It’s a park now, mown green-space and graveled paths owned by the city of Williamsburg Virginia. But when I was a boy, not so much older than my son is now, “Government Property” was a tangle of tidewater forest and marshland where earthen battlements – remnants of the civil war – lay hidden in opportunistic underbrush, their soldiers replaced by snakes and coons. Meadows overgrown to little-boy chest height and crawling with ticks, took forever to cross on short legs in the August sun, while acres of hardwood canopy offered a devil’s bargain of shade and suffocating humidity. Through the heart of this pocket wilderness wound Queen’s Creek, and jutting into her brackish water stood a rickety half-rotten dock.
That dock, decades gone, remains as much a part of me as if its pylons had been driven into my psyche instead of the acrid muck. Thirty years later, I can still bring lifelike scraps of its events to mind: crabbing, one bug-bitten boy inching a chicken neck from the bottom with twine, another poised mantis-like with the net; the taste of pride as I headed for home, trusting summer hardened soles to navigate missing planks and rusty nails, laden with bushels for Mom to steam; the ache of unchecked laughter as gathered neighbors and family, picked and told stories around a day’s catch; the thrill of self reliance as, a mere mile from home but feeling as isolated and beyond rescue as Lewis and Clark, we dodged water moccasins, our decisions and their consequences utterly our own. But mostly it was a boyhood of seemingly inconsequential moments parading by that place unnoticed. In the years since though, the tracks left by those unmarked days have ossified into the bones of a man. At the time they cost me a bike ride, a sunburn and a few fresh scratches. Today I wouldn’t trade them for my weight in gold.
What kind of tracks does the X-Box leave, and what do they grow into? I have no intention of finding out. My son, like most kids in the rural west, is surrounded by “Government Property”, known locally as the BLM, the Forest Service and the State Sections. Management of these public lands is a perpetual controversy, the discussions of which often center on economic value. Aldous Huxley was right when he wrote of an economics driven dystopia in A Brave New World that, “A love of nature keeps no factories busy.” But it’s equally true that no factory ever built the foundation of a life. And given time to mature, the investment of a bike ride, a sunburn and few fresh scratches can yield one hell of a return.