I walk with my puppy, Violet the vizsla–a five-month-old spring of sniffing curiosity and play and tireless energy–along the sidewalks and trails in my neighborhood. She noses through licorice-scented ferns just beside the sidewalk and strains to see the squirrels and birds in the trees. We reach the edge of an open grassy park, outlined along the periphery by a meandering sidewalk. Violet can’t contain herself anymore. “Okay,” I say, and let the leash go slack, bracing myself to run along behind her as she goes off trail. Nose to the ground, she snuffs through pink oxalis and little miniature fairy-blue flowers I can’t identify, intensely tracking the scent of some invisible animal that must have been here before us.

In a positive space

I love this! As Violet pulls me around from this interesting tree to that burrow under the bushes, I think back to when I was a little girl exploring the woods and fields and streams on the dairy farm where I grew up. My trusty dog Max, a golden retriever, always ran ahead of me, scaring away snakes and bad guys. My cousin was usually there too, with his Australian shepherd Dixie. There were no sidewalks, of course, no real borders; we were making our own trails. With dogs in tow, we felt safe and fearless and free.

I stop as Violet slows down a bit, and I sigh. I really wish my own girls could have the same amazing outdoor experiences I had as a child. But where we live now… it’s just not the same. Sure we have plenty of parks and playgrounds and nature preserves, but the frustrating thing for me is that you can’t easily go off trail! You can’t jump off the boardwalk at Daggerwing Nature Center and climb a cypress or sneak away and build a fort in the underbrush. So many neighborhoods in our area of South Florida are landscaped and HOA-regulated to death. Natural habitats are routinely razed to make room for cookie-cutter communities and sports fields, with an obligatory small number of palm trees planted back in to make up for the loss. Nature preserves provide pockets of protected nature, but not the kind a kid can touch. Sometimes it seems like there are lots of rules… and very little real, wild nature to play in around here.

Exploring with friends at Lake Kissimmee State Park

From the green middle of the park I follow the sidewalk all the way around with my eyes, like tracing a line. It occurs to me this is one of the few times I’ve explored the grassy areas and rough edges of this particular park… which is ridiculous. Usually when we come here, I’m running or biking, or my daughters are scootering. We hardly ever leave the sidewalk!

But the real life is in the middle, beyond the edges, in the “negative space,” to borrow a term from art class, that lies outside that concrete line that circles the park. And it occurs to me (in light of recent research) that young girls in particular, like mine, could benefit from going off trail and exploring outside the lines a little bit. All it takes is a little extra encouragement.

Not typically something you'd find on the sidewalk...

Suzie spies something off the beaten path

After all, nature outside our windows or along the sidewalk trail is better than none at all… but as humans, male and female alike, that’s not enough. We are meant to be a part of nature.

Violet

How to do that? Family camping trips are fantastic. Or there’s the exciting movement towards natural playscapes, that is bringing the experience of real, touchable nature to community play spaces. But for everyday nature (and until our community gets our own nature playscape!) I realize my daughters and I will have to make a point more often of venturing off the beaten path. For now we’ll just follow Violet.

© Jaime Greenberg and Sunflower Creative Arts, 2012