Holbrook: With boundaries comes the desire to cross them (column)
“To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates on the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child.
“In the woods, too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life is always a child.” – “On Nature,” Ralph Waldo Emerson
Recently I have been collecting stories from a group of friends I grew up with in a suburb of New York City in the 1960s and ’70s. These reminiscences of unrestricted childhood adventures have made me think about Emerson, and the irascible Thoreau, who viewed his contemporaries as a “mass of men lead(ing) lives of quiet desperation” as he marched off into the woods to live with nature.
Like these two Transcendentalists, we children, I was reminded, were not big on the idea of boundaries. Emerson wrote of his own surroundings: “Miller owns this field, Lock that, and Manning the woodland beyond. But none of them owns the landscape. There is a property in the horizon which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts, that is, the poet.”
We were not poets, though we did perceive the landscape in an entirely different way from adults, according to our own games and explorations, where boundaries were fluid and property lines mere technicalities. In those days we all walked to school taking the shortest route possible — generally through our neighbors’ hedges and yards. We played outside, in the middle of the road, and organized elaborate games involving climbing over fences and up onto garages and sheds, and chasing each other through interconnecting backyards.
We moved in and out of each others’ houses, eating the interesting snacks our friends’ mothers had purchased, playing with each others’ toys and, in at least one instance, breaking an entire set of dishes in a neighbor’s kitchen, an experiment to see if a TV commercial about Corelle LivingWare “shatterproof plates” was accurate (it was not).
Parents had full license to spank any one of us without question, because if it came to that, it was assumed we probably deserved it.
For a majority of my adult life I have lived in surroundings where the edges defining where you may go and where you may not were much more rigid. As time has gone on, and life has progressed, I have tended to accept these confines whether I was living in a city apartment in New York, or a suburban community in Florida.
Here in Colorado our property abuts the National Forest. Because the land is not owned by a particular neighbor, and there are no houses on it, I have the feeling that our backyard merges or is contiguous with the forests of pine and the Tenmile Range in the distance. I begin to see the whole, as Emerson described, a landscape without boundaries where I can pleasantly ignore any particular sense of “this is ours and this is theirs,” or “here I can go, and here I cannot go.”
Often I avoid the road or established trails and follow a more inviting path that is visible only to me, along the fringes of my neighbors’ property. Occasionally, hikers will wander off the logging road further up and end up in our backyard. They’ll look surprised, and embarrassed, having suddenly exited their private poetic landscape and bumped up against our very prosaic barbecue grill and lawn furniture.
In our current cultural conversations we speak a lot about boundaries: about walls, about safe spaces, about establishing limits. Sometimes this is to assert a sense of ownership, sometimes a sense of safety. It seems to be a natural human impulse. At the same time, with boundaries comes the desire to cross them. We may identify boundaries with a sense of security — but we also associate crossing boundaries with freedom, creativity and the unexpected. With life.
The animals we share this place with consistently cross boundaries that we have established as humans; there is a steady traffic through our property of birds and animals who are oblivious to what we feel “belongs to us.” The ravens have a nest nearby and regularly perch on our roof, a good vantage point from which to survey their surroundings and squawk at each other. A rabbit’s cozy burrow under our side porch is conveniently located near our tulips and daffodils; and there is an extensive underground suburb of ground squirrels not far from the back door.
Occasionally, I have come face to face with one of our wild neighbors as each of us crosses the boundary into the other’s space: a coyote in our backyard who sat down comfortably to take a good long look at me; a pair of moose sauntering across the driveway, their sheer size and strangeness a thrilling and unnerving presence in my human world.
I wonder, as I reminisce with my childhood friends about our growing up, if our own parents might have been equally surprised as they came face to face with the wild otherness of their own children. When one of us involved in our own adventure came bursting through a hedge or tumbling off a roof during an adult evening cocktail party or cookout, for example, did they wonder — who is this child?
It was a different era, and from the vantage point of modern adulthood it’s easy to wonder, “How could they have let us run around so unsupervised?” But on the whole I’d say that we were fortunate; maybe our parents felt that the limits and restrictions of grown-up life would descend soon enough. We grew up with a taste for life with fewer boundaries, and with an appreciation for the wildness in and around us.
“Alert and healthy natures remember the sun rose clear.” – “Walden,” Henry David Thoreau
Christina Holbrook lives in Breckenridge.
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