Tuesday, November 5, 2013

into the woods, and back again with Peter Brown

Elliott has always had a rather uncanny ability to go creaturish, as we call it.  

He is able to move about in a crouch faster than I can run on two feet.  He has the lopsided hobble-gallop of Gollum perfected.  He can imitate birds, hiss like a cat, growl like a dog, and in other ways express thoughts in animal.

The other day we had a silly game of family tennis and he played for a bit, human style, and then began chasing the tennis balls and collecting them, as eggs with his discarded fleece as a nest.  His ability to move like and sound like creatures is only rivaled by his intense love of and respect for animals.  He tucks a chicken under each arm and hums the Muppet chicken song while scanning the sky for city hawks.  And he built a lean to over a sick snake last week to protect it from predators, checking on the snake every so often until he announced that it had gotten better and slithered away.  Walking toward me recently, stepping over our two large dogs and our silly cat, he brought me three woolly bear caterpillars and said, Look, we have three of them!  Now we can each have a pet to take with us when we go on trips!

He is at an age when some of his friends are more interested in playing soccer or other sports, or in chasing each other around the playground playing tag, or acting out pretend fighting scenes.  Elliott wonders why children are taking the sticks from the nest he built for the baby birds in the playground's natural space in order to do so.

Currently on the playground at school, he is playing in the bushes, his teacher reports.

from The Curious Garden, by Peter Brown

Alone?  I asked, nervous that this might be true.  That his love of the animal world might be beginning to clash with the intense soccermania across the hardtop from him.

Oh, no! she assured us.  With a group, playing some kind of animal burrows game.

This has always been a bit of a struggle for Elliott, really for all three kids, their discomfort with the rougher more competitive play.  And the line between fun and naughty.  He gets himself in over his head at times when pretending with friends.  But, as our third child, and having experienced our two older children navigate through this, both of them quite successfully in their own ways, we are a bit more relaxed about it.  We know he will.

Nonetheless, there was the animal stew incident in preschool a few years back.  There he was on the playground, in the open space the school has created for building with natural materials, sitting around the "fire" he and his friends had constructed out of branches.  Someone was cooking a meal and handing it out while they all sat on stumps, digging into the invisible meal held like a bowl in one hand with their imaginary spoons in the other.

This is so good!  said Elliott.  What is it?

Animal Stew, a friend explained.

Screech.  I can imagine the horror that must have filled Elliott's eyes as he gently placed his bowl and spoon on the stump, spat dryly into the flameless fire, and retreated to the swings.

He told me all about it when I picked him up at school that day.  How to explain to him the nature of pretend, the nature of larger group play, the hopefully unintentional meaning of cooking all the animals that Elliott had been pretending to be and care for, just the day before?  To remind him of pretend versus real, and have him see how in the context of imaginary play, it is okay to play a bit, with his rules for himself.


The other day, Elliott and I, a few years older now, but still the boy who might have been a creature in another life, were reading Mr. Tiger Goes Wild, by Peter Brown.  And came to this page.

from Mr. Tiger Goes Wild, by Peter Brown

On the next page, Mr. Tiger is no longer on his hind legs but is now on all fours, walking, well, like a tiger.  Wild.  The transformation all happened off the page.  We don't know exactly how it happened.  Whether it was a knee bending technique. Or whether he collapsed like a floppy noodle, starting from the middle.  But there he is, all tigerish.

I thought of Elliott, who always begins a game of family badminton with a racket in his hand, trying to whack the birdie over the net.  Dashing for it when it is returned to his side.  For a few minutes he joins us.  Running fast, learning to serve, enjoying the game, learning to accept missing his target, and trying again.  And then, while my head is deep in the lilac hedge searching for the missing birdie, he also goes from a two legged human to a four pawed creature.  Discards his racket, and crouches under the net.  And then, an admittedly much more fun and quite hilarious version of badminton erupts, with the rest of us continuing to play by the rules, while Elliott, with the speed of a jaguar and often a growl, dashes out from under the net every time the birdie hits the ground, snatches it before any of us have even seen where it fell, and returns to his place under the net.  He is fast.  And he giggles while he does this.  And therefore, so do we.  

This book, Mr. Tiger Goes Wild.  It is sort of like Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed meets The Giver meets Henry David Thoreau.  But with a happy ending.  If that makes sense, which I am pretty sure it does not.  But it does in my head.  It's about bucking convention, letting your inner wild and autonomous self out, shedding the assumptions and rules of society and living alone for a bit in the woods, bringing a bit of wild, of emotion, of joy into a rather colorless existence, and having others be inspired to do the same.

So, in Mr. Tiger Goes Wild, when the adults tell the children (hippopotamus, bear, and pig children) to please not behave like wild animals, I think of Elliott.  Trying to figure out how to play, what to play, stretching his comfort zone.  So in touch with his creature side.

Elliott noticed it before I did.  The tree.  The one from The Curious Garden, also by Peter Brown.  It is in this new book, in a bit of a different style.  But still there.  At least that's how Elliott and I see it.

from Mr. Tiger Goes Wild, by Peter Brown

He also noticed, before I did, that Mr. Tiger, once out in the wilderness, was looking a bit lonely.  And then was sitting in that tree.  With drips of tearlike raindrops falling.

That you can be in a tree.  Crouched.  Being creaturish.  You might be comfortable, and doing what you love.  But you also might be alone.  And it is so much more fun to be with others.  That you have to invite the Victorian townspeople and the hunters and the soccer players into the bushes, and all compromise and come up with something even better.

Elliott's teacher tells us he is running, erect and fast, now at recess.  Loosening up a bit.  We came upon him on the playground the other day with each knee in the back of a toy dump truck, careening down the tarred walkway, heading toward some concrete steps.  Other children were skipping along side him, giggling.

I gasped.  And said nothing.  Because this is good.  Really.


A few months after the great animal stew debacle, we revisited the theme:  furry versus cooked animal.  Elliott had worked it out, or at least had begun to.  Seeing the fun of collaborative play, of incorporating the ideas of others, even if it was a bit out of character for him.  Seeing just how it felt to be a totally different kind of player, trying on a different way of being, in a safe place.  And looking to me, to see what I thought of it all.

Still in preschool, I was dropping him off one morning.  And he and a few friends were playing in the indoor sandbox.  They had taken some branches and formed a pile.  A firepit once again.  The plastic animals that were usually in the sandbox were in a circle, standing on their feet around the fire.  The boys were standing in a circle too, rubbing their hands together.

We are camping!  they told me.

With the animals, said Elliott, righting a hippopotamus who had tipped over.

Oh, how nice, I said.  They must be getting warmed up too, gesturing to the animals.

Yes, said Elliott, and then, looking deeply into my human momma bear eyes, in order to better see my response, and crispy.

He smiled, and tipped his fancy top hat at me.  And turned back to the fire.

from Mr. Tiger Goes Wild, by Peter Brown

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