Here are the wilds of the urban forest. Stands of birch and pine overlook a partially restored 19th century canal. Woods, rocks, water in ever-changing sequences shape the contours of possibility. And much is possible for young children alert to the rustle of leaves, or the allure of pathless terrain.
At the convergence of two paths there is a feeding spot. Here chickadees take an airy dash from overhanging branches and alight for a heartbeat or two on small outstretched hands awash in seeds. Lila experiences her first solo close encounter of the chickadee kind and cherishes the fleeting lightness as it lifts from her fingers. The memory of their sparking touch lingers and surely will echo still, days, perhaps even years from now.
Somewhere below the canopy there is an insistent tap-tapping. Nellie’s keen eyes pick out a woodpecker hammering away for some grub. She is at the ready with her camera, nature girl strikes again. One small step for woodpeckers, one huge leap for aspiring ornithologists.
Off the paths the ground is uneven requiring concentration and surefootedness. An old dwelling reduced to rubble makes for a teetering traverse as the girls negotiate their wobbly, winding way to flatter ground.
And of course there is wood – tree trunks, cut logs, natural falls, roots, twigs, sticks, leaves, bark. There is climbing, balancing, posing, running, chasing and watching. The girls are a skylarking spectacular, curiosity and wonder never far below the surface. For the moments we pass through we are the guardians.
The place is fraught with danger and risk, accidents waiting to happen at practically every turn. As if the land-based hazards are not enough, there is water in great abundance – a canal and a lakeful with beach to boot. All of these hazards elicit an exploration for the next fun thing, the one that will get the adrenalin pumping, get the hilarity surging and draw on skills real and imagined.
There are a couple of falls and no wonder – there are abundant above ground root systems, rock outcroppings and steep banks leading to the canal. The last is my only real concern because of the water temperature and and the heavy clothes we’re wearing. The girls tire of my harping to stay far back from the canal bank. I can’t help it, I don’t want to have to fish one of them out of water that still has a sheen of ice on it.
The girls’ boisterous play generates a bit of a din but still this oasis is peaceful. Although I ask them to be quieter, I love to hear them calling each other’s names, having their young voices sweep through the space and claiming themselves as part of these natural surroundings.
We spend two hours in this nirvana for squirrels and dare I say for little girls too. It is a space where play is earthy and organic, where hands get dirty and faces smudged, where curiosity is piqued and the natural world held in quiet awe.
In this small urban forest, there are no safety codes for walking in the woods and the kids play free.