I’m a sucker for making a glorious mess, so when I had the chance to volunteer at St. Patrick’s Park’s “Good Clean Dirty Fun” event, I jumped right in. This was part of the summertime Family Passports to Play program in our area — and more events are coming up.
It didn't take much of a shove to get me to the park when I heard there was a mudpie station that needed staffing. C’mon — mudpies? Family photos will confirm that I spent a goodly portion of the 1970s mucking around in backyard and campground mud with sticks and a child’s intensity of purpose.
So, with poet e.e. cummings’ delicious phrases, “mudlucious” and “puddle-wonderfuI” in mind, I pulled on my gardening clogs and squatted down on the park’s green space, next to two kiddie pools full of rich black topsoil watered to sludgy perfection. Nearby, laid out invitingly on a bright blue tarp, were a brigade of lightly banged-up cooking pots and pans, and a variety of stirring tools, from big and small spoons to ladles and long-handled mesh skimmers. Other volunteers staffed stations for making mud angels, swamp-stomping, and well-supervised paddling in the pond, but I had struck gold with my task, especially when I saw kids’ faces bloom in astonished delight as parents coaxed them toward the muddy pools and said some mind-blowing version of: Have at it, kiddo!
Over the next two hours, I soaked in the silliness, as toddlers and grade-schoolers felt their way into the earthy mess. Some kids plunged, elbow-deep, into studious play, a Montessori dream of brow-furrowing concentration, spooning mud into pots and swirling and smoothing their creations with British Bake-off moxie. Others needed to be convinced to dip their fingers into the black, velvety sludge. As two young siblings hesitated, small hands hovering over the mud, their mother laughed, announcing loudly, “Yeah, my kids don’t DO nature!” That landed on me hard, and I found myself blocking out her laughter by crouching low, gently offering them stirring tools and narrating my own sample mudpie recipe until they both got to work, one making a giant pot of what he told me was “meatballs topped with macaroni and cheese.” His sister’s creation? If memory serves, it was a “chocolate pie with cake and ice-cream and sprinkles and lots of rainbow candy.” By then, their faces were mud-striped from pushing back their sweaty bangs, and all three of us were laughing, deep in muddy cahoots. Other adults stood around snapping photos, but I only managed one before my fingers were, uh, mudlucious. I felt tutored by these young people, foregoing the fizz of capturing an image for social media eyeballs in favor of paying closer attention — just for me and the little folks around me.
At one point, someone shouted and pointed at the sky, and a dozen small faces tipped up, open-mouthed, to witness one of the park’s bald eagle parents with a huge fish twisting in its talons, wings swishing right over our heads toward the three hungry eaglets nestled in the boat of a nest just to the East of us. The awe was palpable. Oh, these kids know how to do nature, all right, if given the chance.
Watching their purposeful play reminded me of how helpful — life-saving, even — ceramics class has been to countless high schoolers in our community, who look forward to clay work as a respite to re-set the body and mind in adolescent school days that no longer offer recess. Some research has found that clay art therapy can help mitigate depression, science confirming what so many of us have felt -- that the tactile pleasure of squashing and squishing clay is measurably good for us.
Any gardener knows the mental health benefits of plunging our hands into soil, and science, again, corroborates our experience: The are probiotics in soil can naturally increase the serotonin in the brain. Those mood-friendly bacteria in soil can inspire our bodies and boost our immune systems on the inside, while we reconnect with nature outside.
This summer, all you grown up kids can commit to learning more about Mud Lake Bog and the other eight lakes in the St. Joseph County Kettle Lakes Corridor, to see native plant communities -- and the native wildlife they nurture — and imagine the area landscape before the arrival of European settlers.
So, while the season is mudluciously ripe, let’s "do the outdoors” with the fervor and delight of the young. Put away your cell phone, and plunge in, elbow-deep. Nature awaits, and it is wild.
Music: "I Love Mud" by Rick Charette