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In Defense of Slack

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We cut people slack by overlooking their failures to perform how and when we would wish them to. But this article is about communal slack: the allowances that are just out there as part of the fabric of society and the environment. Here are some examples.

We kids had the run of our neighborhood in my hometown in southwestern Iowa. Lacking mountains, our first ascents were oaks and elms, where we built tree houses and hung rope swings. We learned to weigh risks and rewards as we climbed and leapt out of trees and out of sight of our blissfully ignorant parents. Decades later in McKinleyville, I found a bunch of neighborhood kids building a tree house in one of our trees. I could have heeded the admonitions of my wiser inner voice warning of injuries and lawsuits. But I didn't because I wanted to pass along some of the slack I once enjoyed. After removing a fence post that was under the tree, I gave my blessings and waited until they finished and abandoned their tree house.

In his book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv advocates for children to explore and mess around in nature on their own. Parents may fret about what goes on "out there," but their children find their own place in the woods, and by so doing, discover themselves in nature. Louv states that most leaders in conservation were set loose at an early age, where they developed an original and unscripted relationship with their local natural world.

Later in life, I found abundant slack spending summers near Pinedale, Wyoming, a sleepy ranch town among the sagebrush at an elevation of 7,000 feet below the Wind River Range, the state's biggest and loftiest mountains. Slack was when I loaded my dirty clothes into the washer at the laundromat, grabbed my fly rod and fished for trout in a stretch of Pine Creek flowing nearby. I returned to put my wash in the drier, resumed fishing, and left with clean clothes and supper. There were no other fishermen and no "No trespassing" signs. Slack also happened on Saturday nights when the three bars each had a live band and you could take your glass across the street to hear another band. When you finished your drink, you could leave it there because glassware was regarded as communal.

Slack happened at about the same time at the Minor Theatre in Arcata. For 99 cents you could watch a Marcel Marceau film, eat a 10-cent bag of popcorn and be enveloped in marijuana smoke as, if you were so chosen, the theater's cat warmed your lap and purred your mutual contentment.

This was also during the reign of the Jacoby Creek Country Club, a red, weathered cabin on stilts in the tidal flats at the mouth of Jacoby Creek, just east of U.S. Highway 101. Amenities were limited but rent was free, and good food and great stories were shared among all who came. It was the center of the universe for some of our area's most legendary birders and naturalists, along with their wide circle of friends. Of course, this couldn't last. An inhabited structure was incompatible with management guidelines for an expanded fish and wildlife refuge, and the Jacoby Creek Country Club was slated for the Dumpster.

I'm sure many of you have your own slack stories. Slack is the space unoccupied by rules, competition, and profit. Slack is unsanctioned, unexploited, innocent and off-leash. Sure, there can be good reasons to curtail slack, but something is lost even then.

We in Humboldt County enjoy an abundant, if shrinking, reservoir of slack. Kudos to people who don't drive bumper-to-bumper, and special kudos to those who have opened trails and public space and otherwise expanded free access to our beautiful natural areas. Enjoy our slack and pass it along.

Tom Lisle (he/him) is a retired hydrologist living and walking in Humboldt County.

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