The Geography of Childhood

Finding magic in the jungles of suburban Kentucky.

I’ve been learning a lot about where I live lately.

I thought I had a pretty good sense of place before. I live in a suburban neighborhood of Louisville, Kentucky; it’s about a 20-minute drive to my office on a good day, and while it’s not an area with a lot of restaurants or bars, it’s close enough to those areas to satisfy my needs. It’s quiet, walkable, leafy. Good public schools. It’s a little hotter and more humid than where I grew up in Ohio, but not so different as to be jarring. It’s a mid-sized city with a better cost of living than when I lived on the coast. It has a decent airport with direct flights to enough of the places I want to go, a respectable dining scene, and most of the cultural amenities one could hope for. 

At least, that’s what I thought I knew before the lockdowns.

Then I stopped driving to work. Those restaurants and bars closed. All the places that made up my mental map of the city — all the places we’d go as a family, the library, the zoo, the museum, the theater, the ballpark — blinked off overnight. My daily sphere shrank from a metropolitan area down to a small neighborhood, and I started to see the world through my children’s eyes.

If you ask a geographer, they’d tell you that Kentucky has a humid subtropical climate. In fact, you don’t even need to ask one. It’s right there on Wikipedia. (You should leave geographers alone. They have maps to make.)

It might come as a surprise, then, to know that there are isolated pockets of jungle in Kentucky. Right at the end of my block, even! Okay, well, it’s actually just a stand of three trees and a few bushes surrounding it, but to my children, it’s The Jungle, a mysterious deep that must be braved every time we round the corner on an afternoon scooter ride. (Their scooters often get abandoned in the jungle, at which point I have to send them back in like some sort of colonial tyrant demanding my explorers return with riches or not return at all.)

It’s not just jungles on this new map, though. A mere fifty feet away is The Gates of Arendelle, which is definitely not just a decorative metal fence our township installed to keep people from cutting through from the next subdivision. It’s the entrance to an icy Disney kingdom, and how convenient for us that it’s a tenth of a mile from our driveway. Major battles and stirring dramas have happened in front of these gates, and it’s in those moments I really feel like my property taxes have really paid off.

Every inch of the neighborhood is mapped with significance. 

There’s the bench that’s perfect for a long break if you’re a three-year-old who theatrically demands breaks after two minutes of walking. There’s the Little Free Library that sometimes has children’s books, ones far less educational than I generally approve of and thus highly prized by my children. There’s a sweet gum tree a quarter mile from our house that’s taken on outsize significance in our days, as it’s the farthest distance two small children will want to scoot in one outing, and it’s apparently extremely fun to throw the spiky pods it sheds into the nearby storm sewer. (If that part of the neighborhood ever floods I will disavow any knowledge of such a practice.)

It’s not just physical elements that make us this map, but memories as well. There — over there’s the house where the neighborhood had a Halloween chili cookoff last year. I’m somewhat surprised that they remember it, being that it was seven months ago and that’s a huge chunk of their lives. I’m also surprised that I remember it, because sharing food with dozens of neighbors seems like it was seven years ago. You’ll never forget the first place you got to eat cookies while dressed like a pirate or a princess, though, so the memory persists long after the folding tables have been put away.

There’s the spot where we found a ‘kindness rock’ several weeks ago, a small stone painted by an unknown neighbor and left to brighten the day of whoever might stumble upon it. My children had never heard of the concept until we discovered one, and within seconds they were demanding that I find more. Now, every single day that we pass that mulch bed, I’m at fault if there isn’t a kindness rock to be found there. No good deed goes unpunished, but sometimes you can shift the punishment to someone else. I’m considering buying a cubic yard of landscape stones and some paint and starting to stack the deck myself. 

There’s the house on our street where another child my son’s age lived until just recently. A preternaturally rambunctious and injury-prone five-year-old, he provided the best thing a little boy can hope for in friendship: a mildly bad influence. His family put their house up for sale at at the beginning of the pandemic and moved away without my son being able to properly say goodbye. He understands that his friend is gone, but I have still not been able to explain the why of the situation in any way that makes it seem fair, because it is not. 

That part of the map has not been revised; it’s still Jack’s house.

This extra time at home has allowed me to see the world as they see the world — a big place with wonder to be found at every turn. They don’t look past anything, they don’t assume anything. Every leaf is to be examined, every rock can be collected, every day is a new exploration of uncharted lands. They’re building a narrative of the world around them, forming an understanding as best they can with the information available.

As they grow, the world will reveal itself to be both more complex and less interesting than the one they’ve constructed. They’ll find a world that has fewer threats of tigers or dragons but is still more brutal and dangerous. They’ll know what lies around the bend, and find that the other side of the forest looks a lot like this side. What seems impossibly large now will shrink, as magic gives way to fact and imagination gives way to practicality. Someday they will see that stand of trees at the end of the block as just that, a bit of landscaping on the edge of a neighbor’s yard. 

For today, it’s the jungle, and the mysteries it holds remain undiscovered.

Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)

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