There is a place where the sidewalk ends
And before the street begins,
And there the grass grows soft and white,
And there the sun burns crimson bright,
And there the moon-bird rests from his flight
To cool in the peppermint wind.
Let us leave this place where the smoke blows black
And the dark street winds and bends.
Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow
We shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And watch where the chalk-white arrows go
To the place where the sidewalk ends.
Yes we’ll walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And we’ll go where the chalk-white arrows go,
For the children, they mark, and the children, they know
The place where the sidewalk ends.
~ “Where the Sidewalk Ends” by Shel Silverstein
Once you look, you see them everywhere. Kids are good at finding the local ones, those scraggy places their parents warn them about, full of trash and bugs and maybe even a homeless guy hiding from sight. Wild things, maybe dangerous things, spaces that need to be explored, and things that need to be found.
As a child, your spaces can be small. The fort you made from old Christmas trees, the tree house you built with your dad, or that spot behind the shrubs by the alley fence that is known only to you — and maybe your best friend. You can easily spy tree lizards or cool bugs and caterpillars, and maybe even catch a butterfly or moth. You stash some of your important stuff there — the ‘found’ stuff like feathers, intriguing rocks, dead bugs or interesting pieces of what naïve adults would call ‘junk’.
Then, one day, you need a bigger space and you look a little further afield — usually with a buddy. The two of you ride your bikes off to the end of the subdivision or over to the houses under construction or an abandoned building. It’s scarier there, there’s less control and who knows what you’ll encounter? Sometimes the exploration happens in response to a dare, and once completed the place becomes known and possibly less scary. But even then there are treasures to be found and dangers in the shadows — real and imagined. There may be animals — snakes, frogs, raccoons, rabbits, bats, possibly even a deer, but most likely just a feral dog or cat wary of humans — unless you have food.
The possibility of danger is actually part of the attraction. That feeling of peril, beyond the reach of strict parental control, can encourage a kid to try on some risky behaviors. Maybe cursing out loud to impress a friend, throwing rocks at each other (“It’s fun until someone gets hit in the eye!”), swiping a box of nails or an errant tool from a construction site, or breaking an unused window. Teenagers may even try smoking … or drinking … or sex! Guilt can make the experience more exciting, yet the subsequent remorse brings it down.
Our new house was at the top of a hill, and at the bottom was a drainage that went underground though a five-foot diameter concrete pipe. Of course, we had to explore it. Not knowing how far it went or where it led — and needing desperately to know — we took flashlights to climb down into the ravine and enter the dark maw. The daylight from our entry point quickly faded and our breathing and voices echoed around us. As we progressed, we learned to look out for pieces of exposed rebar protruding from the sides, and stumbled over the detritus littering dark pools of water along the bottom. Occasional drains overhead cast a little light from above but our flashlights were only marginally effective.
It seemed a long time before we saw daylight ahead. We unconsciously picked up the pace to reach the end, only to find that our vast exploration of the unknown had taken us but two blocks in about fifteen minutes. The return was anticlimactic, but we made the round trip a few more times over the summer — usually guiding tours for uninitiated friends.
Even as adults we are drawn to the edges, hungry for a taste of the wild. The thrill, though, shifts from perilous excitement to intellectual intrigue. Something about the bees on those flowers catches your eye. Maybe that squirrel’s behavior is just weird enough to entrance you for a while. It could just be the weird charm of the strange twists of an old termite-ridden tree.
Wildness at the edges of our orderly world draws the eye and engages the mind. We don’t all get to head off into the great north woods, raft the wild rivers or ride the lone prairie. Sometimes we just need a few minutes away from our daily trials to bask in the wild, breathe in nature and feel the sun and wind.
Until, one winter day, a sly wind blew in from the North …
But still the clever north wind was not satisfied. It spoke to Vianne of towns yet to be visited, friends in need yet to be discovered, battles yet to be fought…
~ from Chocolat by Joan Harris, 1999
The siren call of the wild speaks a language we no longer understand, but feel in our bones. Nature beckons from the edges of civilization. It says, “See me here. Come run and play among the wild. Rejoin the pack, the herd or the flock for a while. Remember what you forgot that you are missing – childhood and freedom await you here.”
“…that strange space beyond the streetlights; the tangled, messy border where human and nature collide, Edgeland.”
~ Rob Cowen
Rob Cowen, Where Nature Gets to Run Amok, New York Times, April 16, 2017