In pursuit of wonder

A Place of Wonder


            When I think about places of wonder, I am transported back to my childhood and the special places that meant so much to who I am and how I developed. For some, their special place was a small corner of the basement where they built old sheet forts with worn out couch cushions for frames. For others, an old oak tree with a platform hastily constructed for secret club meetings or a private reading place served the function.

            It is in childhood that our first expression of wonder is most pure, grabbing our minds and attention by the hands until it is perfected, enjoyed, and eventually discarded.  For a child, to doubt in harp strumming angels or pretend friends was a violation upon our capacity to dream in the old days, where black and white television and two acre computers ruled the day. When I was six, I made my first trip to Disneyland and was convinced the park rivaled Switzerland in size and population. I remember dropping bread crumbs from my hot dog bun (like Hansel and Gretel) to make sure we could find our way out again. The roof of my boyhood home held a similar grandness, matched only by the Himalayan Mountains in scale, since I could clearly see the downtown library from nearly three miles away! Every corner of the world offered a new possibility for investigation and a chance to test my boundaries and satisfy curiosity. Imagination, so lacking in the play of youth today, was a key part of the journey of self discovery.

            In my world, local parks amidst the lazy days of summer were at the epicenter of the rapture of youth. That of course, seems very out of place in these times, but I trace many of my present core values with a close relationship to the land. My experience in local parks was sort of my own version of forty days in the wilderness.

 I had gone for a drive with my longtime childhood friend on the edge of our small, but growing Oregon hometown, when we saw a sign announcing the creation of a new city park. The park was to be on the last boundary of the city where any old growth trees existed, as well as a large swath of swampland staving off the cold machines of progress. While the sharing of nature through the use and enjoyment of city parks is an important community function, my definition of a park and that of city government is significantly different. The subconscious need of our culture to measure, order, package, and present kills the emotion and vigor of natural places. When the majority of green space is confined to field grids and fence lines, they literally evaporate any mysticism associated with natural areas from ever reaching our children. 

            (The first thing the men in their orange work coats will do upon finishing their morning coffee is to scrape, push, pave and build with a cool detachment and precision worthy of the Lorax. Not that I would deprive citizens a place to set down their table cloths, but a genuine park involves little intervention, and we are losing another opportunity in each pile of paperwork and shovel crew, the chance to fertilize the future souls of adventurers and explorers.)

            In the park, I was Daniel Boone; I was a lieutenant in the army, commanding and conquering all I surveyed. Each and every time I hopped out of the car on a summer afternoon, I knew I was entering an untamed world of infinite possibility. I’d leave my parents by the picnic tables, and follow the ancient twisting narrow paths into shady overgrown stairs that spoke of a once well-groomed Victorian zoo. The echoes of roaring bears and slinking panthers filled the shadows with danger, inspiring quick glances over the shoulder every now and again. 

            As I ventured further into different parks, other secrets and mysteries emerged. The city park had an odd pair of stones that were as big as wagon wheels and made of a heavy gray stone cold to the touch. Lifting them was out of the question, but it was an intriguing thought because they were precariously balanced one upon the other in a T, giving the impression of an unworldly table. I was convinced they commemorated the first landing sight of alien astronauts who stopped by for a quick hello and spot of tea. Leaving them in their overgrown state, covered in ivy, seemed disrespectful to me, because when the UFO squadrons returned they would find themselves ignored and become angry. What kind of punishments would be awaiting us for this unforgivable intergalactic dis?

            Nearby, in the center of the Park, a small stream flowed through twisting tree roots, wobbly walking logs, and assorted long grasses. Broken basaltic rocks led like steppingstones to a large circular culvert that gave the running water a mythical Tolkien-like appearance. Water skippers danced as if to a silent Tchaikovsky ballet around the large, metallic maw of the storm drain. They easily avoided grasping hands and thrown rocks with a delicate ease. My friends and I believed ourselves to be world famous cave explorers, straddling the water at the opening and inching our way forward until all light faded behind us in the echoing rushing water. It was a mark of shame if your feet should get wet, so at an agreed upon moment, we hopped in the air twisting our bodies one hundred eighty degrees before climbing our way out. If you emerged unscathed from the depths of the culvert, you earned the respect of your peers and avoided some verbal torture down the line.

            The park had clear stream water at that time, which meandered through thick brush and large Douglas Fir trees. They served as my first outdoor laboratory. The older kids took it for granted that crayfish claws caused pain, but I had to learn this lesson through experimentation while reaching under rocks like a raccoon. The park was a thriving wildlife sanctuary, and I often brought home many a monstrous crawdad in a bucket. Some were so large that they could have held their own in any lobster tank I’ve seen. I would dump them in our leaky backyard stand up pool, and study their movements, and fighting techniques while deciding if I should eat them.

            The scope and variety of birds living the park provided seasonal color parades that filled the canopy from bush to treetop with activity and song. The heavily layered music contained every squawk, caw, tweet and twitter a small grade school mind could imagine. It was as if some mysterious orchestra took to the air to float amongst the branches in a coordinated celebration of life. I felt somewhat overwhelmed, and thought I would never be able to match singer to song, which sparked a lifetime fascination with birds and a determination to recognize a variety of different species. It represented my first jump into the world at large as a three dimensional place. 

            As attendance continues to fall at our national parks, we’ve allowed our children’s sense of imagination to drift away into the computer screens of hand held video games, hypnotized into quick-fingered zombies. Chains of the mind can be as real as any prison bars, creating small-scale convicts traveling from distraction to distraction. I’ll never forget a rare trip to Fort Lauderdale, where I sat soaking up the sun in the warm, white sand as a family of four typical tourists strolled by. They were dressed in well pressed matching full length clothes, marching in line like members of a lost foreign legion platoon, passing without even looking at the water. It was the son, a high school freshman I’d guess, that fascinated me the most because he furiously played his handheld Game Boy for the full mile and a half I was able to observe him. Tripping on the uneven sand, passing literally thousands of people, he confined his mind to a four inch square, denying his other senses the chance to go out and play.

            In many ways were all responsible for this, buying an array of gadgets and putting them into the hands of our children on Christmas morning. Our wilderness, and our ability to experience it, is being chopped up and commodified into digestible packages that make traveling to Disneyland irrelevant when you can bring Disneyland to you. Peace of mind cannot be purchased on the home shopping channel however, and authenticity is not found in the short term adrenaline rushes brought on by ATVs, bungee jumping and extreme sports. I fear the day that it becomes do-able to build rollercoasters on the peaks of mountaintops.

            As for the parks, another paradise lost I’m afraid. My Indiana Jones adventures have been exported to the local skate park while nature continues to lose her appeal. The old brick stairways from the zoo, as well as the large gray stones have been cleared of their vegetation and sit with the loneliness of forgotten museum exhibits; unnoticed and unused. I’m the only one who bothers read the old brass plaque anymore. The birds still visit, but rarely stay, and most of the ground cover has been cut away in a weed eater frenzy leaving brown creek banks with only a little greenery for the smallest wren. The meandering water has taken on a ghoulish milky cataract that only supports a few aquatic runts and some strange insects. My culvert was reduced in size and caged long ago, a victim of some distant lawsuit with greed winning out over childhood adventure. It is as if there is some kind of fear prevalent in our culture that is now acted out in our parks, a deadly paradigm that destroys any roadblocks to a perceived “progress”.

            I can’t help but feel sorry for the small children playing in the large grass fields left behind these days. Adults monitor their soccer games while glimpsing at their watches, time becoming nothing more than a slot in their business day. Lone children climb pressboard and plastic play structures, while sullen single parents stare blankly nearby.

            My vision of parks lives on as vividly as ever, with my cast of characters still roaming the dark corridors of my mind with a full resume of actions and adventures to their name. All is not lost, for I continue to see something that warms my heart and makes me believe that the human imagination can be retrieved from the depths of would-be oblivion. A small, wild section of field, left unmolested, connected to the northern boundary of Wortman Park continues to draw wide-eyed children as it always has, inviting them to dream and explore its mysteries with a magnetic appeal. Perhaps there is room for a few Old World adventures yet. If you don’t build it, they will come.       


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Cedarhike
    Mar 02, 2009 @ 00:47:32

    GR8 last line! Where does it get us to close ourselves off so completely from our natural environment? If that’s progress, then we’re definitely headed in the wrong direction… oh, woe is us.


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