Saturday, March 22, 2014

Mungering and Risk-Aversion

Catkins starting to open.
Mosses greening up amongst various lichens.
Last weekend, I got out to Munger Trail for a walk. It was a bright day, and although the snow was deep, it was packed hard (thanks to all the snowmobilers who use the trail) so walking was easy. 

Since my last post about spring, we've had quite a bit more snow. Spring in Duluth is a wild and unpredictable season. The weather may be changeable--bright and warm one day, then blizzard-y the next--but the season itself proceeds at a steady pace nonetheless: I saw signs of spring everywhere I looked. 

Soon, I'll start Mungering (as I've come to call it) as often as I can. I'll start hunting for the spring ephemerals that I love so much. I'll take hundreds of photos just of Trillium grandiflorum alone and bore my friends and family by sharing all of them. Undoubtedly, some of those photos will end up here on my blog. One of the first flowers I'll look for is Hepatica.
Hepatica's leaves stay green all winter; it grows at the base
of this tree, & since snow had melted here, I knew I could
find it & take a photo.  
One of the things I love most about Mungering is the sense of freedom it gives me. On the Trail, I feel as if I've stepped into another world, and even another time. I guess it brings me back to my childhood. 

I was lucky enough to grow up at a time when I could explore the world around me in relative safety, and my childhood was almost entirely unstructured, in that I didn't engage in organized activities, or team sports, or "play dates" (what a horrendous term!). I read a lot and didn't watch much television. I took long walks. I rode my bicycle all around the neighborhood. I played in vacant lots and on undeveloped parcels of land. I built forts and invented elaborate games that sometimes involved tracking my younger brother on his own meanderings through the underbrush. My parents didn't schedule my free time for me, so it was up to me to entertain myself. I was sometimes lonely, but I was never bored. My imagination ran free. 

This fern stays green all winter--it just curls up during the cold.
I can still remember finding an old Boy Scout manual at our North Shore cabin: I studied it intensely, especially the sections about finding edible plants in the wild. That one section of that one book kept me occupied for several years as I explored the woods like a young Euell Gibbons. I remember the year of sautéed cattail hearts, the year of chokecherry jelly, the year of wild hazelnuts, and several years of boiled crayfish! I created my own entertainment, and I got the most enjoyment possible out of my surroundings.

Back at home in Duluth, even though my parents and I knew it was dangerous, I often played on the railroad tracks adjacent to our backyard, where the Lakewalk now runs through east Duluth. I had enough sense to stay far away when the trains were coming by, and I knew that the older boys who tried to jump onto the passing cars loaded with taconite pellets were risking their lives (I could see for myself they were fools.) I walked to and from school, and no one thought that was dangerous. In the Autumn, on my way to Congdon Park Elementary School, I might occasionally see a black bear ambling slowly down an alley, and although I remember being terrorized briefly by a big scary dog in the neighborhood when I was quite small, generally there was nothing to fear. On my way home, I could take a detour through a wooded lot and feel like I was safely and wondrously far away from civilization.  
Mullein is another plant that never really dies in the winter. Its furry leaves
fade from green to yellow, but they remain soft and unfrozen.

Duluth still has places, quite a lot them actually, where you can feel like you've stepped into another world, and the Munger Trail is, for me, a spot where I can still re-connect with that childhood sense of total freedom. (In the warmer seasons, it's easiest to do this in the early morning, before all the spandex-covered joggers and "serious" cyclists show up!) But I rarely come across children there who are unaccompanied by adults... I suspect fewer and fewer children now have the kind of freedom I had when I was young. Perhaps technology and the phenomenon of risk-averse parenting have already cleared the woods of "free-range" children...

Of course, children and young adults now have other kinds of freedom that I lacked--they seem to have more access to cars than kids did in my day, and they seem to spend less time with their parents than I did (we always had dinner as a family--I can remember sometimes resenting that back then, but I now see the value in it). They have unprecedented access to information and entertainment because of technology, which I think is good in some ways and bad in others. Some high school students even go on Spring Break trips with no adult supervision...

Students in English 12 are currently reading The Lovely Bones, a novel set in the '70's, a time when (what no one then would have called) "slow parenting" and "free-range" kids gave way to "hyper-parenting" and the "over-scheduled child." The novel is about a girl named Susie Salmon who is murdered on her way home from school, but who watches from "heaven" the process of grieving and recovery that her family and friends undergo. We've been talking a lot about parenting styles and just a bit (perhaps not enough) about how childhood has changed over the decades. We've been thinking about how the loss of a child affects parents (thanks to the students from 2B for this great link). 

We've also been reading a blog called "Confessions of a First-Time Mom," written by Molly, a Marshall alum ('02), who is now the parent of a toddler named Liam. Abigail, Susie Salmon's mother, is a pretty important character in the novel, and I've been hoping that reading about Molly's experiences of motherhood might help my students understand her better. (This post in particular was the one that caught my eye.) I also hoped that Molly's great sense of humor would provide a little comic relief as the students read a very sad and tragic but unforgettable novel. I think Molly's blog has served both purposes well. (We'll be Skyping with her next week during class, and I'm excited about that!)

Icicles on Munger Trail.

Spring, though it seems like the season of birth and re-birth, always makes me think of death, too, for as I said in a recent post, it's at this time of year that we see, and smell, and feel beneath our muddy boots the decomposing earth from which all green things rise. I can only imagine the pain of losing a child or the trauma that Susie experiences--but reading The Lovely Bones helps me to imagine those things. That's what reading literature is for, after all, to help us extend our imaginations, even into painful, uncomfortable territory, so that we might understand it better. Like Mungering, literature helps us step into another world, into another kind of experience, where we can safely and freely explore various aspects of the human experience. Adults, as well as children, need to be able to do this.
Watch out for falling rocks on Munger Trail in the spring:
as the ice melts, it loosens big chunks, and they fall.   

No one lives a life free of tragedy and pain; no one is exempt from suffering. Life itself is risky--don't let it stop you from doing your version of Mungering. Don't be the "Last Child in the Woods." Even if you've had an over-scheduled, over-protected childhood, you can still recover a sense of play, which is so important for developing creativity. When you go off to college, you'll have lots of freedom and a ton of unscheduled time:  you'll need to learn how to use it wisely and well. It would be wise, I think, to leave yourself plenty of time for Mungering (and for reading).  

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