Wild Child review – notes from the landscape of childhood | Books

One of my favourite essays is a piece by Michael Chabon called The Wilderness of Childhood. It’s about how children’s imaginations – and the books they populate with these imaginations – are fed by their experience of wild places. Chabon’s essay is at once a celebration of childhood and an elegy for it, a recognition that the freedom he enjoyed as a child was far greater than his own children would enjoy three decades later. Chabon’s message about the beneficial effects of children roaming widely across their home territories is picked up and expanded in Patrick Barkham’s wise and touching memoir-cum-parenting guide, Wild Child.

Barkham also adopts Chabon’s note of lament, beginning his book with the recognition that “the wild child is functionally extinct in the western world”. Barkham is a fine nature journalist and, in an attempt to counter the enclosed, paranoid, managerial nature of contemporary parenting, undertakes to bring up his own children – twins Esme and Milly and their younger brother, Ted – to be as wild as is possible in their East Anglian village home.

There are problems when it comes to writing about nature and parenting, particularly when you’re a white, middle-class man. Barkham spends the first chapter ducking and weaving around these issues, pointing out his own failings as an environmentalist: “I’ve had three children, so I can’t give lectures about sustainable population growth”; and as a parent: “Some mornings, our children are glued to the television for an hour while I catch up on sleep.” He (correctly) bats away the suggestion that nature is somehow the preserve of those with the time and energy to enjoy it – “Wild life is not a luxury … we are all enriched by being on nodding terms with the other species with whom we share our miraculously life-giving planet.”

Barkham and his wife, Lisa, decide to send Ted to Dandelion, a local forest nursery school; soon Barkham becomes a volunteer at the school and finds himself outside in all weathers with a group of boisterous, inquisitive children, often learning more from them than they do from him. The book is structured as a record of the author’s time teaching at the school, but it reaches beyond that in its scope. On second reading, you recognise that this is a book about the unbridgeable distance between adults and children, even between a father and three kids he clearly loves very much.

Running alongside Barkham’s attempts to help his children engage with a natural world that is luminous and fascinating, yet can be cruel and incomprehensible, is another frustrated urge: the near-universal and yet doomed-to-fail impulse of every parent to preserve childhood in amber, to prolong those precious, swift-passing years before the world invades and snatches away innocence and wonder. We are given glimpses of Barkham’s own childhood, which appears to have been somewhat lonely and lived in the shadow of his parents’ divorce, and we understand why he wants to ensure that his own kids have the kind of childhood that feels like it only exists in stories. As Barkham’s children age and grow apart from him, you can feel desperation at the loss in the bones of the book. And yet, to his credit, Barkham recognises this and makes accommodations with it, exemplified by a scene towards the end where he bribes his daughters to come mushroom foraging with him.

Among many superb literary nuggets in the book, there’s a quote from the poet Patrick Kavanagh that highlights the particular relevance of Wild Child to these strange sequestered days: “To know fully one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience.” We have been turned in upon ourselves by the lockdown, forced to do what Barkham does so brilliantly in the book: subjecting a hedge, or a pond, or a garden, to intense scrutiny. Wild Child ends with a selection of more than 60 recommended activities for parents to undertake with their kids in nature, a hugely valuable resource for those of us in need of home-school inspiration. Barkham’s book is both a call to arms and a deep investigation of the benefits of forest schools. More than anything, though, it’s a beautiful meditation on the joy and pain of parenthood, one that had me hugging my own two particularly closely before pushing them out into the rain.

Wild Child: Coming Home to Nature by Patrick Barkham is published by Granta (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15

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