Lords of their domain

My son and his friends are creating their own world in our backyard. They kneel in the red dirt under the maple tree, where even the weeds that grace the rest of our lawn refuse to grow. With trowels they dig, mining clay for their gnome village.

The project started last summer with just a small hole and a couple of mounds covered in twigs and moss. It began in the same part of the yard where Peter had dug for dinosaur fossils when he was 3 and 4 and searched for geological treasures when he was 7 and 8.

"Every time I think he's stopped digging and I should plant something there, he starts again," I tell his friends' parents, who aren't always sure about this backyard project.

And, to tell the truth, I'm not always sure either. "He got kind of muddy," I'll apologize to the parents of one of his friends, hoping they weren't planning on a clean child to take to the next stop on a busy family Saturday.

One father double-checks our family's rules. "At my house, my kids know the yard belongs to me," he explains. I remember his lush green grass and colorful flower beds, and I wonder if I should make our yard more like his.

I'm not a gardener, and I've long ago raised the white flag in the battle against wild onions and clover. But I admire others' well-groomed flower gardens, foundation plantings, and vegetable plots. I disguise my lack of landscaping skill with mowed weeds and pots of geraniums. As I've watched the gnome village expand, I've made noises about erosion and about planting hostas or ferns among the mud huts.

The earth under the maple is now pockmarked with holes and mounds, cut through with a large "river bed," and adorned with a circle of rocks surrounding a few lonely spikes of unmowed grass. The hole Peter began digging last summer – a mine for clay, he tells me – has grown to what seems like canyon size.

One day, a mountain range appears along the perimeter of the settlement. It's a good day for building, as the morning's rain has softened the dirt into moldable clay. The boys come inside with hands tinted red from the Virginia earth, leaving rusty fingerprints on the doorjamb and bathroom light switch.

Over popcorn, they discuss their plans, consulting a map they've drawn in a black loose-leaf notebook. "It's out of date," Peter declares. They take the notebook with them when they return outdoors.

When it's time for my son's friend to leave, his mother and I stand at the screen door, looking out at the boys on their knees under the tree. "I'm glad they're doing this," she says after checking on whether it's all right for her son to dig holes in my backyard. "It's not computers, it's not video games, it's what fifth-grade boys should do."

I watch them for a moment and feel glad Peter has found this world of his own. In the past, he has asked for treehouses I don't know how to build. He has longed for an endless forest in which to roam, far from the world of schedules and homework.

When we took a hike in a nearby park, I asked him, "How's this?" and gestured to the surrounding woods, hoping that they would satisfy. He looked around critically and shrugged. The paved paths and glimpses of houses through trees intruded on his vision of an ideal world.

But now he and his friends are shaping their own landscape. They are lords of their domain, sitting on the cool earth, not caring as dirt seeps under socks and into shorts, building with wet clay, draping soft moss over twigs, and carving small doorways.

After a rain, my son goes out to check on the homes, to see how they've fared. Did the moss roofs keep them dry? Did anything get washed away?

The new mountain range is to stop erosion, he said the other day.

We adults smiled indulgently, doubtfully. "What about grass? What about plants?" we asked.

"No," he answered, "I want to keep it natural."

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