It was a couple years back when we bought a book called, “Would you Rather?”, a little paperback version of a popular game where players have to make a decision between two things. The question, posed in theory of course, was, “Would you rather live out the rest of your days in Burger King or in the wild?”
We were in the car and we went around one by one, parents first.
“Burger King, definitely,” Big G responded with an easy shrug. “I don’t want to get eaten by a lion. And the food may not be great, but at least you have food.”
I shuddered. No way. I’m not a fan of fluorescent lighting or the smell of antiseptic cleanser, which makes being in a Burger King a hostile environment even for a moment. And, fine, there’s a salad bar, but I think I might die faster eating Burger King than I would in the wild.
“I’d rather be eaten by a lion because I wouldn’t want to live if I knew I’d have to live in Burger King,” I said. “I’d take my chances that I’d at least have the beauty of nature for a little bit.”
The kids were next and I somehow imagined them right there with me, tromping through the forest, foraging for berries with our new bear friends.
“Burger King,” Eli said.
“Burger King,” Oscar said. He paused for a moment and then offered up matter-of-factly, “We’ll miss you, Mommy…”
Abandoned, I thought to myself, Where did I go wrong? How have my children become so engrossed in our gross culture that I can’t even convince them in theory that living in the wild would be a cool possibility?
I’ve worked since then, in a limited way, to interest my kids more in nature and have seen to it not to nurture their keen interest in Burger King. We’ve taken a fair number of hikes into various woods this summer and fall to help them imagine that maybe the wild wouldn’t be such a bad, scary place to be stuck in after all.
The trick, of course, would be to slough off our greedy city ways, to figure a way to be more amenable to the idea of not having everything we want exactly when we want it, to give up the (false) notion that we are not both predator and prey anyway in our supposedly civil society.
I was helped immensely in my case by the fifth grade field trip to the Frost Valley YMCA, a 6,000-acre nature preserve in the Catskills that offers up amazing environmental education programs to roughly 15,000 school kids annually — and my fifth-grader this year.
Aside from its intense beauty, its surreal fiery backdrop of red, yellow and orange, Frost Valley offered up so many reasons to shed fast-food living for living in the forest. We practiced playing woodspeople, albeit resort-style in heated cabins with good water pressure and full electricity, so Park Slopers might be willing to pay for the experience, but still.
One of my favorite moments was the night hike. In the pitch dark, forbidden to turn on our flashlights, we hiked a rocky trail into the woods. Our program instructor, Jackson, who just so happened to have a college degree as a chemist, asked us to stay quiet, to listen for what — or more accurately who — we might hear in the brush. We had to pay attention to where we placed our feet and what might be around us. There were bears, yes, and bobcats and deer, and other animals that came out at night, and we needed to remember to be aware. It wasn’t easy for the kids to stay silent, it proved nearly impossible, but no one screamed, no one cried. It cheered me to think they could do it if they had to, that they might be able to find the bright North Star and the Milky Way above as guideposts to get where they needed to go.
During our three-day stay, we were pushed to harness up for a rock climb, where the kids cheered each other on to great heights. We walked single file, slowly, across a single cable “bridge,” and hiked through mud and mush, around lakes and ponds, for hours. We learned firsthand about water ecology by sifting for tadpoles and salamanders and about geology by looking at rock formations, figuring how and when and why they might have come to be there. The kids played a game amidst the trees in which they had to duck and hide and run like prey. We picked apples and pears off trees and ate them, even though they were imperfect, not exactly ripe or spot-free like the ones at Union Market.
“This looks like an area of my neighborhood,” one little girl said as we crossed a little wooded footbridge safely and happily. “And now I’m not going to be afraid of it anymore.”
I smiled, imagining that she might answer the “Would you rather?” question a bit differently before and after the trip.
On the last night, out looking for sticks for S’mores over the campfire, I happened upon a trove of trees under which lay a comfy mattress of leaves. Part of me wanted to stay the night, but the bunk beds and my chaperoning duties called. I tried to make my cabin of girls join me there in the morning, to stake out a “bed,” under a lovely leafy cover with a little natural cushion. They just peered under the trees at me, leaned as I was against a rock I’d chosen for easy reading, and all but one walked away, toward the cafeteria for breakfast.
I wasn’t bothered. I’d seen them all push themselves to pay attention to the beautiful natural world around them, to forget as they traversed it to be afraid, to panic. I knew I could get them to stay there with me under those trees, maybe even calmly, if push came to shove, if perhaps Burger King wasn’t available.