It has been asked of me on occasion, by more than one student I might add, why I like nature so much. In reading about Charles Darwin, his adventures, ideas and methods this past week, I am inclined to note at least one prong of my enthusiasm: a fascination with Earth’s varied species.
My initial intrigue with nature was based on beauty. I loved the colors of sunsets, the views of expansive mountain ranges, the rolling of ocean waves and such. I found solace and inspiration from the beauty. Then, after climbing so many peaks, sitting in so many hot springs and spending plenty of nights in my tent, I started to look a bit beyond myself and my own experience in nature.
In the beginning, I was most taken by mammals. They are, afterall, big, fuzzy, notably “cute” and easy to identify with; their live births, mothers milk and all that. Not to mention they are written about, studied and photographed in newspapers, magazines, t.v. ads, and are frequently pasted on inspirational posters. In other words, they are popular and an easy entrance into learning about wild things. I soon realized, however, that mammals are always on the move, and they provide only a rare and fleeting glimpse, aside from the small rodents which whistle a warning call or scurry from human presence.
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I remember a debate I engaged in when I first started teaching environmental education about using imagination in children's nature programs. Some say that nature education should show and share facts, while others argue that imagination is a natural state of children that should be utilized to engage them in exploration and learning. Last summer I enrolled my son in a camp at the local nature center about gnomes. Two days, six hours each day, he learned all the facts about imaginary little people. The gnomes left him a note after their first day in camp, which described their lifestyle on the ranch. There are forest gnomes, garden gnomes and wetland gnomes, each living in unique habitats, encountering various predators and demanding different food sources. After getting that note, he was hooked. He spent the next 11 hours (over two consecutive days) searching for mushrooms, insects, berries and signs of potential danger that could harm his new little friends. He packed water shoes to search out the wetlands, boots to hike through the forest and Crocs to dig around in the gardens. He arrived home each night exhausted, but with stories to tell….and he rarely comes home with detailed stories of the day. These days he came home telling all about the specifics of his gnomes' lives.
My brother and I walked to school every day when we were kids. No, it was not uphill both ways, and no, it was not dozens of miles in either direction. At least not most of the time. One particular day, however, a light snow covered the Denver metro area, and on our way up Harrison Dr., my brother became transfixed by a set of animal tracks. He
veered off our normal course, eyes and feet attached to the imprints in front of him. I found my way to school directly, while he traversed the neighborhood; through front yards, over fences and around trees, eventually arriving to school an hour late, and subsequently into the principal’s office for a talk with our parents. Thirty years later, I do not remember which spelling words or grammar lesson I attended that day, but I can still recall my brother’s winding course through the snow, as we went back later to see the circuitous route his morning adventure had taken.
December is a month of lights. Strands of color wrap serpentine around evergreens, travel the limbs of leafless branches, illuminate eaves and window frames and cling to fences bringing
the longest hours of darkness to life. Even before the electric companies and holiday sales, hunters, gatherers, storytellers, philosophers, astronomers and all curious people have recognized the month surrounding the winter solstice as a month of lights. The air is dry,
temperatures are cold and darkness dominates much of each day. These oppressive elements are accompanied by the brightest stars observable in the Northern hemisphere.
A sense of wonder is at the core of a child”s learning, growth and development. A friend of mine often says that there are three stages to life: being born, learning and dying. Throughout our lives we are learning, both formally and informally. It is part of growing up. Children, and adults who”ve managed to follow their passions and simultaneously sustain a living, find subjects or objects that spark a fascination and dive head-first into the sometimes-gritty world of wanting to know more. Once the exploring begins, there is no stopping….learning happens! Questions get asked, ideas take shape, connections are made, research becomes fun, and practice is not an assigned task, but an opportunity to see clearer and perform better.
“I got pretty wet and dirty, splashing in the spring branch, but Granma never said anything. Cherokees never scolded their children for having anything to do with the woods.” Most days when I bring a group of kids back from a nature hike, at least a couple of them have mud-stained knees and backsides, maybe a twig or two in their hair and, even when the water is shallow, one child in particular still manages to be wet up to his neck…and his mom is just fine with it. The ways of the Cherokeee in The Education of Little Tree and the ways of 21st century parenting can both support kids to get in touch with nature…literally.
Summer is my favorite time of year…along with winter, spring and fall, I suppose. Birds are chirping at dawn and dusk, flowers are in full bloom all day long, rivers are bulging beyond capacity and butterflies are flittering to and fro. Summer is when I feel most energized. Life is in the air and I feel alert and a part of the activity. I have had the good fortune to experience it, and doctors have proven it.