Spare change in the forest

I visited Rock Bridge Memorial State Park last weekend, and as I walked to the Devil’s Icebox (such a cool name), I approached a little boy and his father stopped on the boardwalk on the ridge above the cave.

My first thought: “My research proposal is due tomorrow by 7 p.m.  Eff.”

Second thought: “What is this kid looking at?”

The little boy hadn’t moved, hadn’t twitched, in the 20 feet I’d advanced.  Nearly upon him, he finally moved his head around to the other side of the railing post.  He was exactly as tall as the anchor post, thus allowing him an eye-level view of this magical, still invisible to me and for lack of a better word, thing, upon which he was intently peering.

It was caterpillar.

Huh.

I’d come to the park to decompress after two weeks of non-stop school work.  I’d always felt a spiritual connection with the wilderness.  It was part of my soul.  I grew up hunting and fishing and wandering the acres of woods around my grandparents’ country home.  No walkie-talkie, no cellphone, no sundials or watches.  Just a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and my grandparent’s dog Picaboo, a black labrador-huskie cross named after the skier, Ms. Street.

There was an old steel bridge, and a creek, and trees, trees, trees.  And insects.  I spent eleven years in 4-H as an amateur entomologist, starting at age 8.  Dragonflies and butterflies and houseflies and deer flies and mayflies.  Not to mention the mantis fly, the coolest, buggiest looking insect I’ve ever caught.  Plus all manner and color of beetles, crickets, grasshoppers, true bugs, and the outliers like termites and cicadas.

I passed the child quickly, his father gently scolding him for trying to squish the tiny green filament.

But the kid was stuck in my mind.  Where had that little boy in me run away to?  Was there a pinpoint in time when I traded him for the next iPod upgrade, the new MacBook or another iTunes purchase?  Or was it when I savored new line of LED flatscreens or the next-generation Xbox or spent more time concocting a status update than it took me to eat a meal?

When had my insects lost the battle to the contrivances of my digitally-charged future?  And how could I, the vigilant guard of my own thoughts and dreams, let that child inside me be whisked away by the jaded grind of electrical activity?

Yes, I suppose even this blog could be considered part of the auction block that I bought with the spare change I saved from the boy who no longer stopped to walk in the woods.  It wasn’t so long ago that I routinely made trips to the woods surrounding my grandparents ranch house tucked away off a gravel lane in rural Illinois.  High school definitely.  The first year or two of college if I remember right.

Then I simply stopped.  My friends were at school, my work was at school.  I was busy.  I thought I was busy.  I’ve been back once or twice, but more often, my grandparents just visited me at school.

I am terribly saddened at the thought now.  Thankfully, that little boy woke me up before it was too late.  I am not tethered to my laptop, and I can admit I check Facebook too often.  Email is worse, compulsive even.  I can also go a week without them, without my cellphone, without a television.  I’ve done it.

And I don’t need to give up blogging.  It’s simply an extension of what I love.  It’s pen and paper for the digital age.  I don’t need to forgo the electronics; I need to choose more time with the trees.

That little boy romped about my head as I walked further on the trail, and he raised a much darker question.

Will the majority of today’s children – that little boy in the minority – lose the ability to dream?  Have they already?

What do you dream when your world is confined by boxes framed around lights and pictures?  There is something gut-stirringly, mind-whirlingly powerful in the natural world.  A meteor shower, a geyser, a cave, rolling in the grass with the ants or playing in mountain snow in July.

Watching the sun slip silently behind the horizon or standing beneath a canopy of ancient trees opens a child’s mind to the possibilities available in the world.  Even Planet Earth can’t do that, at least not on the same emotional level.

Experiencing the immensely uncluttered Montana sky or witnessing a butterfly emerge from its cocoon develops a sense of possibility in a child.  To know boundless possibility is to lay the foundation for dreams.

“The most prolific period of pessimism comes at twenty-one, or thereabouts, when the first attempt is made to translate dreams into reality.”  Heywood Broun said that.  You know, Heywood?  No?  I didn’t either.  He was a New York journalist, working from circa World War I to the Depression era.

His comment has merit.  I’d add that a diminished capacity to dream, to be creative, might indeed be a real threat to the generation growing up in the sea of status updates and cellphone signals.

Those children must be unfailing aware that they can dream and change the world.  Letting the unstoppable flow of electrical stimuli bathe a child won’t foster that requisite capability.

It’s time to reclaim the woods.

Welcome back, Little Dustin.  I’ve missed you.

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