Terra incognita

Ecotone home page

The Ecotone wiki site is a collection of essays on "place" and its meaning to the writers. My other bursts of

Coming & going
Food & place
Imaginary place
Maps as place
Mythical place
River and Estuary
Rocks and place
Saving place
Sound and place
Visitors & place

Back 1

It was sometime in March when my daughter came to me and demanded seeds to plant in a garden. She was quite vague about where it was, but after I handed her a handful of birdseed I noticed she was rooting around in the mud of a dank corner of the backyard, where a pine tree, our honeysuckle and some sparse wisteria shade a low spot nearly to blackness.

That "garden" was her second. The first was also out of sight, beyond the trunk of our maple tree. Planted in November, it didn't have much future, either, but several of her mother's herbs were abstracted from the herb garden. The part that got to me was the ring of rocks around the tiny plot -- in the middle of the lawn.

It may be she hid them because I had told her several times that you can't plant a garden in wintertime. Her reply was always, "Don't ever say 'impossible.' " I think she got that from "Barney," where they exhort kids never to give up -- on learning games, skills, cleaning their room. (The Stepford children on "Barney" never do mischief).

I suppose all real kids keep secrets, and that all kids hide things. We found little caches of hidden candy in my daughter's bedroom when she was as young as 3. We told her she didn't have to hide things, that she only needed to ask for decent food and sweets, but of course, we lied: Even at 3, she knew that we sometimes say no. Especially before dinner. It could have been worse; one of my daughter's friends, then still struggling over using the toilet, left a dry glob of something unspeakable under our couch one day.

I had my own secret places when I was a kid, though they were rentlessly turned out by my mother. Sometime in high school, when we learn so many lessons about adapting to the world, I read "The Purloined Letter" and discovered that the best way to hide something is to learn something about the psychology of whoever might be looking and then hide your secret in plain sight. Thereinafter, a lot of my private mail was merely interleaved with old homework papers, where I could find it but no one else would bother to look.

But by then I had liberty to roam, so I could look for other secret places, too. I loved topographic and historical maps that could point me to obscure hollows and old structures. I enjoyed poking around under bridges, too, though all I ever found there were waterbugs and graffiti. Once, hiking in the woods, I found a rough cabin some kids had built. It had a reeking mattress, cardboard on the walls and graffiti. And there was derelict house, its upper floors already collapsing, where I poked about for artifacts. I mostly found carpenter ants and graffiti. In my small town, there were few secret places that no one else knew.

Now that I am an adult, I can have privacy for the asking -- mostly, for with a child around you can never be sure. But I still take a half-guilty pleasure in glimpsing the interior of others' houses when the lights go on at dusk, and I love looking deep into the nooks and crannies of woodlands when they're just out of the snow and haven't had time to robe themselves again in leaves. Not that I ever see anything in the woods but junk and occasional graffiti.

Here in the big city, there really are secret places where ragged people go, and where I, as an overfed suburbanite, don't. (And the graffiti there is really thick.) A good deal of history lies down there, though, in the disused culverts and fenced-off wastelands. I've read that the ruins of a whole ghost town exists out behind a shopping area on the north side of town. I could probably trace the history of the lakes near my home if I would clamber down in the gorge they fill.

Poking into places is a boy's game, though, and I would merely be trespassing. Instead, I can defend my whole house as a secret place -- one, at least, where official intruders are unwelcome -- and insist that information about me is mine, and not a tool for someone else's marketing. But that's not place, it's politics.

Back to top