Paging Robert Michael Pyle, this one's for you.

“When people connect with nature, it happens somewhere. Almost everyone who cares deeply about the outdoors can identify a particular place where contact occurred. This may have been a wilderness, a national park, or a stretch of unbounded countryside, but more often the place that makes a difference is unspectacular: a vacant lot, a scruffy patch of woods, a weedy field, a stream, a green ravine like Ravenna -or a ditch.

My own point of intimate contact with the land was a ditch (called) the High Line Canal. Without a doubt, most of the elements of my life flowed from that canal. From the time I was six, this weedy watercourse had been my sanctuary, playground, and sulking walk. It was also my imaginary wilderness, escape hatch, and birthplace as a naturalist. Later the canal served as lover’s lane, research site, and holy ground of solace.

Even if they don’t know “my” ditch, most people I speak with seem to have a ditch somewhere -or a creek, meadow, wood-lot, or marsh -that they hold in similar regard. These are places of initiation, where the borders between ourselves and other creatures break down, where the earth gets under our nails and a sense of place gets under our skin. They are the secondhand lands, the hand-me-down habitats where you have to look hard to find something to love.

It is through close and intimate contact with a particular patch of ground that we learn to respond to the earth, to see that it really matters. We need to recognize the humble places where this alchemy occurs, and treat them as well as we treat our parks and preserves -or better, with less interference. Everybody has a ditch, or ought to. For only the ditches -and the fields, the woods, the ravines -can teach us to care enough for all the land.”

Robert Michael Pyle, Everybody’s Ditch, From ‘The Thunder Tree’, Houghton Mifflin, 1993

This selection was discovered, copied and republished at after spending a particularly fun afternoon with my children in our very own yard. I raked the last of the oak leaves and they played and played and played with the neighborhood kids. Thanks to all of them, and I mean all. At one point, we had 10 kids exploring our yard.

As a child, my special place was in my grandmother’s yard, and I can still picture the erosion spot where I played G. I. Joe, or Star Wars, or whatever early 1980’s cartoon was on at the time. But it is not the toys that I remember most vividly. I remember the ever changing shape of the earth, the grit of the dirt in my hair, the smell of the dust in my nostrils. That miniature ecosystem sparked my imagination. One day it could be a snow covered mountain, the next a barren desert. I knew every clump of grass of the spot. And every time I am near it, instantly I become seven, I am carefree, and my imagination takes me to those magical places.

The neighbors probably complain about the Donahue yard, the drainage pond, the old chicken run, the potholes dug by our seven year old, the four-feet-tall grass. For my kids sake though, I hope that they will see their yard as their safe haven, their own space for exploration.

Each night we read stories before bedtime. Tonight was no exception. After they scrubbed up, a little dirtier than usual, they burrowed under blankets and listened to the wonderful story of Winnie the Pooh -in which Christopher Robin leads an expotition. Through the lovely words of A. A. Milne, I could see them drifting off, thinking of the afternoon’s adventure. I am so thankful for the opportunity to provide my children with such a powerful connection to the classic story they were hearing. They could recreate the events in the story, while imagining those beloved characters searching for the elusive “North Pole,” right outside their windows, right outside their front door.

All three kids stopped playing and walked over at some point this afternoon to see if they could rake for a while. They have discovered that their yard is part of their home and they wanted to be a part of maintaining it. They just simply wanted to help.

Thank you Mr. Pyle, for helping me tie together the events of the day and the feelings of an extremley proud father and and my dormant childhood self.

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Comment by Suz Lipman on March 12, 2010 at 11:49am
Great post, Chip. It speaks volumes about the power of a seemingly simple, even overlooked, spot in nature and its ability to fuel ones imagination and, later, memories and stewardship.

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