Today's Backyard Adventure was one we almost missed. It surfaced recently in an unexpected folder – no doubt the result of a botched drag-n-drop. We're happy to have found it and would like to offer the author our apologies, and readers, his submission. It's a nice reminder of why we started the Backyard Adventures series in the first place.
TCL reader Greg Russell lives in Riverside, CA and teaches biology at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa. He's grown up in the West and, as a result, has been within reach of wilderness most of his life. Our call for your backyard adventures reminded him of an essay he'd seen in an old Patagonia catalog. Says Greg, "It made me look at the concept of 'wild' in a whole new way, and now, as a father, I want to instill that in my son."
The message of Ernest Atencio's "Little Wild Places" has stuck with me since I first read it in a Patagonia catalog years ago. As a teenager hungry for Big Adventure, I had failed to see the wildness present in my own backyard. After reading that essay, it was if reptilian scales had been peeled from my eyes. For the first time, my backyard came alive with wildlife—horned lizards, orioles, finches, robins, kestrels—and a stone wall to boulder on, even if it did take a little imagination. It was enough to fill my soul with hope and contentment. Big Adventure, I found, was anywhere you were willing to look.
Since then, I have graduated college, gotten married, earned a Ph.D., become a father, and purchased a home in urban southern California. As I sit here looking out my window on a January day, I am reminded to look for the beauty and Big Adventure in those Little Wild Places. If I were to go in my immediate backyard, I could show you where to find alligator lizards, or show you the group of jays that lives in the pine tree next door.
[Owen & Stephanie Russell at the Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve near Murrieta, CA. Photo, Brent Deschamp]
On weekends, my wife and I do our best to be outside. Our son is almost one year old, and although we feel a deep desire to instill the sense of wonderment we have in the outdoors in him, we also are fulfilling our need to venture to our expanded backyard. Strapping him into the child carrier, we head to the mountains, the beach, or the desert. Upon moving to southern California from Wyoming six years ago, I was fearful that we could never be alone—that we would never find the Little Wild Places that Ernest Atencio wrote about. Not so. Little Wild Places and that sense of hope and wonderment are there; all we must do is give them a chance to come out from hiding.
Even near an urban center of millions of people, my family and I have found Little Wild Places that are quiet and—at least at the time we are there—are all our own.
Big Adventure is all around us. This is a perfect time to put special emphasis back on finding your own Little Wild Place.
As the urban/rural boundary has blurred over the years, I’ve come to see that growing up in the city had its rewards. The inner-city life has adventures all its own, but I was also lucky to grown up in the city when I did, when there was still some open space around – untended little wild spots, overgrown orchards, vast open fields that seemed to stretch forever without a building, dense arbors in urban parks where we could hide securely from school and cops. We even used to swim without fear in urban lakes or in the abandoned gravel pit down the road that had filled with water. Maybe it was just the innocence and faith of youth, but I think the water was relatively clean back then. There were outdoor adventures—little and urban, but adventures nonetheless—to be had around every corner.
One cold, snowy day my friend and I chose to stay out and confront the elements rather than school. We found ourselves huddling in a cave formed by the snow-laden limbs of an overhanging pine tree in the park. We were fifty feet from a busy street, the public library was a stone’s throw in the other direction, yet we managed to turn the day into a wilderness survival epic. Poorly prepared for the wintry outdoors in our thin cotton Army-surplus jackets, but with plenty of matches for cigarettes (and other things), we gathered up enough dry wood for a small fire. We passed the entire day hunkered like feral humans around the fire, feeling the solid satisfaction of having come to terms with the elements and, I’ve always thought, each of us imagining ourselves around a campfire of yore in another time out on some remote frontier.
A rudimentary sense of connection with the big wild earth crept into my awareness with this and other experiences. . . . And I've come to realize, all these years later, that they are the seeds of inspiration for the work I do to protect wild places.”
Read all of Ernest Atencio's "Little Wild Places"