what made that place so special, and she told me, eyes glowing, happy to share its beauties with me. She described a perfect hollow in the burned tree, the trails that she and Virgil and their friends have made between the trees, and how the pine boughs make a bower. That’s what she said: a bower.

Her “magical place” occupies an area no more than ten feet by four feet. But to Ursula, it is a world — a world she has explored and mapped and to which she orients herself. She might have enjoyed picking blueberries on Mt. Cardigan, but she didn’t need that hike to be outside.

In The Geography of Childhood, the ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan tells a similar story. “It is amusing to me,” he wrote, “that when I wished my children to have contact with wildness, I sent them ‘out,’ to climb high upon ridges and to absorb the grand vistas. Yet when they wished to gain a sense of wildness, of animal comfort, they chose not the large, but the small.”

A growing body of research tells us that children learn about the natural world and learn to feel connected to it through small-scale exploration — “nestlike refuges in microhabitats,” in the words of environmental psychologist Mary Ann Kirby. In a 2003 study, researchers from Cornell University found a “protective impact of nearby nature”: when children have access to nature, they handle stressful life events better and are less likely to be depressed, anxious, or suffer from behavioral disorders.

Ursula would resist hearing her woody, grassy, brambly places described as a kind of protective medicine. But I think she’d like naturalist Robert Michael Pyle’s phrase: He called them “places of initiation . . . where a sense of place gets under our skin.”

One of the beauties of these small places is that Ursula doesn’t need to go by the forecast, or even a trailhead. She needs only to open the front door and step outside.

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