A barbed wire fence was my portal to adventure.
Every day after school before I was a teenager I’d grab my BB gun and turn loose our dog, Patches. She was an accident, the unauthorized crossing of a beagle and a less-than-purebred English setter. She pointed butterflies and chased rabbits, but also groundhogs, wind-blown leaves and squirrels as the mood struck her.
My mother took her from the neighbor, with my dad’s grudging acceptance, rather than see her shipped off to a fate unknown.
We’d go out the back door and enter the farm field on that side of our house.
It was a gateway, that field. We lived in a housing plan, and to go down the street in the other direction was to see house upon house, with mowed lawns and driveways and, eventually, the elementary school we walked to and from.
Ah, but to go the other way.
That field sloped slightly uphill, all the way to the horizon. Before, when I was too young to wander alone, it was a hay field, allowed to grow tall and wild and routinely full of pheasants. Hunters would chase them, once or twice sending a shower of pellets to ping down with spent metallic energy on our screen door.
Those birds and hunters were gone by the time I took to exploring that chunk of land.
The farmer – already slowing down in terms of running a working operation – planted far less corn and other crops, had less livestock and yet also cut the field far more frequently.
That just made it easier to spot the groundhogs.
Patches and I made the same circuit every day, so we knew where each hole was. They seemed to know to expect us, too.
We’d engage in daily stare-offs with those woodchucks. Sometimes they’d bolt first, running for cover while Patches and I looked on. Other times, eager to get moving, we’d make the first move, sending them scurrying along in that distinctive low-to-the-ground, chubby, panicked gait.
Either way, if we walked up quietly enough, we were often able to look down and see them staring back at us, just a foot or so into their den. Then they’d disappear for good, or until the next day’s contest.
Next we’d pass under the power lines that cut diagonally across the farm.
They were big and garish and out of place, at least in the mind of a pre-teen boy aching to feel like a mountain man trekking through wild country.
But vultures occasionally perched on their steel frames. Rabbits often hid in the clumpy grass at their bases. And, when it was snowing, the flakes sizzled when they hit the wires.
For whatever reason, I grew to love that sound. To be there, breathing frosty air, snow gently falling, and to hear that buzz, it was just, cool, I guess.
Even now, whenever I find myself beneath them or others like them, and hear that, I think of home and those long-ago days.
It was shortly beyond the wires that we came to the fence.
In theory, it served to keep the farmer’s small herd of dairy cattle from wandering too far. To be honest, though, I almost never saw them there where I crossed, at the far end of the farm from the barn.
I’d slide my Crosman under the strands – like I’d been told to do even though I was still years from being able to hunt – then crawl under myself.
That’s when our adventure would really begin.
Patches and I would go down the back side of the hill, probe the tiny trickle of a stream at the bottom, then cross to skirt the field’s edge, just inside the treeline. We’d go the length of the farm.
Finally, we’d enter the woods of a small battlefield, set aside for its history but otherwise – at least then — largely forgotten save for the trails we wandered.
I’d shoot stumps and leaves and crabapples until my gun was empty.
All along the way, Patches and I would see wildlife. And not just groundhogs, either.
A red tail hawk frequented the corner of the field by the fence. Many times, I was alerted to its presence by a shadow soaring across the ground, its signal that it was leaving for parts less kid friendly. We came across opossums and raccoons and skunks.
Of course, gray squirrels were plentiful. I knew where to expect them. If I didn’t see them on some days, it felt like walking to a friend’s house, ball glove in hand, only to find out they weren’t home.
Deer weren’t especially plentiful then – not like they are today – but we’d see a few. Or in winter, we’d find their oval beds in the snow under the one tiny patch of evergreens there.
Another row of trees was our spot for owls. Sometimes, at dusk, I’d see them perched in the trees. Some boyish hooting often got them to respond in kind.
Even if they weren’t visible, though, we could count on finding and collecting owl pellets. I had to grab them before Patches did. But when I got them, their tiny bits of bone and fur told tales of life and death – real, authentic, natural struggle – that lent a fascinating wildness to the edge of the suburbs.
I’d bring a few home now and again, together with feathers, fallen bird nests, acorns, colorful leaves and other treasures that caught my eye. They’d go in the garage or my room. It all depended on how far into the house my mother would permit them.
Our “wilderness” back then was, in hindsight, a pretty small, well-defined, niche of the planet.
But it spawned a love for the outdoors and wildlife and nature that proved enduring.
I’m not sure kids get to explore like that these days. The sight of one alone, and carrying a BB gun, is probably unsettling for a lot of folks.
That’s too bad.
Take a boy and a dog, add in some dirt, leaves, creek water and a few critters, and you end up with a youth well spent.
Exploring nature close to home
There are lots of places around the state, country and world — much wilder than where I grew up — worthy of being bucket-listed by outdoorsy types.
But, no matter where you are, there’s nature close to home, too. It’s important to remember that, especially with children.
Show them there is adventure – in the form of hikes through tiny woodlots, fishing and looking for crayfish and frogs in neighborhood creeks and ponds, and salamanders to find in the leaves of the closest park – available nearby every day.
Nature isn’t just something you see far from home on vacation, after all. It’s all around us all.
With that in mind, here are some resources for spending time outdoors with kids close to home.
The National Wildlife Federation sponsors the “Great American Campout” each June. It encourages people to spend a night outdoors, even if it’s in the back yard. And to help, it offers camping tips, ideas for games and activities, prizes and more.
ParentMap offers specific ideas on easy ways to play outside with children.
Many state parks all around the country, meanwhile, host organized activities, some meant for children, others entire families. In Pennsylvania, for example, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has a whole schedule planned out through the end of the year. Activities range from learn to fish and “nature detective” programs to hiking, archery, bug collection and bird watching. They’re searchable by park, region and activity type.