Changing the Backyard

By Jim Wallis 8-21-2008

My two boys have an alley for a backyard. Luke (9) and Jack (5) are thoroughly urban kids, but I watched them, these past two weeks, fall in love with a natural world far different from their own in a magical place called Block Island, off the coast of Rhode Island.

I came here a lot as a younger man. It was the home of lawyer-theologian William Stringfellow, one of my theological and political mentors, and it still has a little cottage on the back of the property that is used by Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan as a special place for writing and retreat. I hadn’t been here for 10 years, and I thought it was time to go back with my two boys. After all, it was the place I proposed to their mother, Joy Carroll, 11 years ago during a dramatic sunset at the lighthouse on the island’s most northern point.

During the hour-long ferry ride from Point Judith, Rhode Island, I felt so many old feelings and memories returning, as the sun was setting over the ocean. The hour-long boat ride was always a decompresser for me, helping me prepare for the much slower pace of island life. I remember the Stringfellow residence as an almost monastic environment, in lovely harmony with Block Island’s stunning natural beauty and small-town rural lifestyle. After arriving, Joy was surprised to see how easily I found the small back roads and turn-offs, even after dark, which lead to the Berrigan cottage. Some places you never forget. The first thing my boys noticed was the extraordinary view from the deck of this spartan writer's cottage “at land's end,” as Berrigan always said, looking out over the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean. Coming from an urban environment where you never think to look up, all of a sudden there was the light show from a million stars. And it was so quiet.

On the ferry I had picked up a copy of the Block Island Times and had seen the weekly Nature Walk Schedule put out by the island’s Nature Conservancy. It seemed especially focused on things children would love, so we decided to try it out our first Monday morning. Those morning sessions became a daily discipline and delight for Luke, Jack, and me, and seemed to set the tone and pace for every day. From nature hikes through flora and fauna, to marsh-mucking, to scavenger hunts, to bird-watching, to a final 5-mile fitness walk through four preserves, we urban boys were introduced to a whole new and wonderful world. My boys insisted on getting up early each day to go.

I watched my youngest, Jack, discover little hermit crabs and gently hold them in his hand. One of our young nature guides told him that soft humming or singing often got the hermits to come out of their shells, and Jack found that "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" worked very well. Luke and I followed a 100-year-old, 2-foot-long horseshoe crab around the marsh. Each shell, piece of seaweed, or interesting rock seemed to have its own story.

On the morning bird-watching expedition at the end of the week, Luke had a question for the director of the Nature Conservancy. "Are there any shad bushes here? You know, the ones that the yellow-bellied sapsuckers peck to get their sap to run, which attracts the insects that become the bird’s lunch when they come back a couple hours later?" Surprised by the 9-year-old question, our guide said, “Yes, there are, and you’re right about the yellow-bellied sapsuckers, but how did you know that?” Luke said, “Oh I learned that on the Monday nature walk.” The other adults on the bird walk were quite impressed and told me how “environmentally sensitive” my children were. I tried hard to contain my chuckles and decided not to tell them about the inner-city war zone where my boys have grown up.

Of course we played baseball most days, as we do wherever we are. But practicing pitching, catching, and hitting, playing “pickle,” and running the bases next to the Mohican Bluffs with the roar of the Atlantic over the cliff is a lot different from the ballfields of Washington, D.C. And one of the best things we did was to rent bikes for all four of us. Biking to town, to the beach, or to dinner was a new experience for this urban family, and Luke kept remarking about all the energy we were saving. The sunsets were again breathtaking at the North Light, and one night I comically re-enacted my original marriage proposal, dropping on my knees to ask Joy if she would marry me and have two boys named Luke and Jack. “Oh, all right then,” she replied romantically, for which we were all grateful. And later at night, we would sit in the dark of our deck and watch the moon rise above the ocean and then the stars light up the sky. Sleeping was easy.

Perhaps the natural highlight came at the end of our time, when the boys and I went to a “nature and arts” session at an outdoor pavilion. A very knowledgeable nature guide (who I later discovered is also the town mayor!) displayed colorful caterpillars feeding on milkweeds and passed out drawing pads to all the kids. She then showed us two different chrysalises and explained how there were caterpillars inside turning into beautiful butterflies. One was a brand-new chrysalis and one, she excitedly told us, was about to burst open any day. Nobody expected that to be about 15 minutes later, when a dozen wide-eyed children and their astonished parents watched in utter amazement as a new-born and brilliant monarch butterfly broke out into the world. None of us, except the mayor, had ever seen that before.

Childlike wonder is what happens to all of us in the face of such natural beauty and wonder. Time for long conversations, good sleep, great meals, swims and walks each day, lots of laughing, space for reading and knitting, and at every turn in the road, biking around a bend, or rising over a hill, somebody would say, "That's so beautiful."

Here, the ocean, not an alley, was our backyard. In every direction, there it was, at high and low tides, in shimmering blues or crashing white waves, setting the rhythm for an island and, for almost two weeks, for a family of city kids who found a way to fit right in.

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