Last summer, I thought I would be interning at some big-name newspaper. Instead, I found myself knee-deep in mud, surrounded by screaming children. All around me, kids belly-flopped into murky water, their mud-masked faces resembling ladies at the spa. A posse of sludge-covered kindergarteners hosted a tea party in a corner, complete with a tray of dirt biscuits.
Every July, the Hands-On Nature Anarchy Zone in Ithaca — essentially a dirt pit filled with rubber tires and wood planks — is hosed down by local fire trucks, turning it into a giant, glorified mud bath. Amidst the swampy wetlands and blonde-turned-brunette tots, I was worlds away from the air-conditioned cubicle I expected for my junior-year internship. But then again, I had chosen this for myself.
I was a horticulture intern at the Ithaca Children’s Garden, a three-acre public park that includes a life-sized troll house, a giant stone turtle and live chickens. Every day began with a 7 a.m. bike ride to the Garden, where I tended to the vegetable beds, educated K-12 students about plants and self-sustainability and identified native species for an interactive map. On excursions outside the Garden, I researched apple breeds in Geneva and planted hedges on the Commons. And, of course, I spent time in the Anarchy Zone, where I sprinkled wildflower seeds in the mud and rolled in giant plastic tubes with kids.
Admittedly, this seems like an odd place for an English major. When I tell people I grew vegetables and worked in an anarchist mud pit over the summer, I often receive quizzical, and understandably bewildered, looks. But I had sought out this particular position, in this specific garden, before I even enrolled at Cornell.
My first encounter with the Garden was back in California, during my high school student-government class. My teacher put on a documentary one morning, which began with shots of wood planks, hand saws and abandoned boats. In the next scene, a circle of five-year-olds built a bonfire inside a fort in the distance, while another boy haphazardly sawed a slab of wood, just barely missing his fingers.
The documentary, called The Land, was about the concept of unrestricted play. This one featured an “adventure playground” in Wales, one of a handful in the world. All adventure playgrounds operate with the same underlying mindset: children need a place where they can manage risk on their own, without restrictions enforced by adults. Amidst the chaotic activities, volunteers — called playworkers — are there to supervise and make sure no dangers are present, which often entails removing rusty nails from planks and trimming unstable tree branches. But the role of the playworker is simply to aid adventure, not hinder the children’s method of play with over-sheltering tendencies.
At the end of the documentary, images of the playgrounds — a rare sight outside of Europe as there are fewer than half a dozen in the U.S. — flashed in succession across the screen. The last frame: The Hands-On Nature Anarchy Zone in Ithaca.
Now, amidst the symphony of squelching boots and spraying mud, it had all come full circle. I was witnessing the real-life manifestation of the documentary, and the sight was even more unbelievable in person. Although the official Anarchy Zone occupied only one section of the park, the rest of the Garden also followed the philosophy of unrestricted play. At any given moment, children could catch frogs in the swamp, uproot and taste raw crops, or wade barefoot into the rice paddy pond. Simultaneously, kids on the other side of the park could build bonfires outside of the troll house or grill vegetables next to the chicken coop.
In many ways, the Garden encompassed what I had hoped to achieve for myself when I came to Cornell: To be free from outside expectations and approach the world in my own way. But there were rules to consider. From conversations with my friends, for instance, I gathered a clear notion of what my junior summer should look like: Apply to a serious internship, figure out what I want to do for the rest of my life over the course of the summer, and add an impressive-sounding line item to my resume.
So when my horticulture professor approached me with an internship opportunity at the Garden, a goal I had harbored since high school, I second-guessed myself. But if there was anything to learn from the documentary, it was that many rules are an illusion, created from a false sense of fear. Adults restrict exploration to prevent children from harming themselves; but by doing this, they inhibit self-growth, leaving children unsure how to approach danger in the real world. In many ways, the rules I had created for myself were no different. I was following an illusion created by the expectations of my peers, who understood what a perfect internship looked like on paper, but rarely knew what they were actually passionate about.
I decided I would pave my own path for my career. Three months and a brutal sock tan later, it had certainly paid off. I became well-versed in unguarded exploration, and as a result, understood how to take more risks both in my life and my writing. Opportunities also arose to write about my experiences at the Garden, and I was able to share my knowledge of horticulture through journalism after all. Most importantly, amidst the mud and the rain, I had fostered a better sense of what I loved.
Not everyone will have the opportunity to choose something completely off-track for their summer internship. But even in our daily lives, small opportunities to veer from the well-worn path will always arise. Often, it boils down to making a choice between doing something that sparks joy or simply following the crowd. As I learned in the Anarchy Zone, there’s nothing wrong with a little anarchy in our lives now and then. Sometimes it just takes a leap of faith, and a good dose of mud, to find what out you really want.
Kelly Song is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Songbird Sings runs every other Wednesday this summer.