When I reminisce about my childhood, it comes as a surprise to even myself that much of it was spent outdoors. It may not seem likely now, given my antisocial tendencies, aversion to sunlight, and glasses that make me look like I haven’t left the house for a decade, but that’s beside the point. When my sisters and I were younger, we loved to play outside. And not in a casual sense- in that completely manic, unhinged fashion that kids who go out of their way to roll around in unidentified puddles and decorate themselves in decaying foliage for the questionable aesthetic love it.
To be fair, this passion for being outside wasn’t so much a conscious decision, rather than the only alternative to our dad’s slew of well-intended attempts to broaden our intellectual horizons. This was something he did often, with various projects including, but not limited to: learning binary code, memorizing at least one poem a week from a heinous little maroon book I still have nightmares about, and repeatedly reciting all of the names and dates of the U.S. presidents.
(To this day, I’m disappointed that someone hasn’t yet run up to me in the street and shouted, “If you can’t tell me who the 14th president of the United States was and when he served, I’m going to attack this farmer’s market,” or something like that. If you were wondering, the answer is Franklin Pierce, 1853-1857. There. Now you, too, have information that could potentially be crucial- or not.)
The newest addition to this cycle of learning was having my sisters and I study the French language. In addition to suffering through the completion of various workbooks, our dad thought it would be a great idea to have the three of us repeatedly watch movies in French.
An indistinguishable period of time went by where I’m pretty sure I did not watch a single film at home in my native language. Maybe it was a month, maybe a year. Either way, it was excruciating. Apparently, this was supposed to “expose us to the language early,” but instead of learning French, eight-year-old-me just learned how to read lips. While at the time, this was a devious circumvention of my dad’s cunning plan, today; my current French major self is now paying the price for my ignorance.
In response to this latest parenting kick, my sisters and I gleefully resisted by playing outside every chance we got. There weren’t any French speakers in the real world! And when we left our house, the whole universe was at our fingertips. Being outdoors was thrilling, full of adventure, and allowed us to get away with things we never could have dreamed of while being inside.
There were puddles to jump in! Dead animals to poke! And bushes behind which we could kick the crap out of each other without our parents knowing! It was like heaven.
Now, right behind our little white suburban house, there was a field. Naturally, my sister Miranda and I, the self-proclaimed “creative ones,” named it- The Field. Catchy, right? This was before the days of completely fenced-in yards, and we could walk straight out of the backyard past the failing garden that our dad was eternally convinced would be successful “next season” into the seemingly endless expanse of nature beyond.
In retrospect, I can look back and admit that The Field was honestly less of a field, and more of a scrubby wasteland where that one neighbor kept losing his golf balls, and where I would “forget” to return the recovered balls back to him, instead adding them to a ever-growing pile I had hidden in my garage.
Approximately eighty percent of this field was just mud, barely anything grew there, and there were towering mountains of litter from teenagers who snuck in to get wasted surrounded by a picturesque atmosphere (Beer bottles: bad for the environment, great for us clueless suburban kids who needed props to play “Little House on the Prairie” with).
Despite the rusty trampoline that almost definitely could’ve given any one of us tetanus, and the constant faint aroma of a gently rotting mole carcass, my sisters and I adored that hellhole. It served as the canvas for some of our most inspired adventures: Dinosaur Hunters: Extreme! Medieval Space Jousting, and something kind of like live action Barbie Dreamhouse, except with more explosions and yelling. The Field was our home, and we loved it more than anywhere else in the world.
Sometime around the end of my uninspiring elementary school career, there arose a challenge to our unquestioned sovereignty over The Field: Corporate America. Some loser had finally decided to buy the expanse of land behind our neighborhood and convert it into a place to sell RV’s.
Now, I didn’t know what an RV was, but I was pretty sure that unless it stood for “Rad Velociraptors,” then it was probably some major bad news. Miranda and I asked our parents to explain what was going on, and they did so in what I assume was a calm and informed manner. The specifics of the memory remain hazy, but the emotions I felt are just as clear now as they were then.
Despite my parents’ levelheaded assessment of the situation, all I was hearing were the Kill Bill sirens. We were going to lose our clubhouse! All the years of avoiding academic enrichment by escaping to the local marsh were behind us! And what was going to happen to that dead rabbit I had been observing? -For science, of course…
I broke out of my anguished internal monologue to pay attention to what was happening in real time. Happily noting that Miranda seemed to be as upset as I was, I began to slip back into my own comfortable suit of self-righteousness and pity when I heard where Miranda’s true concerns lay. Two simple words: The Environment.
I blinked. What the hell? This was an issue far removed from my own thoughts. And it wasn’t even my dad talking about this dull, grown-up issue. It was my nine-year-old sister, with tears in her eyes, asking a rather adult question about “industrialization” and “the negative effects of air pollution caused by RV’s.”
Jeez, I had only just learned what an RV was two minutes ago, and there my little sister was, actually caring about an important issue… And totally showing me up. Needless to say, I was pissed.
Being the kind of bossy, borderline asshole kid that I was, I decided to try and regain control of the situation. Miranda wasn’t going to outshine my concern for The Field! I was older than she was! I was braver than she was! I was… not taller than she was! But still!
I considered myself the de facto leader of the ragged band of neighborhood kids who tended to hang out in The Field. After all, I decided what we were playing on most of the days, and I constantly drew inspiration from courageous characters such as Harry Potter and Mulan in order to fill out my own (somewhat lacking) personality! And, most importantly, I had just seen a specific movie that was relevant to the situation at hand (this one not in French): Hoot.
For those of you who have no clue of what I’m talking about, Hoot was that one book-slash-movie about suburban kids who band together in order to stop an evil corporation from building on a plot of land that contains some sort of species of endangered owl… or something. I don’t remember the specifics- I watched it a decade ago, and I’m too lazy to look it up on Wikipedia for the sake of a few more of my bad jokes.
The point is, I had watched this movie about two weeks prior to the newest development in my life, and decided that I would use it as the inspiration for my newest harebrained scheme. Like the protagonist in the film, I would rally together a group of neighborhood misfits, employ a mixture of low-key vandalism and campaigning for local environmental awareness, and ultimately save the day! Maybe I would even score a lukewarm heterosexual romantic subplot in the process! Although I was pretty sure that the kids in the movie never actually managed to stop the developers, that small detail didn’t matter! It would work for me.
Although this was Baby’s First Day as an Environmentalist, I didn’t let that dissuade me from acting like I knew way more about the situation than I actually did, as was my M.O. I told Miranda about my plan, with the same self-assured voice in which I had once informed her that it was a certainty that if we sat on our bunk beds for long enough, and hoped hard enough, we would definitely be able to wish ourselves into the storylines of our favorite books. Even though my sister was definitely aware that I was pretty much a professional bullshit artist, and that at least ninety percent of what I said at any given moment was verifiably false, she cared enough about the environment to play along with my terrible idea. And thus was born the legendary campaign of Stupid Suburban Kids versus Capitalism.
We began our plans that same night, me as a really lame version of Alexander the Great dragging my troops (well, siblings) into The Field to find anything we could try to screw up for the developers. Turns out, there honestly wasn’t much to do. We unearthed a few posts marking out different zones for buildings, attempted to pull away some plastic-y red banners attached to fences, and kicked around a few significant-looking rocks. All this did was probably scare a couple of local rabbits, and potentially confuse an underpaid laborer who was assigned to the hideous task of taking exact measurements in a field that only the very youngest and dumbest people in our neighborhood dared to enter. But I was convinced that we were Making Strides, and headed home feeling very proud of our less-than-mediocre work.
That night, I lay awake thinking of all of the different possibilities our protection of nature could lead to. At the very least, I would achieve bragging rights the next school year when my class went around in a circle to share One Interesting Thing We Did Last Summer. Maybe we would even get in the newspaper, which was A Very Big Deal to me, as my best friend had once made the news for raising money to help build a school for girls in Africa, and this was totally cooler than that, right? Of course it was.
Unfortunately, when I was formulating my plan, I had failed to take one crucial detail into account: Nobody actually cared. The Field was important to me and my two sisters, and potentially a couple of other kids in the neighborhood who we would occasionally annoy into playing with us. The adults just saw it as a hazard, and the development of the area was probably a big relief to parents who didn’t want their kids constantly wandering into uncharted territory and coming back with feet they had cut on what they thought was an eggshell, but was actually shards of glass (True story). At least there would now be a giant fence cutting children off from dangerous adventures, and I guess it was a bonus to any families in the area who were looking into investing in a camper (Traitors). But the point was, contrary to what I had hoped, there was no nationwide outcry against the construction. We were simply the only ones who gave a shit.
The final straw came after a week or so of us inflicting relatively innocuous vandalism against the building site, with the addition of a small, harmless looking chalk X drawn on part of our backyard’s fence. Miranda, after seeing it, became enraged, and hopped the fence in order to try and scrape it off. I remember cheering her on as she vigorously wiped at it, fired up by all of the action that was occurring. We were like superheroes! Nothing could stop us from protecting our neighborhood! We were the Avengers, which meant I was basically Captain America, and-
The arrival of our confused looking father halted the ongoing ruckus in its tracks, and he swiftly pulled Miranda away from her task. He asked us what the hell was going on (in politer terms, probably), and as I got ready to boast about our noble crusade against big business and the evils of capitalism, Miranda suddenly burst into tears, stopping me right in my tracks.
I didn’t know how to deal with crying when it wasn’t a calculated act perpetrated by myself in order to get something I wanted, and the action of viewing genuine emotion made me feel intensely uncomfortable. My dad, quickly understanding that this was probably My Fault (as per usual), sent me away while he tried to calm Miranda down. So, naturally, I went to sulk on the swing set while pretending not to eavesdrop on their conversation.
What I heard, however, caused the queasy feeling in my stomach to turn into full-fledged guilt as I listened to Miranda sob to my dad about how unfair it all was. Some faceless company was destroying a whole patch of nature in order to make room for something that would damage the surrounding environment in the long run. None of it made sense to her, and she didn’t understand how everyone around us didn’t care as deeply as she did.
That night, she learned a tough lesson- Caring doesn’t necessarily equate to concrete results. As a kid, it’s a heavy thing to realize, and it hit Miranda full force with the weight of the loss of a childhood safe space. There are a few moments that I recognize as being crucial to our shared adolescence, and this was definitely one of them- but it impacted us in different ways.
While Miranda was learning that caring deeply about an issue doesn’t always solve it, I was struck by how genuinely she did care- and how little I did in comparison. This entire time, she had been passionate about a major issue, and actively sought out ways to solve the problem, while I just looked for ways to be the center of attention. It was a sobering thought- my little sister had approached the matter in a far more mature and compassionate way than I could have ever hoped to. This behavior was representative of many other events in our childhood, and I felt like a tool for only just realizing it.
Unfortunately, I probably only pondered this epiphany for thirty seconds, before deciding to just repress it and move on. We didn’t need a fort outside- there were bugs there, and we wouldn’t be able to be outside very much in the winter anyway. Instead, I would just get my sisters to help me build a fort in the basement! It was better real estate, and we would have an easier time decorating it- The Field was a nightmare to attempt any sort of interior design in. Yeah, that was a good solution. Problem solved.
Today, I can look back on this memory and realize that it was at least a major catalyst for Miranda, who now studies environmental science and has been passionate about conservation ever since. It’s nice to know that some people are able to learn from a formative experience and create a better future for others because of it. Even if the other half of us probably learned nothing from the same event, other than how to smuggle their cool rock collection from under a bush to a corner of their basement. But that’s neither here nor there.
If anything else, my brief stint on the front lines of environmentalism taught me that it’s probably best to leave the facts to people who actually know what they’re talking about, and to not wedge myself into the forefront of an issue of which I am completely ignorant. Instead, I’ll sit back and lend my support while letting those who are truly sincere lead the troops. And, if anyone needs me-
I’ll be in my blanket fort in the basement.