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Down planet path

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When our children were young, we tried everything to get them outside. Sure, our family life inside was filled with the kind of drama you'd call gloriously ordinary—which pasta for dinner, whose turn it was to feed the dogs or get the phone, and how best to gather everyone around the woodstove hearth every evening.

Outdoors, I figured it was all about the destination, so we constructed paths from one rural attraction to another. We had a picnic path to the blueberries, another to the chicken coop. One trail wound to the tire swing and zip wire, but that was neither our "scenic overlook" nor "outer beltway."

As these paths tolerated all variety of vehicles, from wobbly wheelbarrows and reluctant bicycles to bouncing baby carriages and battery-powered jeeps, there was a fair amount of maintenance required, especially in the spring and winter. Clearing these trails required an arsenal of tools and trashing my weekend jeans; if the chainsaw was involved, there would be a whole other level of supplies and precautions. Turning the mundane into the fantastic, my oldest daughter would often come find me, cutting in the woods. She would collect the sawdust piled up by the logs, carefully scooping up cups full and sprinkling it around her newfound woodland fairy domains. "Magical dust," she called it.

Believe it or not, these paths were chances to confirm household partnerships: My wife frequently invoked The Dogwood Rule: "Never cut down a dogwood tree, alive or dead." I did once, and she wouldn't talk to me for three days. Her rule applies to ferns as well, although she knows I like a good mow, to be able to trim the trail all the way to the edge. It makes for easier back and forth passage. Suffice it to say, we have our share of Zen-like obstacle courses on these crooked, cluttered paths.

These days, the paths are more functional. Like spokes on a wheel, our paths lead in all directions from the back door: to the mailbox, the end of the driveway for the daily newspapers, to the well house and, of course, to our neighbors' houses and their own lattice of paths. One of these neighbors recently discovered a 10-foot tall mound of bulldozed dirt in the brush a hundred yards behind his house. He astutely called it "Arrowhead Head Hill," and his boys have since marched a path toward it again and again. They are playing there with their digging trucks all the time. One day, as they listened patiently, he slowly explained the name to us: "Well, we haven't found any arrowheads yet, but we know they're there." The explorer cycle continues.

My oldest daughter was once inspired to plan a path directly into the woods from the basketball court. I asked her where the path was going.

"I don't know Dad, I just wanted to make one," she responded. "You guys always look like you're having so much fun with your paths. I wanted to do one myself."

Yes, that's it; I'm grabbing my boots and loppers and heading out the back door right now.

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