South Florida is a maze of perfectly manicured lawns, housing subdivisions, apartment complexes, strip malls next to strip malls, and Mad Max-style mega-highways. But tucked away between the never-ending developments are city and county parks that give children and families a taste of natural Florida.
This is where I grew up. And in many ways, it’s why I am a conservationist today.
There is a park in Davie (a suburb of Ft. Lauderdale) called Tree Tops Park. It’s owned and managed by Broward County but was smartly acquired decades ago with state conservation funds. I was lucky to live in the neighborhood that was right next to Tree Tops, and we treated the park as an extension of our backyard.
Every day after school, my friends and I would ride our bikes to the back entrance of the park. We spent countless hours exploring the woods, building forts, climbing trees, and just hanging out. We felt like it was “our park” and that we were the protectors. We drew maps to our bases and knew every “secret” pathway to get around quick.
Climbing to the top of the famous Tree Tops Tower was part of our daily routine. Up in the canopy, we’d admire the fantastic oak trees draped in epiphytes. We felt truly free. No parents. No rules. Just us and nature. Oh, and never-ending goofing around and laughter, of course.
At one point the county built a gorgeous boardwalk over some beautifully restored wetlands. We’d always go here when the sun was going down. Sunset also meant it was time to go home. But watching the red sun fade into the horizon over the glimmering wetlands was a show we hated to miss. We’d stretch our time on the boardwalk as long as possible before racing through the darkening forest to get home before getting in trouble. I can still feel the pit in my stomach before opening the door to the garage, knowing I was late.
After coming home late one day, my mom took away my watch. She said I didn’t use it anyway. After all, the setting sun was my watch.
Kids belong in the forest. Nature invites us to learn about ourselves and our place on this planet. We have to give kids the chance to run free, bike fast, and watch the colors of each day’s setting sun.
Tree Tops Park is part of my identity, even as an adult. I was so lucky. I realize now that not every kid in South Florida had a similar upbringing. Not everyone was fortunate to live near a park. But I wish they did. And I’ve dedicated my entire professional career to helping people enjoy the natural wonders just outside their door.
Now I have a son of my own, and he’s just getting to the age where he can ride his bike by himself to the nearby park. I can only hope he has half the fun I did, and knowing his sense of adventure, I know there will be nights where he slips in late too. And I can’t wait to take away his watch.