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Spring Break
March 19, 2008 - 8:03pm


The way I read this chart by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans are spending on average only 20 minutes per day “Relaxing/Thinking.” (Half the five hours of daily leisure in America goes to TV.) If your youngest child is under six years of age, as ours is, relaxing/thinking drops to 12 minutes, the balance going to nagging him to put slippers back on his cold feet.

Most of us probably spend spring break either catching up or working even harder at some desperate fun. I knew there wouldn’t be much relaxing for me this week, but I had hopes for finding time—and just as important, a place—for thinking.

Where I grew up in Southern Illinois, there are many places for contemplation, such as Crab Orchard Wildlife Refuge, Shawnee National Forest, or along the banks of two enormous rivers. Twenty-one percent of the region was public land, and even in my hometown we were free to wander the abandoned strip mines and tracts of woods. I miss access to that sort of wildness and want my sons to experience the natural world.

The state of Illinois is ranked dead last among Midwestern states for acres protected per capita for conservation and recreation—only one percent is owned by the state—and we’re lucky in this county devoted to agribusiness to have within easy driving distance a 60-acre prairie park called Meadowbrook. We’ve used it a lot the last few years, walking our hyper black lab (who gobbles everything from piles of poop to piles of rabbit fur in abandoned warrens), cultivating an organic garden in a rented plot, and striding purposefully along the concrete path to try to induce Mrs. Churm’s labor with Starbuck.

Starbuck is five now and interested in science and the natural world, but I didn’t expect too much from our tiny oasis in the frozen clods; it’s backed by a subdivision, after all. We did hope to see a tiger salamander, a few woodcock, some trillium and mayapples. We saw none of these but followed a swollen stream, Starbuck imagining a beaver’s dam at every jumble of flood wrack. We sat in a copse, ate yogurt bars, and pretended we were deer hiding from joggers. A wild turkey called; another responded at great distance.

At first I took the jumble of bones for a big dog’s, but the spine was longer than a man’s, the ribs bigger, and the skull had no canines—a deer then. Starbuck stood somberly a few feet away while I snapped a couple of pictures, despite his great love of dinosaur and other bookish bones. The skeleton was largely intact, but a few pieces had been carried 200 yards by something hungry. I didn’t mention them, as Starbuck had seen all he wanted for the time being.

As we walked, he wanted every odd noise—rattle of seed pods, screech of bird of prey—explained to his satisfaction. Half a mile away at the edge of the park’s big playground, a clumsily laminated sign fallen from a post said, “Sorry about our odor.” It explained that dead animals were left to rot, unless they posed a public safety hazard, to complete life’s cycle for both prairie and people. The sweet stink of education.

By bedtime that night, Starbuck had tamed the bones and seed pods and raw Illinois wind by putting them into stories for Mrs. Churm and Wolfie. As I turned out the light, Starbuck stretched luxuriously between his flannel sheets and heaved a great sigh of satisfaction at time well spent.


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