Tuesday, October 27, 2009

At the pond

Late October. The first frost has come and gone. Now the days are warm and sunny, with just a hint of November. Mornings and afternoons, on my walks to and from the college, I linger at the plank bridge where the Queset Brook spreads out into a wide pool. When all this land was part of the Ames family estate, this was known as "the girl's swimming hole." The boy's swimming hole was further along the stream, where it enters the woods.

That was a hundred years ago. Four kids grew up on the estate, two boys and two girls. Their nanny, Matilda Golden, taught them the wildflowers. The coachman, John Swift, named the birds. The gardener, Bunny Woods, shared his general nature lore. And, no, I'm not making up these names. Kids from the village too roamed this land. I often meet old people on my walks who recount stories of growing up with all this gorgeous landscape to play in.

Today, the estate is in the care of the Natural Resources Trust, but you don't see kids playing here any more. This is the sort of landscape that in a July essay of the New York Review of Books Michael Chabon called The Wilderness of Childhood. (I believe the essay may be a chapter in his just-out book, Manhood for Amateurs.) All gone now, laments Chabon: "The land ruled by children, to which a kid might exile himself for at least some portion of every day from the neighboring kingdom of adulthood, has in large part been taken over, co-opted, colonized, and finally absorbed by the neighbors." I'm not sure Chabon is right on that. The Wilderness of Childhood is still there; I pass through it every day. The kids still have access. It is by choice, I think, that they exile themselves to that other wilderness of cyberspace.

Still, Chabon is surely right that something has changed. He thinks that art will be impoverished: "Art is a form of exploration, of sailing off into the unknown alone, heading for those unmarked places on the map. If children are not permitted -- not taught -- to be adventurers and explorers as children, what will become of the world of adventure, of stories, of literature itself?" Oh, I suspect that we'll still have art. We'll still have literature. What we will have lost is a sense of the organic, of being immersed up to our necks -- nay, to the tops of our heads -- in something vast and wonderful that is fully, biologically alive. It will be the difference between living our lives to the utterly regular gigahertz beat of the microprocessor, or to the thrumming, raggedy, unpredictable four-billion-year-old pulse of life itself.