Cat Lair

This is an environmental autobiography entry of favorite childhood places.

Identification – The “Cat Lair” was a cluster of trees, shrubs, and other vegetation that formed an enclosure in one corner of my back yard in Galesburg, IL.  I played there from the ages of four to about ten or eleven.  It was called the “Cat Lair” after Catwoman’s hideout in the old Batman television show.  It was not called the “Bat Cave” because I had two older sisters who could easily pound me into submission.

Place – The Cat Lair was a cluster of young trees and shrubs that formed an enclosure much like a tunnel.  There were three entrances: one that opened under a large maple tree with a canopy of overhanging branches, another smaller entrance on the side that required older children and adults to stoop to gain access, and a third entrance that opened next to a pair of burning-barrels located at the corner of the property farthest from the house.

The space was large enough to allow half a dozen small children to play “inside”.  Although there was plenty of space for children, adults would probably have found the Cat Lair to be bit claustrophobic.  Space was more generous under the canopy of the maple tree with room for both children and adults.  Both spaces were dark and visually complex, with light filtering through a tangle of branches and leaves, and the ground littered with roots, rocks, sticks, new growth and dying vegetation.

In the summer the space remained fairly cool and slightly damp because of the continuous shade.  The area smelled like a deciduous forest; a combination of earth, plant smells, and mulch.  Down near the burning barrels there was a smoky smell of burnt paper and dead grass discarded from the mower.  With a slight breeze, the Cat Lair was filled with the whispering of rustling leaves – this was a very gentle, comforting sound.

People – The Cat Lair was definitely a place for kids, not adults.  I never remember my parents or any other adult ever visiting the Cat Lair.  However, it was close enough to the house for my parents to supervise us by sound if not by sight.

The Cat Lair was a place to play with my sisters, with friends, or by myself.  If other kids were visiting our house, we often ended up in the Cat Lair playing some game or another.  It was also the first place you would look if you were “it” in hide-and-seek.

Behavior – The activities in the Cat Lair were varied.  Although it was a good place to swing from branches or to hit a tree with a big stick, it was a terrible place to run – there were too many things on the ground to trip on and too many branches to smack you in the face.  Therefore, activities in the Cat Lair were not quite as rough and tumble as they were in the rest of the backyard.  The confined enclosed nature of the place lent itself to a slower pace of activity.

Cognition – The games played in the Cat Lair often involved role-playing and imagination.  The enclosed space could be a house, a pirate’s cave, the jungles of Africa, a cowboy hideout, or even the Cat Lair (when my sisters were not there, it could be the Bat Cave!).  One of the reasons you could play there alone was because you could imagine yourself in a variety of roles and situations even when no one else was around.

Affect – The Cat Lair was an exciting place.  It was dark and mysterious, and sometimes (e.g., at night) it could be just a little bit scary.  There was something about the place that made you want to talk quietly.  It was also exciting because there was the perception that you were beyond any adult supervision.  In contrast, as a private place to go to on your own, it could enhance feelings of calm and solitude.

Time – We almost always played in the Cat Lair during the day (less scary) during the summer and early fall.  During late fall, winter, and spring, the leaves would all drop and there was nowhere to hide in our hideout – you could see right through the trees!

When we played in the Cat Lair, it was usually only a short period of time before we burst out into the yard for more active play.  Although the space was mysterious and fun, it was also a bit oppressive; it was great to explore for brief interludes but then it was time to escape.

Developmentally, the Cat Lair was a space for little kids; I virtually never went there when I was older.  As I mentioned, it was a little claustrophobic for anyone over five feet tall.

Importance – The reason that the Cat Lair is vivid in my memory is because I spent so much time playing and dreaming there.  I lived in my childhood home from the time I was a toddler until my parents sold the place when I was in college.  The Cat Lair was a part of my life during that entire period; first as a place to play and then as a place that triggered memories of childhood.
I visited my hometown five years after graduating from college.  None of my family lived in the area, but I still had friends there.  I drove by my old house and the first thing that hit me was that the new owners had cut down the Cat Lair.  The maple was still there, but the cluster of trees that composed the Cat Lair had been replaced with flat, green lawn.  When I saw this, I felt like crying.  Oh well, things change.

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Posted: Friday, April 30th, 2010

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