January 09, 2015

The Frontier

There's a scene I like from Dances With Wolves in which Kevin Costner's Lieutenant Dunbar, presented with the choice of serving anywhere in the country, stuns his superior with a request to be posted to the American frontier. "Before it's gone," he bemoans. Sometimes I feel his urgency, in experiencing something still unbound – and his disappointment in knowing that it won't last.

When I was a boy, I couldn't swim. I still don't like it unless I'm suited up in goggles and flotation devices. It didn't stop me from enjoying the water. My brother and I surfed inflatable mats at the beach and coasted far from shore in our dinghy. At 11 years old I slipped while fording Pine Point Rapids and slid backwards in the slippery torrent in a frenetic downward-facing dog, finding footing in a divot in the rock and halting myself before reaching the deep water. I then made it across to explore the woods on the other side. As a teenager, I waded from Victoria Beach to Elk Island, tip-toeing the parts where the water lapped at my neck.

My mom allowed me to attempt all of this, because she believed in a rule of common sense. This permitted me, among other things, to self-govern – to walk to the library at a young age by myself. Go downtown on the bus. Explore the banks of the Assiniboine, looking for birds and poking clods of cracked mud with sticks. I knew, as she knew, I wouldn't be rash. I'd use the underpass instead of blindly bolting over Maryland and Sherbrook. I wouldn't dick around with the river during flood season (or that I'd search for a longer stick).

A crackdown on tobogganing in some Canadian cities this winter leaves we contemplating the austerity of a future in which my daughter won't be able to careen down the hill at Omand's Creek. Won't climb trees, won't dangle from monkey bars, won't jump from boulder to boulder at the beach like I did. Won't be able to try, and maybe fail (and try again). Won't explore. Won't know to explore. As much as I appreciate having been able to experience the "frontier" of a simpler time – of hopping from rock to rock or poking at things with sticks – I worry about the unrecognizable scraps of these experiences that may or may not remain once Scout gets older. Or that they'll be allowed under law.

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