Sunday, September 11, 2011

So What's Your Ditch? by Moderator Robert Michael Pyle

Photo credit: Thea Linnaea Pyle
Discussion Topic: The Thunder Tree: Lessons from an Urban Wildland

People naturally root in place.  Our special places affect us as individuals, as societies, as a species; but what happens when children no longer have such sacred spots to explore?

Welcome to my rendition of America's Wild Read.  I am pleased to be asked to take part, in the train of such a distinguished and compelling series of writers.  I remember when Cristina Eisenberg brought her notes and outline for a book on trophic cascades to discuss with me when I was teaching writing in the University of Montana's Environmental Studies department (which I'll be doing again next spring).  I thought it was a neat idea and a big job.  Christina seemed enthralled, impressive, and entirely up to it.  How exciting now, then, to see how she has brought it through to this important book, so well received.  The discussion she inspired here was deeply engaging, and it's both a challenge and an honor to follow up.  [Editor's note: Read more about Cristina Eisenberg's The Wolf's Tooth: Keystone Species, Trophic Cascades, and Biodiversity]

While Cristina has been addressing the "big wild" (deep bush, wilderness sensu strictu, the out there), I will be taking my text from the "small wild": what I call the second-hand lands, or hand-me-down habitats, and what British naturalist/writer Richard Mabey wonderfully refers to as "the unofficial countryside."  For while I have always considered protecting the big wild and its biological function to be tops in conservation, I also recognize the enormous value of the little wilds to our lives and culture: hence the subtitle of The Thunder Tree, which is Lessons from an Urban Wildland.  That was the publisher's final choice, of more than fifty subtitles considered; in fact, the decision came so late that different subtitles appeared on the hardcover copyright page (Lessons from a Second-hand Land ) and the jacket and title page!  This was because it was thought to be a hard idea to get across: after all, how can you compare a Denver ditch to the High Rockies?  And yet, I believe most folks understand exactly what this is all about--because almost all had a place as special to them as that ditch was to me.

If you have dipped into The Thunder Tree, you'll know that I refer to this phenomenon under the slogan "Everybody's Ditch."  In my experience, almost all people who feel any sort of close connection to the land can identify a particular patch of ground that caught their hearts and imaginations as children.  And not just naturalists and conservationists: engineers, doctors, laborers, homeworkers, all manner of adults tell me essentially the same story:  they had a special place where they did certain things, and these experiences meant the world to them.   And they were seldom the big wild: rather, a rock, a tree, a back forty, a back yard; a ditch.  And very often, a vacant lot--for what is less vacant to a curious kid than a vacant lot?  What we did there often involved water (damming, diverting, skipping stones), chasing and catching (crawdads, tadpoles, grasshoppers, fireflies), and always, making forts (in Australia, delightfully known as "cubbies").  There was a cultural lingua franca to such exploits.  The Thunder Tree tells mine. 

Many a kind correspondent has taken time to tell me that my stories relate to, or reawaken, their own.  But I used the past tense up there advisedly, because this kind of intimate bonding with place is in danger of fading away.  Due to all the reasons so elegantly limned in Richard Louv's essential work The Last Child in the Woods, children connecting with special places are growing rare: the retreat of habitats from neighborhoods, the organized bizzyness of kids, implantation of an electronic umbilicus at birth, and stranger danger, chief among them.  Even if kids still know such seductive spots, they almost always lack what I call the freedom of the day that most of us--boys and girls--knew: the liberty to go out and explore, unsupervised.  I am currently writing an assignment for Orion that will explore the potential cultural, even evolutionary consequences of such a loss, for they must be great, don't you think?  How can we go from an animal whose young explore and root (in both senses) to one whose offspring live (in Louv's great term) effectively under house arrest, without some sort of profound social outcome?

When I wrote The Thunder Tree, Louv's perfect term Nature-Deficit Disorder lay in the future, along with the Children and Nature Network, and so many other energetic and encouraging responses.  Twenty years later, when Richard kindly wrote the foreword to the new edition of The Thunder Tree, he put it perfectly, speaking of our special spots: "to a child, these places can be doorways into whole galaxies.  They're as important to human experience as wilderness, and formative to nearly every conservationist's consciousness."  Well, my ditch (and the great hollow cottonwood that gave the book its name) certainly were that for me,.  One thing we encounter as small animals afield is risk; another is that special betrayal I call "the extinction of experience," a concept I introduce in chapter nine.  As you walk my ditch with me, weather the catastrophic hailstorm that nearly took my life, and experience my first extinctions, you will think of your own risks, losses, and ways in which your own ditch, or crick, or field, or hollow, underlies your whole life: the place you can blame or bless for being here, and sharing in this very conversation.

Some questions for you to consider;  share answers or other comments if you feel so moved:

1) What kind of a place was your own childhood habitat of convenience and necessity?

2) Can you take yourself back there, almost meditatively, through memory, smell, or story?

3) What did you do there, and how did it matter in your life, then and later?

4) If your special place has changed beyond recognition (and many have), how has that loss affected you as a person; has it helped make you an activist for the land, or alienated you from the agents of change?

5) What do you think happens when children no longer have such sacred (or profane) spots?

6) If it matters to you, how can we give kids the small wilds, and the freedom to explore them?


Sherry Plessner said...

From age 7 to 13 I lived in a mobile home park surrounded by farms. Within the park across the street from our trailer was a park with playground equipment, tennis and basketball courts and an in-ground pool. There was also a pond, but it was off-limits behind a tall chain-link fence. I enjoyed catching lightning bugs, crickets and grasshoppers. The neighbor boys dropped their fishing lines into the storm drain through an open manhole cover in our street and succeeded in catching fish.

One smell I remember from those years is the odor, unpleasant to me, of a nearby alfalfa processing plant. In junior high, when I rode the bus to school with the high school kids, I remember asking my mom, “Why do some of the kids at the bus stop smell like alfalfa?” Her stern reply was that I was to stay away from those kids that smell like alfalfa!

I don’t think you can obliterate nature no mater how built the environment is. There will always be a plant growing through a crack in the sidewalk waiting for a curious child to find it.

Bob Pyle said...

Thanks, Sherry. Delightful recall--I love the storm-drain fishing. You're completely right, of course, about the immortality of nature. The moss in the cracks has often given me succor and a point of interest in a bleak scene. I wonder, though, whether that plant in the crack will still be noticed as direct contact becomes more and more attenuated. How many kids walk to and from school anymore--or smell like alfalfa?

On the other hand, even though the High Line Canal is very much reduced from what it was in my childhood, almost every time I go back I see kids feasting on what's left, as I describe in the afterword to the new edition. That does give hope.

Nancy said...

I am so excited that we are reading The Thunder Tree together with Bob at our side. Many years ago Bob presented at the Environmental Education Association of WA (EEAW) conference. I enjoyed being in the room and hearing his insights, so I am looking forward to his "being in the room" again and sharing. I often quote Bob’s words from The Thunder Tree, “People who care conserve; people who don’t know don’t care. What is the extinction of the condor to a child who has never known a wren?” It was the quote I used as I became a National Audubon and TogetherGreen Fellow last year with my proposed project of getting at-risk students outside in a local watershed in Montana. They discovered the wonders of the watershed and the wonders within themselves. They also shared this as they mentored younger students. It was an amazing and inspiring experience to read their journals. The appreciation they felt for that time. You asked the question, “What do you think happens when children no longer have such sacred (or profane) spots?” A deep loss. Yet, I also found it magical and transformational to help students to find their “secret spot” in the watershed and to re-discover nature and themselves in their own backyards.

Bob Pyle said...

Thank you kindly for those words, Nancy. I recall that meeting, and the excitement of the participants, with pleasure. Congrats on the Fellowships for what sounds like a phenomenal project. At some point I'll look forward to hearing more. I'll be teaching spring term at UM in Missoula, so perhaps there will be an opportunity; I wonder which watershed you took the kids to? Rich Louv makes the point that when kids get OUT, many of their perceived problems tend to retreat. I recall that when I used to take "special," "gifted," and "at risk" kids from our local small school on field trips, I soon lost track of which "group" each one belonged to. I think that owes to what you described with your excellent phrase, as "they discovered the wonders of the watershed and the wonders within themselves." I've found that the tiniest watersheds can provide this wonder, as well as wild rivers and big shores.

Nancy said...

You asked which watershed. The Flathead. I am now at the National Conservation Training Center, but they are continuing the program. The so-called “at-risk” students even designed their own t-shirts this year with a creative GET OUT and watershed logo. Inspiring. I am reminded of Rachel Carson’s quote, as well as yours…. “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder without any such gift from the fairies, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.” I felt honored to help be their guide. “At-risk?” I think not. Instead, I think they all have “gifts,” and being in nature can help them to blossom.

Cristina Eisenberg said...

Dear Bob,

Thanks for your kind words about my work, and for your mentorship and inspiration. Years ago I came to you with an idea for a book, which was my master’s thesis, and which involved a synthesis of literary natural history writing and science writing. A mighty tough thing to pull off as a writer, you said. Well I gave it my best, and thanks to mentors like you, Rick Bass, Terry Tempest Williams, and others, and to a brilliant and kind editor at Island Press, Barbara Dean, I was able to pull it off with some semblance of cohesion and flow. I am deeply indebted to you for your vision and ideas and encouragement early on.

I have avidly read all of your books, some of them multiple times. Your writing, your deep sense of the very small and how it relates to patterns in whole ecosystems, your evocative use of language, all have brought nature to life for so many of us and keenly engaged us in the immediacy of the conservation issues we face today.

My childhood place: growing up in suburban southside Chicago, there was this creek running near our townhouse complex, amid miles of concrete and pavement and buildings. I used to run to the creek after school and watch butterflies and frogs and birds and follow the arc of the seasons across the year. It truly was a “tangled bank,” filled with mystery. My parents disapproved. I was a girl growing up in an era where girls were not encouraged to play in the mud. Today I am a conservation biologist who specializes in wolves. I crawl into wolf dens to do surveys and track carnivores through the mud and whatever tangled bank I encounter. An early connection with my childhood landscape, as was the case for you in Colorado, had a profound influence on my work as an adult. I encourage my daughters to explore wildness, whether it is in urban landscapes, or in the wilds of the Montana backcountry, where they grew up. Wildness is all around us, and you have chronicled it so beautifully in your work.

Bob Pyle said...


I'm glad to picture you exploring the Flathead as a kid. I recall Gary Snyder, at the Orion/Library of Congress conference years back called Watershed, challenging attendees to describe where they were from with reference only to watercourses and other landscape features--no street names or road numbers, and so on. I'll bet you could do that. Your GET OUT t-shirts remind me of my favorite line from Calvin to Hobbes, after a particularly trying day at school, when they finally got into the woods and crashed his wagon: "You know, Hobbes, the world's not such a bad place if you can get out IN IT!"


How kindly spoken! Thank you very much. Wolf's Tooth is a genuinely important book; I'm so happy to have been a part of the conversations that may have helped you bring it to be. Your comments on how your place affected your work today will be shadowed back to in the fourth of these installments. Meanwhile, as I fly into Chicago tomorrow for events at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum on Thursday and the Kalamazoo Nature Center on Saturday, I will be watching for your magic creek. Thank goodness you haunted that muddy bank after all, "across the arc of the seasons!"

Nancy said...

I love it! “…the world's not such a bad place if you can get out IN IT!"

The watershed was the Flathead for the students. My mucking around in the marshes in my youth was in PA - the Delaware watershed wetlands and the canal near the Lehigh River, too. I can smell the smells, feel that squishy earth and am thinking of putting on my old “creek sneakers” as I write this! I sent a note to the teacher in the Flathead to hopefully involve the students in the on-line discussions. I had given them a copy of the Thunder Tree. If anyone thinks of other teachers and students to involve, this is such a great book and adventure to share! I think they would enjoy this :)

Mark LaRoux said...

(cue Zippity Do Da by Uncle Remus)
My early years were spent in south Huntsville in a house that had 2 trees in the yard when we moved in. We planted plenty but they were small and I wasn't allowed to climb them. I didn't really care about trees until I visited a friend in 'Indian Guides' that lived on Green mountain (southeast Huntsville) and saw what a 'wooded lot' really looked like. Then I got to see the forts and streams closeby in the, I was hooked. We moved several times during my childhood, and EVERY HOUSE had woods close by (thanks mom and dad for agreeing to this...I think my sister's only demand was a seperate bathroom). The creeks of south Huntsville are where I did most of my early wanderings. A lot of these creeks are 'irrelevant' to the majority of the population until they dam up due to large amounts of rain and dislodged trees, and water ends up in their yards....or occasionally in houses. As a kid, I had NO IDEA of the diversity of fish in these creeks, and in the Tennessee river watershed in general. We just caught them, checked them out, and let them go (most were too small to eat anyway...a few made good bait). I wanted to be a naturalist from an early age, but that wasn't in the cards. I did notice that saying 'fish', like saying 'people', didn't do a good job of revealing the details of lives held within the words. Having recently read Yoon's "Naming Nature" and several books on biogeography, I'm amused at my earlier self wondering where all these 'fish' came from and where they go...were they all somehow related?, why do they look more and more different the smaller they get?, etc. I had caught the 'wonder what that is and why it's there' bug. I developed an interest in canids and felids, and at 1 point in middle school, after reading David Mech's wolf stuff and watching Marlin Perkins do his thing, knew biology would be a part of my life. After later stints in Satellite Beach (even seeing a panther in the early 80's) and Slidell (herp, bird, and fish heaven), I included salt and brackish waters into my 'NASA brat' stomping grounds also. As Dr. Pyle said, risks were inevitable, especially in my teenage years: riding on manatees until my ear popped in Brevard county (now we know better), swimming near gators, jumping off the Pineda causeway and colliding with either a turtle or shark, etc. Ironically, now I teach people how to be safe at work for a living...well, at work anyway.

Bob Pyle said...

Wow, Mark, what a testimony! "riding on manatees...!" Makes most of our creaturely times seem a little tame. But it's all the same: whatever gets us OUT and opens our minds and eyes. I like the 'wonder what that is and why it's there' bug, and certainly know what you mean. I've still got it, antibodies notwithstanding! Well spoken, & lucky kid!

Mark LaRoux said...

'Riding' might be an overstatement here, Bob, more like just hanging on. Usually we were lucky to even touch them, and as a reminder it's ILLEGAL to disturb them (then and now). 'Sea cow tipping' is a bad thing. It's nice to have an upclose experience, but I think a lot of times we humans forget that we change the animal physically and psychologically by our presence. It's not all about us.