Nature Column April 30, 2021

Making forts in the woods

When I was a child, spring meant freedom. All winter long I had to wear heavy jackets, awkward mittens, hats that practically blinded me and snow pants. Seriously, whomever invented snow pants for kids way back when should NOT get a medal. And the boots, even with three pairs of socks stuffed in them, were both slippery and cold. I looked like a miniature abominable snowman that could barely walk, never mind bend over and pick up cool stuff.

Spring meant I got to shed all those heavy clothes, and shed I did. Remember those cold spring mornings and warm spring afternoons when you were in school? The coats we wore in the mornings got left behind and disappeared in the afternoons as if sucked up into alien spaceships, which was a real possibility when you were 7 or 8 years old.

Spring was when squishy earthworms came out and warty toads hopped around. Spring was when turtles plodded through yards and snakes were slow enough to catch. Spring meant frog eggs in jars of pondwater and teeny tiny tadpoles or salamanders. Flowers budded and bloomed, fish jumped and there were bugs everywhere. Spring, in other words, was magical. It made the world wake up.

My childhood springs were full of bare feet, bike rides and tree climbing. Some of us went fishing and some dug for clams. We knew how to catch crabs with a string tied around a bit of hamburger or chicken. We stalked rabbits and squirrels for fun but stayed away from the places stinky skunks lived. We built forts with fallen branches and made tiny boats out of sticks with leaves for sails and floated them in puddles. Our feet, fingers and faces were always muddy, which made our mothers roll their eyes, but they also got out jars for treasures and oohed and aahed at our stories of how we saw the most gigantic snapping turtle ever and barely survived with all our parts intact.

I suspect that spring doesn’t mean the same thing to most children today. It means baseball and soccer clinics, maybe a family hike or a day flying kites if they’re lucky. Few have open fields or woods to play in and explore and fewer still have the freedom to do so, even if the land was there.

Many of us have taken our children and grandchildren on adventures, but it’s not the same. For one thing there’s a grownup involved and right there, that’s a difference that changes everything. Grownups will try to make better boats and tell kids poles won’t stay up that way. They will warn against snake bites and tell them to stop throwing worms at their sisters and well, they sort of spoil the fun. I’m not advocating worm throwing, but I think you catch my drift. Ever stick a toad in your little brother’s face? Worth the punishment, just saying. Better yet, have them pick one up and watch it pee all over them. It’s not really pee, a grownup will say, as they go on and tell all about the defense of toads, blah blah blah. Spoilsports. Toad pee is way more fun.

Just this past week I took my 14-year-old grandson out birding with me. We tromped around in the woods, got our shoes muddy and ate smooshed sandwiches for lunch, but I know it wasn’t the same as if he went on his own or with other kids. We had a wonderful time, saw lots of cool stuff, and had fun telling stories as we drove from one end of the Cape to the other. We had a wonderful day that I wouldn’t trade for anything, but there is a part of me that wishes I could give him just a few days of my own childhood exploring the woods, pond and field I had in my neighborhood when I grew up.

I wish he had the chance to make pretend soup with wild onions and sugar like I used to make. It was pretty gross, but it was fun. So was slopping about in mud in bare toes. I wish he could climb an old tree and hang out high in the air to daydream. There are hardly any good trees to climb anymore, and those that remain get so used and abused I feel sorry for them.

Ah, spring. If only we could let all the kids out of school on a lovely spring day and send them off exploring without a grownup in sight. Would they even know what to do or would most of them just stand there, blinking in the sun, confused without directions? Give them a few minutes. I bet they could figure it out. Kids, spring, and nature is a natural equation with multiple answers, after all.

Spring is awesome no matter how old we are. Spring is also the time of the Mass Audubon Bird-a-thon and my grandson and I will once again be participating on May 14-15. If you’d like to support us, please go to the Bird-a-thon website and search for my name. And thank you in advance.

Mary Richmond is an artist, writer, naturalist, and educator who grew up on the Cape and lives in Hyannis. More information at www.capecodartandnature.com.

Mary Richmond is an artist, writer, naturalist, and educator who grew up on the Cape and lives in Hyannis. More information at www.capecodartandnature.com.

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