What I remember most vividly is how green it was. I was tiny then, close to the green grass, eyes level with the leafy shrubs, awestruck by the green-dappled blue showing among rustling leaves that seemed as far above me as the sky. The tree trunks were enormous, rough under my little fingers, brown and gray, sometimes greenish, the same colors as the dirt, the rocks, the branches that arched way over my head. We were surrounded by woods, and I ran through them, touching bark, jumping over roots, shushing through crisp, fallen colors in the fall, on the ground with mushrooms and moss, a daughter of the trees.
We were above trees, too, as the land went down below the sloping garden, full of roses and azaleas. We ran through grass paths, to a semicircle of trees with a stone fireplace, never used, but endlessly interesting. Beyond the sloping trees, far in the distance, we could see the silver, glittery Hudson River, whose bridges lit up with sparkles at night. We saw all the way down the river to New York City. The tiny Empire State building rose from a pale blue haze, like a distant tower in a storybook.
I remember glowing, silky flowers. One cool spring day, I decorated my tricycle with the tulips that grew in a bed of little green leaves, shiny, with blue flowers. My mother told me how beautiful it looked, but gently suggested that flowers were happier in gardens. Along the front of the house were bushes with tiny, spiky needles, dark green, with translucent red berries that squirted if you pressed them. At their feet was dirt, surrounded by stones. In the summer, we would add water from the hose and play in the cool mud.
The house backed onto a hill with a rock ledge that we could climb up easily. A little brown building stood among the trees. We weren’t supposed to go near it, which convinced me an ogre lived there. The upper hill continued down the driveway, which was so long that you couldn’t see the end. There were trees going up on one side, sloping away on the other, a vast tunnel of green.
On the opposite side from the driveway was a brown path through the woods, which took us over a falling-down stone wall, to an enormous, gray rock, the size of a hill. Huge cracks made openings and ledges that turned the rock into houses and forts. ‘We’ were my brother Perry and I, until one day a voice commanded us to “get off our rock.” We searched for the voice, mystified. It turned out to be a girl even smaller than I was. “It’s our rock,” we said.
We obviously settled it amicably, because she and her brother and the two of us became inseparable. That brought me to other lands. A meadow of tall, rustling grasses that filled the air with warm, spicy sweetness when mowed. A small, rickety, screened summer house where we found two rusted beds. We would lie on the flat metal springs, even though sharp pieces poked into us. They had wonderfully mucky water along their driveway. It had a name, Kaplan’s Pond, as mysterious as anything else about it. We would occasionally try fishing, and I once caught a sunny. But I preferred following dragonflies and butterflies along the muddy edge. An old man and woman lived near the pond, in a tiny house in the woods, like people in a fairy tale. They were artists and we would paint with them occasionally.
My sister, Susan, was a newborn when we first moved there, but by the time she was three she was part of our adventures. One day she and I found a beetle on a tree. It was well above our heads, and enormous, the length of my hand, shiny black with orange pincers as long as its body. We were transfixed, and could hardly tear ourselves away, waiting for our father to come home and rescue us. The beetle barely stirred all afternoon, but any movement had us running inside to report to my mother. When my dad finally arrived we dragged him to the tree. He got a ladder and a jar and captured it briefly so we could see it up close. I was fascinated by the pincers, but the beetle in the jar couldn’t compare to the delicious terror of the beetle on the tree.
It was paradise. I lived there for five years, from age two to seven. Despite everything that has happened in the sixty years since, that vivid sprite, trailing leaves and flowers and dirt, is still with me. Things were happening even then. For all the vibrant, green heaven surrounding us, inside the house my mother was sinking deeper and deeper into depression. I was beginning the sad, fruitless task of trying to be a good enough girl to bring back the happy mother I’d known.
I remember not wanting to move, but I don’t remember being unhappy when we did. I was too young to know that not every place was full of deep magic. My sister Connie was already two, and my mother, with four young children in a tiny house tucked away in the woods, was very glad to be moving. At that point, her happiness mattered the most to me. Our new home was much roomier, but on a hill so steep there was no yard to play in. It was a quiet street in an old suburban neighborhood, with lots of big trees.
There was a still-unbuilt lot nearby with a sliver of woods, where we found wild grapes in the fall. My father cut us a curving, fragrant tunnel through the wild tangle of honeysuckle between our house and our neighbor’s. One spring a jack-in-the-pulpit showed up mysteriously among the trees separating us from the house in back. Violets grew in profusion where tree roots had heaved up the sidewalk. One neighbor had a hedge of mountain laurel which bloomed in cascades of tiny white and pink cups every June. Another had one of lilacs that smelled heavenly in May.
Perhaps I would have learned to love the natural world just as much in that neighborhood. I have my doubts. I feel sure the deep, mystical connection I have with nature was born in the Eden I lived in earlier. I went back to see it this summer, on a trip to New York. I’d visited many years ago, when the house was still the same one we lived in, and marveled at how small everything was compared to the expansiveness of my memories. Now, the only vista that remains the same is the driveway. The big rock has a house on it. Kaplan’s Pond has been cleaned up and gentrified, though its edges are still full of dragonflies. The view of the river is blocked by trees getting ever taller. It’s still a wonderful place, and I was warmly welcomed by the present owner, but it’s not my paradise.
It doesn’t need to be, since I have been carrying that paradise inside me for all these years. In that, I have been extremely blessed. Today, even children in rural communities don’t necessarily have the kind of experiences that were so important to me. There are many reasons for this, starting with the fact that tightly-scheduled children don’t have the leisure we enjoyed. They are more likely to spend what they do have indoors, especially on the computer. The belief in free, unstructured play has diminished, as have the places hospitable to it. Parents are fearful of risk — from insects, strangers, falls, drowning — and angry when risks prove dangerous. According to Richard Louv, the author of The Last Child in the Woods, the fear of lawsuits if a child gets hurt is haunting everyone from private homeowners to the Boy and Girl Scouts to the national parks.
Lack of access to nature is a world-wide issue, and worsening despite a growing body of information about the necessity of outdoor play in green settings for mental and physical health. The more stress in a child’s life, the more crucial this has proven to be. Louv details studies showing that children with ADHD, in particular, thrive when learning in natural environments.
It makes perfect sense. We evolved with plants and trees, not concrete. Our ability to sense, to learn, to make connections, to pay attention was, not long ago, done entirely within the framework of the natural world. Our calendar was set by the turning of the earth and the cycles of the moon. The sun was our clock. Children are not meant to be still and quiet for hours. Evolution didn’t prepare us to sit at desks all day, or to stare at a screen, to be indoors, to work in cubicles, or play only in designated, asphalt-covered, chain-link-surrounded playgrounds.
Amidst a growing reverence for information at the expense of sensory experience, in a world increasingly urban, children and nature are often left behind. Planning — what there is of it — emphasizes traffic patterns, safety, housing density, commuter issues. With 80% of the U.S. population living in urban areas, playgrounds are often a child’s only contact with nature, and their design has been slow to evolve. The enchanting adventure playground above, designed by Erect Architecture in London, built among the trees of an old arboretum, is still rare in its embrace of the way children actually play. From a street near me in Marin, the fountains and cascading pools in the photo below look like the ornamental feature fountains usually are. But these are sited right next to another well-designed playground. You can see from the little footprints everywhere that children flock to the rocks and pools.
But even the best playgrounds are no substitute for the preservation and protection of natural areas in urban and suburban settings. Louv named the loss of this essential connection ‘nature deficit disorder.’ Studies show it leads to higher crime, increased depression, more learning disabilities. The presence of nature in children’s lives and activities boosts many things we say we value: test scores, cooperation, self-esteem, thinking, happiness. Crucially, children who cherish birds and flowers grow up wanting more of them. Where, he asks, will the future environmentalists come from? “If children do not attach to the land, they will not reap the psychological and spiritual benefits they can glean from nature, nor will they feel a long-term commitment to the environment, to the place.”
Thinking about my own early life among the trees, I thought at first I would call this essay ‘Paradise lost’. Though I was blessed to spend many years living in another magical place, there has been a thread of poignant loss ever since leaving that deep green world. But I also feel profoundly grateful for those years in the Garden of Eden, which prepared me to create other Edens as a landscape designer, and to be able to re-find that joy in so many ways and places all my life. As I get older, and the roles and tasks of the intervening decades fall away, the call of that wild green girl gets more and more vivid.
She lives, I now realize, at the core of my being. Through her I am rooted in the natural world I love so much. With her I lie on the ground with luminous flowers, or sit on pine needles that smell of the ever-rising sap of trees. With her I walk on rocks that form the bedrock of my life on the earth that created me. This is my oldest and deepest essence, a gift given to me by Nature herself, just for being there, open and ready, willing to share my delight, my curiosity, my joy, as well as my confusion and grief. I lived in a landscape as alive to me as I was. That enduring faith has been the greatest gift of all.
I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.