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Now here 15 years, I have a happy association of kid laughter and snow. Following the first snow last week, I did a little window-reconnaissance on the southern border of my sprawling 0.23-acre estate and there they were – small-bore boot prints, evidence of a sled in tow.

The brazen little interlopers (and sometimes their parents) routinely trespass to access our village sledding hill. And I love it. When sledding is good, laughter and shrieks seep in with the drafts and I get glimpses of brightly colored snowsuits thought my cedars, all frenetic energy and absurd insulation puffery – human versions of spunky chickadees at my feeder.

Last winter when we were shoveling the sidewalk, I suggested to Carol that I should make a sign (sledding this way ->) so they wouldn’t feel like they were sneaking around. She said that was too weird. I don’t know, maybe they like the thought of sneaking. I sometimes hear their voices in the evening dark – sometimes their giggles. A little subversion can be delicious.

When the terra-formers created my neighborhood 40 years ago, they put a new water tower on the glacial hilltop (makes sense) and then contoured a slope to the north that formed the eastern boundary of the lots they were carving out of the marsh. Since the natural slope has a significant westerly vector, the terra-formers created a berm to direct the sledders before they piled into backyards like mine. It works most of the time. But occasionally a sledder with enough velocity gets launched over the berm and into my back yard. There are sled tracks under my bird feeders as I write this. Carol barricaded the base of our spruce tree with straw bales and one brittle winter day I lost a plastic compost bin to a collision.

Unbelievably, there are no sidewalks that access the hill. My street curves away from the hill and my neighbors all have fences. One needs to divert and turn a corner to find the road to the hilltop – but it has no sidewalks! In my neighborhood, unless you can drive yourself, my southern border is the path of least resistance. When I see them in my backyard I sometimes get a feeble wave. I always wave and smile.

When I was a kid (here we go…) boundaries were more porous. Growing up in the farm country southwest of Grand Rapids, Michigan, I had enormous privilege that I didn’t even realize. I left my own smaller-bore footprints all over a square mile of southern Michigan farm fields, woodlots, wetlands and brushy jumbles.

I’ve carried that landscape with me for nearly 50 years and I grow more and more aware of how those experiences have carried me. I know the exact contours of the sledding hill in Strabbing’s pasture. I could draw you a map of the wooded ravine where a clearwater little creek originated in a dark spring before emptying into a mucky ditch behind the chicken farm. I looked deeply into the dark eye of a rabbit one windy day, taut as a bowstring under a snowed-over hummock, before it twitched and exploded through the powder. I could write a book about this stuff.

Was I trespassing? Absolutely. Did the landowner know I was out there? Almost certainly, given how much time I spent building camps, exploring, and absorbing Creator rhythms. Likely, I enjoyed the benevolence of community. A fair number of those landowners knew my family from church. Others as neighbors. I was just that Van Deelen kid, back there doing whatever it is he does in the woods. Again.

Turning the corner on this horrible year, I keep thinking about boundaries. Adult-me has no freedom to wander off and poke around in my neighborhood to follow my curiosity. I must stick to the sidewalks and the public spaces.

Decades of research field work and yearly deer hunts have impressed me with just how jealously we Americans guard our boundaries.

I survey the tracks I’ve left in my mind, poking around in Debra Rienstra’s Refugia podcasts, Charles and Rah’s book (Unsetting Truths…), the polluted political landscape, the raw outrage of kids in border cages.

We make too much of our boundaries. Our culture’s inability to address a pandemic and a looming climate crisis reflect jealously guarded boundaries between self-interest and community. The Black Lives Matter protests motivated hard discussion about why university science departments are so white, and why the conservation sciences where I roam may be the whitest of all. What boundaries protect all that? Are they similar to the boundaries erected by my own faith? 

As I write, it’s the Saturday before Christmas and I have grading to do. I’m exhausted but in the same breath grateful in a 2020-specific way that our family’s subdued Christmas is not challenged by job loss or an empty seat.

We celebrate the incarnation this week, maybe the most boundary-shattering thing we can imagine. Part of me is still that restless kid and wants to chuck it all and dust off the sleds in the basement. I wish you could hear the sledding hill joy. Winter break in my world is an opportunity to let my mind wander and I am more hopeful about the coming year. More poking around to do, more discoveries, and maybe a little delicious subversion.

Tim Van Deelen

Tim Van Deelen is Professor of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He grew up in Hudsonville, Michigan, and graduated from Calvin College. From there he went on to the University of Montana and Michigan State University. He now studies large mammal population dynamics, sails on Lake Mendota, enjoys a good plate of whitefish, and gains hope for the future from terrific graduate students. 


  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Tim, for an insightful article about boundaries, the boundaries that others set on us and the boundaries we set on others. It’s interesting that you would suggest the incarnation is the most boundary-shattering thing we can imagine. In my mind, the incarnation and Christianity is just the opposite. I remember quite distinctly being grilled by a team of elders when making profession of faith to make sure my beliefs and life remained within the boundaries of orthodox Christianity. And I also remember quite distinctly, as an elder myself, our church council rejecting a young person’s profession because his beliefs ventured too far outside the parameters of the Apostles’ Creed. Our denomination is presently trying to determine the boundaries by which we can keep practicing homosexuals from making profession of faith in our denomination. You don’t believe in a Triune God? You’re out. You believe there is more than one way to acceptance by God? You’re out. Oh, Christians have their boundaries, and the incarnation is central to them all. It’s not just lifestyle issues that form our “no trespassing” sign, but our unique Christian beliefs, as well. How many of us are wondering how far we can push the limits of the no trespassing signs on our churches? Thanks, again, Tim for a well written article.

  • Lewis DeKryger says:

    Your eloquence is such a gift to those of us who look forward to your postings…

  • Bev VanderMolen says:

    Your post brings back such magnificent memories and such exhilarating hope for the future. “Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.”

  • Henry Baron says:

    Always looking forward to your posts, Tim – thanks!

  • Emily R Brink says:

    Loved this, Tim. Thank you! Keep writing. Brought back memories of Cal DeWitt who gave me a boundary-shattering Saturday morning in Calvin’s science building when he invited me to open doors for him to carry a looooong boa constrictor down to another floor to weigh it,
    since he was concerned it hadn’t been eating enough. Unforgettable.

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