Friday, October 9, 2009

On Unchaperoned Walks in the Woods

I spent part of today in the Middlesex Fells with my son and two of his friends and their mother, happily turning over rotten logs and examining the scurrying, burrowing life within. We saw the last of the season’s indian pipe, signs of leaf miners in the yellowing leaves, and one salamander. It was a good walk in the New England woods.

Not so long ago the Budza and I finished reading Jean Craighead George’s classic My Side of the Mountain (1959), in which our hero, Sam Gribley, runs away from his family in Manhattan to the Catskills. Armed only with a penknife, a ball of string, a hatchet, and $40 savings, he lives alone for a year in a hollow tree. He fishes and traps and lives on cattail roots and acorn pancakes. He skins and tans the hide of deer he steals from hunters. When he develops scurvy from lack of vitamin C, some instinct drives him to eat the liver of a rabbit. Raw.

It’s strong stuff. We both enjoyed the book, but I have to say, over and over again while reading I found myself thinking, man, today his parents would have Court TV camped on their doorstep, and CNN true crime stalwart Nancy Grace raking them over the coals, asking “Where is Sam Gribley? What are his parents hiding? Where is the body???”

The whole idea of a minor being allowed to run off and live by his wits in the woods with his parents’ blessing seems less like adventure to us fifty years on, and more like high fantasy. By the time Gary Paulsen wrote Hatchet in 1987, he had to substitute for running away the dramatic device of a plane crash, and transform the story of personal discovery, self reliance, and independence to one of white-knuckled suspense and survival. Hatchet is a wonderful book, but one in which the rigors of life in the wild are thrust upon the hero, rather than chosen. Sam can “rescue” himself any time, but he doesn’t.

One of the things I took away from reading the book to my son was the increasingly certainty that the story George tells in My Side of the Mountain could not be set in the present day. And I’m just as certain that in our risk-averse culture of hyperparenting we are not childproofing our lives so much as lifeproofing our children. Somehow the broken arm from falling out of the backyard tree that was yesterday's of rite of childhood has been replaced by the kinds of sports injuries usually seen in professional athletes.

Our family has been trying, in our way, to push back. So far we are starting with small things. Letting Budza light the gas stove, letting him prepare dinner with the sharp knives. Sending him to a camp where they use (gasp!) power tools. Working our way through Backyard Ballistics. I have even started lengthening the invisible rope, even if I’m not quite ready to let him off the lead. For brief bursts of time now, I know vaguely where my son is, but not exactly where. It’s a frisson for both of us.


  1. I must read this book. Thanks for sharing -- I'm bookmarking your blog, my friend.

  2. Great post. I loved My Side of the Mountain when I was growing up. I even managed to break my arm falling out of a tree just before I entered seventh grade. All of that happened out in your neck of the woods.

  3. Hmm, I am trying to decide if my son would love that book or be terrified!

  4. I read that book as a little girl living in the Catskills in the 1960s. I didn't need to run away from home to share in Sam's adventure. For me, it was more of a field guide than a fantasy. I loved the book so much that I still own a hardcover copy of it. I'd highly recommend it for any child to read!

  5. As often happens with books I read way back when, I was unaware there are two sequels: The Other Side of the Mountain and Frightful's Mountain.