In his essay “The Wilderness of Childhood”, author Michael Chabon frets aloud about the narrowed confines of the world contemporary children are free to explore without adult supervision. He notes some of the rationale for this curtailing of adventure and shutting down of Wilderness – heightened anxiety over child abduction due to lurid news cycles, a society predisposed to tort cases over even minor scuffs, etc. – and ponders what unintended effects such diminished room for exploration might have on creativity at large.
“Art is a form of exploration, of sailing off into the unknown alone, heading for those unmarked places on the map,” Chabon writes. “If children are not permitted – not taught – to be adventurers and explorers as children, what will become of the world of adventure, of stories, of literature itself?”
My own parents never stood between me or my siblings and the Wilderness. We spent entire childhood summers in southern California barefoot, burning our soles numb on the blacktop. We rode bikes all over the hills surrounding our Mission Viejo neighbourhood. We speculated about a splotch of red staining the wall lining one of those hilltop bike paths. Neighbourhood lore had it that a child had struck his head against the wall after somebody who lived in a house up the hill had launched a gobstopper at him from a slingshot. The stain on the wall allegedly evidence of where the blood from his head had oozed, baked into the stone beneath unstoppable sunshine.
But when it came to ideology and politics, that’s where the Wilderness experience ended and the metaphorical chainlink began. Only approved music and literature found their way inside. Our primary social circles conformed to the demographics of the church youth groups and Christian school clubs we frequented. Though Chabon laments the foreclosure of physical Wilderness spaces and geographical exploration, you could just as easily apply its logic to the realm of imagination. When children are penned in and prevented from poking around the Wilderness of ideas, having adventures outside the confines of parentally mandated wisdom and party lines, you can train a child to fear knowledge, to regard it as forbidden fruit.
I’ll confess to interpreting the Garden of Eden myth differently today. The Garden seems an obvious picture of childhood, before shame enters the world. Family photos of me as a young child naked from the waist down building sand castles, unconcerned with my nakedness. The Garden, where Adam and Eve walked alongside their parent in the cool of life’s morning. When they developed an appetite for knowledge, he kicked them out. Instead of being fed and pampered they would have to struggle with soil to grow their own food, irrigate fields with the sweat of their brow, bring forth new life in agony. The scriptures deemed such toil a curse.
If only I’d realised then what I’ve come to understand since, that the difficulty and struggle to feed oneself (either physically or intellectually) is one of life’s most ennobling privileges. That to stay in the Garden, even if it meant the company and protection of a helicopter parent, is no life at all. The walled Garden doesn’t need bricks to form an enclosure. The moment we leave the Garden and undertake the toil of living and learning, even if it means losing the father’s presence, that is a blessing to be cherished. Let Jesus curse the fig tree while we reserve our spite for its discarded leaves, the ones Adam and Eve used to shield their skin as the axe of separation fell. The fallen leaves. The fallen axe. My fallen forbears. The fall from the nest that had to inevitably occur before I learned how to fly.
I needed a new spate of experience. I craved exploration. The nascent Internet, the strangers I met there, opened a crease between me and a wider intellectual wilderness, the world outside the Garden of childhood. I caught a glimpse of something.