There’s this theme I keep running across in essays and articles that only children can connect — I mean, really connect — with nature. That the lucky ones get to spend their days and nights outside in field and forest, and they develop a mystical connection with trees and birds that only children can have. That the unlucky ones, those who grow up in city or suburb, miss their one shot at nirvana. That after a certain age, or phase, or milestone, the ability to connect evaporates, and as adults we either have our overexposed Polaroid memories of the natural world, or no nature at all.
It kind of riles me up. I was that suburban kid, and if someone tells me that I can’t have any connection with nature, I have to tell them I think they’re full of hooey.
This past Saturday, I walked a new-to-me trail, a beautiful path rambling up and down seaside slopes on Montauk Point at the end of Long Island. You couldn’t have asked for a more perfect, moody March hike. Grey clouds diffused the light, casting the splayed shadbush trunks into a study in silver. The gentle thump of ocean beating shore drifted into the shallow valleys, and once in a while the breeze carried the thin fluting of sea ducks. Here and there, a red tangle of dogwood or blueberry sticks relieved the monochrome effect. In this incarnation, Montauk Point was a forest from a fairy tale, a place for getting lost or rendezvousing with a talking badger or stepping through invisible portals into other worlds.
Being outside invokes the child in me as effortlessly as a certain photograph can transport you back to the moment you blew the candles out on your kindergarten birthday cake. Not that I spend my walks pretending fairies hide behind every tree trunk, but I do drop into a squat as fast as a four-year-old to watch a bug parade across the trail. And that’s how I spent most of that walk. Soaking it all in, engrossed in texture and tone and tune.
About a mile and a half into the woods, I rounded a bend and stopped short. A jumble of finished wood beams and planks hung by screws from the trunks of oak tree. Sometime before the last storm, they’d seen duty as a deer-hunting stand, and the sight broke the enchantment of the empty forest. I paused my reverie to think adult Erin thoughts, to focus on remembering when hunting season ended, whether I’d seen signs that closed the area to hikers, and to wonder whether hunters might still be around.
So I get it. Sometimes you have to be a grownup in the woods.
But that doesn’t mean there’s a magic bridge that you cross when you turn twelve. There’s no height requirement that says you have to be 48 inches or shorter, or else you’re too big to play in nature. I suggest the opposite: after a girl hits her 20s, she can still play in the woods to her heart’s content, but she has the advantage of an attention span miles long.
If we tell ourselves that only children’s hearts can harmonize with the song of the woods, who among us poor grownups is going to bother trying to fall in love with the world? I don’t have to be a child to enter the forest and be changed by it. The things I’ve found there kindle my little kid heart. The woods keep me young. And I’ve heard the same from others.
I kept walking in the forest. I watched a seal snooze on a rock, and eventually trudged back to the point along the rocky shore. I found a clean deer skeleton in the bushes, and examined it for evidence. I returned to the lighthouse as the sun sank behind me, and stayed to watch the light blink its hope into the darkness. And as I walked back to my car, a flock of migrating so-and-sos chirped and sang overhead as they invisibly pressed on to their destination.