The warriors and the gecko

Since the quarantine I’d begun exercising outdoors, in a shared space around the apartment building. It hosts a steady stream of adults exercising, but at tide-like intervals all the young children stream out of the apartments to play together. In particular there is a herd of five boys, the oldest on a bicycle, the next three on scooters, and the youngest running along on foot. Several carry plastic swords. The runner carries some sort of elaborate space weapon that is nearly as tall as he is. Their game is unclear, but involves running back and forth the full length of the space (a good 100 meters end to end, I’d think). They pause at each end, sometimes dropping their scooters and bike and plunking down cross-legged on the pavement to discuss some Very Important Subject. Most delightful are their encounters with wildlife.

One day the oldest came running up to me with his hands cupped. “Do you want a gecko?” he asked. I didn’t understand, but enthusiastically asked to see what he had. He opened his hands to reveal a very tiny and unmoving gecko, minus half of its tail. “Is it still alive?” I asked. “Well, yes, but it’s rather suffering,” he replied with a certain delicacy. “You see, we tried to pick it up by the tail, but it broke off. And then we picked it up regular-like, but I think it’s afraid and tired.” “It probably would like to rest in the woods,” I suggested. “Just let me show my mom, then you can put him in the woods,” he agreed. He dashed off, followed by the rest of the herd, shouting for his mother.

After a bit he and his friends came stampeding back and graciously handed over the traumatized gecko. I was about to set him on top of the wall along the woods, but the boy suggested that in the woods a snake might eat him. I agreed this was possible, and instead laid the creature under some branches in a large flower box where he would be shaded from the sun and out of sight of birds.

There is a certain awe these boys hold for the natural world that cuts through their shouting battles and sword-waving charges. In an instant they stop and stand fascinated, watching a lizard, a monkey, or a caterpillar.

That fascination and engagement reminded me of the wondrous quality my childhood play spaces had when I was that age. An overgrown lot at the end of a suburban street seemed as vast and engaging as a wild prairie. A small mound of dirt, abandoned after some unfinished construction project, offered a challenging ascent and high view. The branches regularly trimmed from the neighbor’s very tall hedge made a cozy lean-to that lasted until the next lawn-mowing day.

The memories of these places are vivid still, more than 45 years later, more so than many other memories. It’s a delight to watch these kids experiencing something similar.