WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY
“A bear’s wild nature is evolved, over hundreds of thousands of years, to carry the impulse to roam at will over a territory of hundreds of square miles. When you put a bear in a cage, it paces relentlessly back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, until its paws bleed. The bleeding paws tell the zookeeper, if she is listening, a story; a story of wide open space, of rushing rivers teeming with fish, of wriggling grubs in the moist soil under the rocks, of the fragrance of wild blueberries carried for miles on the wind.”
Those words of captivity combined with ecological understanding of freedom and wildness are not mine. I wish they were. They are the words of Carol Black in her powerful essay: “On the Wildness of Children: The Revolution Will Not Take Place in the Classroom.” But those words, and the past 40 days of my life, have me reflecting on a quote from Thoreau I have used in my nature rambles ever since graduating from college: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” Thoreau’s words have influenced and shaped the lives of untold thousands, perhaps millions: mine for sure.
Perhaps those words can craft your plans for the summer just enough to give your children an outlook on life that stirs natural creativity and a quest for real knowledge: knowledge beyond memorizing science facts needed for school exams. Wildness and wilderness are not interchangeable words. Oakland County has no wilderness, but by our actions we can carry the spirit of wildness out of the wilderness and bring it back home to our trails, our parks, and our lives. Let me explain.
For those 40 days I have not driven a motor vehicle or had my feet on pavement. I have not shopped in a store, gone to a movie, been to a sports event, eaten at restaurant or watched television. There are none here. I have, however, been most pleasantly deprived of sleep by being awakened by bird song, the sound of waves, and the soft glow of dawn’s early light. I have stayed up much too late to see the stars and listen to the night winds in the cedars and the distant rumble of a freighter on the Manitou Passage from the catwalk of an 1871 lighthouse. In a few more days I wrap up my stay in the splendid isolation of South Manitou Island as a temporary lighthouse keeper for our National Park Service. My time away from the bustle of ‘modern’ life provided time for thought, and perhaps my sleep deprivation helped as well. I had time to reflect on the behavior and excitement of children in a wilderness setting.
I will return to Oakland County with a deep respect for parents who encourage their children to know the world of nature and rejoice in its wonders in a wilderness setting: even if it includes multiple rainy nights in a tent, a cut knee, a torn shirt, limited food options, and perhaps even a poison ivy rash from picking wild strawberries in the wrong place. This week’s “Wilder Side of Oakland County” blog post is a salute to the parents who lead their children into nature’s world with eyes open to seeing and senses open to feeling. These bold parents are not afraid to “wander off the path.” Actions of creative encouragement help their child become a free child curious about the world, for as Thoreau wrote: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”
Again from Carol Black: “A ‘free child’ outdoors will learn the flat stones the crayfish hide under, the still shady pools where the big trout rest, the rocky slopes where the wild berries grow. They will learn the patterns in waves, which tree branches will bear weight, which twigs will catch fire, which plants have thorns.”
Children exposed to real challenges with immediate consequences grasp their place in nature and steer away from the dangerous concept that humans must conquer nature. It’s only in the last fifty years or so that technology has heavily stripped us from our natural ability to explore and “live wildness” and even more tragically, the interest to even do so. There may be an app for most everything in the world, but thankfully there is no app to truly experience wildness. Wildness is not hiking a paved park trail bustling with hundreds of others, wildness is not driving to a campground and being cozy in a motorized camper. Wildness is not a canned nature program where the naturalist lectures a prepared theme and ignores spontaneous trailside questions. Wildness is what is hidden–perhaps trapped is a better word–within our DNA. Think about that bear in the cage that wants to be free and the concept becomes clearer. Wildness always struggles to break free. Sometimes it appears momentarily in moments of wonder, like a ray of light breaking through a heavy cloud cover. But often the spirit of wildness is locked away by modern life that disconnects us from nature, and wilderness.
You can accelerate the process of celebrating wildness.
I discovered during my island stay that a growing cadre of parents are cracking the shell of conformity to free the wildness in their children. Many are from Oakland County. Every time I had direct contact with a family at the 1871 lighthouse that overlooks the Manitou Passage I asked them where they live. Rochester Hills, Orion Township, Oxford, West Bloomfield and Pontiac were just some of the home bases of kids who explored the wilderness trails, wild shorelines and cedar forests of South Manitou Island. Even the youngest of children seemed to grasp the concept they are on an island. There is no turning back. There is no car to retreat too. There is no TV to watch, no video games to play, and phone reception to reach Grandma for a comforting night chat is all but impossible. These very young explorers in the wilderness soon realize they are largely in charge of their own comfort and Mom and Dad are their helpers. They seem to be happy about that. The guest register log reflects that as well.
Hidden away in our DNA is a motherlode of ability to nurture the wildness hidden within us. In the wilderness of South Manitou Island, a Lake Michigan island that is part of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, the distractions of modern life are all but non existent. I see the bear of the wild roaming free in the children that come to the island. Children four or five years old hike to their campsite with real backpacks. A child stands quietly for minutes to just watch a gull at the edge of the water. Another one sits on a windy sand dune and watches the sky, and tells me: “I am watching the clouds dance.” She has to be encouraged by Dad to come back to the campsite. An enormous 500 year old cedar tree on a trail, is not viewed as an obstacle, but the perfect place to create a memorable photo.
I see children growing as they watch the pattern of the waves and the cormorants that fly low above the water when fighting headwinds. I see excitement in their eyes as they hear real stories of real shipwrecks and men and women who struggled to live on the island over 160 years ago. I smile when they come to me with questions beyond asking the name of flower or a creature. They want to know why the turtle is crawling away from the water, why coyotes yip at night, why the sky turns orange or red when the sun sinks, why they filter water that comes from the lake, and sometimes—-why there are no restaurants on the island.
We need to see our children as part of nature, not as rulers of nature. Strange as it may seem, a few days in a true wilderness enlivens that concept for even young children. Many of them are eager to share their two, or three, or even four day wilderness accomplishments and adventure tales with the man from the lighthouse (that’s me) as we help them board the ferry for the 16 mile ride back to the mainland of Michigan. They go home in happy disarray, with the look of excitement in their eyes.
So, what next?
Perhaps make this summer the summer you seek out a true wilderness experience in a land protected by our National Park Service, or U.S. Forest Service, and when returning to Oakland County you may just find you have freed ‘the bear’ within your child. The sky will be the limit in their insatiable quest for knowledge. For once exposed to wilderness with a few days of backpacking and real camping and spontaneous adventures in the world of nature, outlooks change. Lives change. Something else happens too. When your child later wanders on a more familiar trail on the wilder side of Oakland County, a memory will be stirred and a gleeful sentence may start with, “Do you remember when–?” and they will share what they felt deeply.
You will smile too when remembering that moment of wilderness magic that stirred the dormant wildness in your child, and you both will have discovered that to truly know and appreciate nature’s way you have to live it: if only for a few days.
Jonathan Schechter is the Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Government and blogs weekly about nature’s way, trails, and wildlife on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.