In the house where I grew up I had the front bedroom, my sister the back; she looked out to the backyard, I to the front. The house itself was set on a hill, and the yard sloped down toward the street. My child’s imagination spurred on the sense of being high in a tower, surveying the land. The yard was largely grass with one lone oak—a thick one, standing near to 80 feet tall—that scattered shade over much of the grass below it. On the perimeter of the yard stood more trees, and an entire forest beyond. In the warm New England summers this yard saw, over the years, heated games of soccer and badminton, baseball catches with Dad, manic games of capture the flag with the full band of cousins, and laps around the lawn with the mower, my weekly chore.
On nights when the moon rose bright and pearly white, long, tangled shadows rained down across the grass. Paired with a sometimes gentle, sometimes gusting wind, the shadows seemed to my young eyes like the gnarled tentacles of alien creatures, crawling out from the woods toward the house. On more nights than one did the snapping of twigs and rustling of underbrush steal from me sleep as I slipped from my bed to the window, kneeling on the plush carpet and holding my breath with anticipation as I watched the edge of the yard. Crickets crescendoed to deafening volumes.
I was convinced that dangerous criminals lurked just out of sight, cloaked in shadow and waiting patiently for each member of the house to fall asleep. I, alert in my watchtower, nervously scanned for them, ready to raise the alarm. Of course I never did see anybody, or indeed anything. The distant footfalls were undoubtedly deer, gingerly passing through on their nightly routes. The shadows, tainted by nightmarish fantasies, were in reality beautiful, intricate works of art such as only nature can generate.
In a city, noises at night portend far less threatening circumstances. A loud motorcycle passing is annoying but understood. Footfalls on concrete: humans. The distant siren, an easily identifiable racket. There is less imagination needed to translate the din of a metropolis.
Camping, conversely, still provides us this opportunity to let curiosity run free. Is the huff of air in the distance a bear or merely a raccoon? Are those animal footsteps forty feet away or four? It seems to me that being outdoors activates our imagination in ways that were common during childhood. And since many of us, at least in cities, live largely indoor existences, we discover new things. Mundane tasks like heating water for oatmeal feel substantial and worthwhile.
It’s frightening to consider that the removal of nature from our typical existence—waking up in a home, driving to work, eating at the office, driving back home, sleeping in a bed—can lead to the stagnation of a unique and crucial part of our creative imaginations.