Digging* Ditches


Here’s a wonderful article about how children develop an attachment to nature and a sense of place. The entire thing is very well worth a read.

Most environmentalists attributed their commitment to a combination of two sources, “many hours spent outdoors in a keenly remembered wild or semi-wild place in childhood or adolescence, and an adult who taught respect for nature.” Lots of time rambling in neighborhood woods and fields and a parent or teacher who cared about nature were frequently cited as causal forces in the development of their own environmental ethics. In his autobiography about growing up in Denver, lepidopterist Robert Michael Pyle describes the urban semi-wild place the inspired him.

“My own point of intimate contact with the land was a ditch. Growing up on the wrong side of Denver to reach the mountains easily and often, I resorted to the tattered edges of the Great Plains, on the back side of town. There I encountered a century-old irrigation channel known as 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. Over the years, I studied its natural history, explored much of its length, watched its habitats shrink as the suburbs grew up around it, and tried to help save some of its best bits…Even when living in national parks, in exotic lands, in truly rural country side, I’ve hankered to get back to the old ditch whenever I could …

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…. 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… Everyone has a ditch, or ought to. For only the ditches—and the fields, the woods, the ravines—can teach us to care enough for the land.” (Pyle, 1993)

Did you have a ditch? I had a small creek that ran through an undeveloped area about a half a mile or so from our house. On weekends, after I finished my chores, I would walk down to the creek. It was, yes, a place for an INTJ to be alone, as I was almost never alone in my crowded home, but it was also where I developed a special relationship with nature and the first “place” with which I developed a strong relationship.

[A]nthropologist Edith Cobb reviewed the autobiographies of 300 European geniuses and found that many of them described similar kinds of experiences in childhood.

“My position is based upon the fact that the study of the child in nature, culture and society reveals that there is a special period, the little understood, pre pubertal, halcyon, middle age of childhood, approximately from five or six to eleven or twelve, between the strivings of animal infancy and the storms of adolescence—when the natural world is experienced in some highly evocative way, producing in the child a sense of some profound continuity with natural processes. . . .”

It is principally to this middle-age range in their early life that these writers say they return in memory in order to renew the power and impulse to create at its very source, a source which they describe as the experience of emerging not only into the light of consciousness but into a living sense of a dynamic relationship with the outer world. In these memories the child appears to experience a sense of discontinuity, an awareness of his own unique separateness and identity, and also a continuity, a renewal of relationship with nature as process.

As the linked article goes on to explain, such experiences aren’t limited to geniuses. Many children between the ages of 7 and 14 experience a relationship with the natural world — often with stones, trees, rivers, sunlight, etc. While children, many lack the vocabulary to describe what they experience and, to be honest, many adults struggle with this, as well.

One 40-year-old woman described her experience this way:

“When I was about eleven years old, I spent part of a summer holiday in the Wye Valley. Waking up very early one bring morning, before any of the household was about, I left my bed and went to kneel on the window-seat, to look out over the curve which the river took just below the house…The morning sunlight shimmered on the leaves of the trees and on the rippling surface of the river. The scene was very beautiful, and quite suddenly I felt myself on the verge of a great revelation. It was if I had stumbled unwittingly on a place where I was not expected, and was about to be initiated into some wonderful mystery, something of indescribable significance. Then, just as suddenly, the feeling faded. But for the brief seconds while it lasted, I had known that in some strange way I, the essential ‘me’, was a part of the trees, of the sunshine, and the river, that we all belonged to some great unity. I was left filled with exhilaration and exultation of spirit. This is one of the most memorable experiences of my life, of a quite different quality and greater intensity than the sudden lift of the spirit one may often feel when confronted with beauty in Nature.”

I’d be fascinated to see a study that compared how many Pagans had such experiences as children with members of other religions. I can’t help but think that, for many of us, the discovery of Paganism provided a language to describe what we knew to be true and a validation of experiences that, especially as they often go undiscussed or are even actively discouraged, we didn’t even know other people had.

*To dig: Understand, enjoy, really get into. It’s true, I’m old and no longer hip. But I’m happy to be in that company with Langston Hughes who wrote, “My motto, as I live and learn, is: Dig and Be Dug In Return.” I like to think that the creek dug that odd little girl as much as she dug the creek.

Picture found here.

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4 responses to “Digging* Ditches

  1. I had the good fortune to spend those “middle age” years literally across the street from Chicago’s Jackson Park–a 1,055-acre urban treasure that incorporates virtually every type of naturescape that can be found in Illinois. Lakefront, forest, creeks and streamlets, nooks and crannies of every kind, gardens both cultivated and wild, and much more. were my stomping ground. Many were the moments of the kind described in your last quotation, and happy is the person who, as a child, enjoyed such moments.

    Laughed at your exposition of that usage of dig. Strewth. If, in conversation, someone uses the word in that sense, it lets me know that we’re of approximately the same age. Similarly if I use it in that sense, and the other person “gets it.” It’s, like, a shibboleth, dig?

  2. pagansilvertree

    Reblogged this on pagansilvertree.

  3. Trish Whittaker

    my ditch was an old abandoned coal pitts area just the other side of the railroad tracks in north Tulsa, OK. it was part dump, part adventure land. the stream was most likely polluted as it ran yellow (!) and we spent many afternoons hanging by the track laying pennies down to be flattened. we rode bikes up and down the hills, found old washer tubs to roll down the hills. To us it was just “The Pitts” and anyone who grew up around there knows exactly what we are talking about.

  4. Pingback: Thurs, May 24 | UltraRunnerPodcast.com

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