This post is part of a series called Small Rain, exploring the history of urban nature writing.
The Thunder Tree: Lessons From An Urban Wildland tells the story of the High Line Canal, a diversion of the South Platte River in Colorado, which was originally intended for irrigation. It is the story of the settlement of the Great Plains. But it is also a book about connection to place and the way in which people bring their own experiences to bare on a place.
Pyle has a particularly strong connection to the High Line Canal: Without a doubt, most of the elements of my life flowed from that canal … The ditch made the man … It was the place that made me. Pyle grew up along the High Line Canal in a suburb called Hoffman Heights. When his family moved there in the 1950s, Hoffman Heights was the first of many suburbs and subdivisions that would one day transform the Great Plains and the High Line Canal beyond recognition. But in the years of Pyle’s childhood there were still plenty of open spaces. Pyle and his older brother Tom spent their summers swimming, rafting and exploring the canal and it was on the banks of the High Line that Pyle discovered his lifelong passion for butterflies.
Some of Pyle’s classmates were the children of families still farming the land along the canal, including the three Mikes: Snodgrass, Tatum and Beasley. Pyle recounts cycling along the High Line with the three Mikes on their way to a Cubs meeting. Along the way Pyle catches glimpses of the Mikes’s connection to the canal and the way in which it differs from his own. At one point Tatum points out “our” raft and remarks that the water will have to get higher before they can float it over the dam. Further along, Snodgrass climbs up a ladder made of slats nailed to a tree. He pulls a hammer and nails from his dungarees and adds new slats to the ladder. This experience opens Pyle’s eyes to their differing relationships with the canal:
By the time we got to the den meeting I felt like a foreigner on my own turf… Tom and I would ride a raft for a way, or scramble up the tree ladders. The Mikes make the rafts and ladders, like their dads before them. This was the big difference: Snodgrass, Tatum, and Beasley lived the ditch life; we merely played at it.
Pyle clearly admires the three Mikes – I wished it could be Snodgrass, Tatum, Beasley, and Pyle. He also admires the ditchriders whose job it is to fix flumes, clear brush, and generally keep the canal water flowing – as well as kick out trespassing children. Although he does acknowledge that as a kid he romanticised the lives of the farm kids and the ditchriders – it wasn’t all snoozing in the shade and chasing butterflies. Decades later, Pyle ends up living on an old farm, though he doesn’t farm the land himself. His father comes to visit him:
He was clearly amazed that I would prefer the country to the comfortable suburbs where he reared me… Like so many of his generation, my father spent his life getting away from the land. Like so many of mine, I’ve spent my time finding a way back.
Having been born on a farm, Pyle’s father considers a spacious home in the suburbs as having “arrived”. Pyle ends up making the reverse journey, only without the back-breaking farm work. Still, the older Pyle finds his own ways to connect to the natural world, through fishing and by taking his children on camping trips to the Colorado plains. Pyle’s mother also encourages her sons interest in the natural world and after his parents divorce and a separation of years, it is their mutual interest in nature that helps Pyle and his mother to rebuild their relationship. She has fallen ill during her absence and moves slowly. The city affords her the opportunity to be a naturalist, even on a small scale: On foot, she carried her net only as far as City Park, and her mushrooming was confined the lawns and old maple stumps of the parking strip.
Different people connect to nature in different ways, whether they are a suburban kid, the son of a farmer or an infirm city dweller. But what does all this connection mean? Why does Pyle consider it to be so important? Simply put: People who care conserve; people who don’t know don’t care. Without a connection to a place and the broader natural world it is difficult to care about it and if we don’t care then we will be less motivated to fight for it.
Connection to the natural world can happen in a number of different places:
Almost everyone who cares deeply about the outdoors can identify a particular place where contact occurred. This may have been a wilderness, a national park, or a stretch of unbounded countryside, but more often the place that makes a difference is unspectacular: a vacant lot, a scruffy patch of woods, a weedy field… or a ditch.
Pyle calls these places of initiation, they are places where: the borders between ourselves and other creatures break down, where the earth gets under our nails and a sense of places gets under our skin.
What is it about these hand-me-down habitats that ignited such strong attachments? For children such places are particularly important because they have not been “kid-proofed”:
Young naturalists need the “trophy,” hands-on stage before leapfrogging to mere looking. There need to be places… where children can do damage and come back the following year to see the results.
Indeed, such spaces benefit us all:
[W]e all need spots near home where we can wander off a trail, lift a stone, poke about, and merely wonder: places where no interpretive signs intrude their message to rob our spontaneous response.
It is the unofficial spaces that best meet this need – places like the High Line Canal or the scraps of green my childhood friends and I sought out in the city, the scraps that ignited our imagination and our sense of adventure.
Such spaces can also offer us a sense of hope. As Pyle points out: if nature can make it here, it can make it anywhere. When I mention to people that I am reading my way through the history of urban nature writing one response I often get is: but, there can’t be much nature in the city? Pyle also encounters this attitude as a child when he brings some of his butterflies from his collection to school: the other kids regarded our black swallowtail and white-lined sphinx moth with astonishment that such creatures actually lived in Aurora. Yes, nature is here in the city, there are butterflies too – through Pyle has watched and recorded as the butterfly populations of the High Line Canal have dwindled over the years. At the end of the book Pyle is looking for butterflies along the canal: But as I scan the red seed heads of giant dock, I halfway expect to see a fox of the same hue… Having been pushed out by development, the fox is returning as new areas are protected. A fox, I think, with a place to live.
N.B. It seems to future of the High Line Canal is still being fought for by the High Line Canal Conservancy.