The meaning of mud

I HAVE discovered the dividing line between children and adults, and it is mud. Children adore it; adults abhor it. Children will seek it out, create it if none is around. Adults don't even like to see it caking on the tires of their cars. To a child, gold and silver pale beside mud. Mud has an immediate value. A child can find a happy afternoon's diversion in a mud pie. To an adult, a mud pie is worse than a wooden nickel - not only is it useless, it's messy. Mud is play. Play is an innocent mind, free from responsibility. Play is not concerned with appearances. Neither is mud. Adults must be.

Our children enjoy camping and look forward to the next time we plan to go. But as kids so often do, they seem to cherish parts of the experience that barely occur to me, in retrospect, and have very little to do with what I might consider nature. After our last trip, on the drive home, my wife asked one of our boys to name the high points of the weekend adventure and he dutifully replied: ``Eating, cooking, sleeping, and getting our shoes muddy.''

Eating, cooking, and sleeping we can do at home, so, in a way, nature has come down to muddy shoes. Oh yes, there is mud at home, but it's understood that Mom and Dad do not encourage wholesale mudding expeditions - and that of course is exactly what a camping trip is. It's the giddy prospect of unlimited mud, with no frowns or objections. I'm surprised there isn't a theme park for kids, ``Camp Mud,'' with mud slides and mud shoots and mud pools and a Mud Olympics. WHY is it that what children enjoy and adults can barely tolerate are exactly the same thing? Muddy shoes make for a perfect example. Kids live for muddy shoes; adults crave the shine. I wonder when it occurs in a lifetime, what morning it is that you wake up and the thrill of muddy shoes is gone. I'm talking about thoroughly muddy shoes for the sake of muddy shoes, when the heart leaps at the sight of a puddle. Then one day, deep in your heart you honestly confess that you prefer dry footwear. Only for today, you say, but the habit sets in. Mud becomes inconvenient, then undesirable. Soap beckons. And you've been through the rite of passage, crossed that line. Ever after you are at least in part an adult.

In politics - a highly evolved and artificial form of behavior conducted solely by adults, and in which appearances count mightily - one of the least-honored activities is known as mud-slinging. Then too, in the world at large, when someone has done something wrong, he may be told to straighten up or his name will be mud. If it should be told to a child, it will most probably have the reverse effect than the one desired. Many of the kids I know would be delighted to be lumped with mud. And as for the slinging, what a campaign the children could wage!

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