Monday, October 15, 2007
Ooooooohhh ... I'm a (nature) lover
(Thanks goes to Otis Redding for the ripped-off post title; "Tramp" is the last song I heard.)
Today - October 15th – is the very first annual Blog Action Day. As the international dateline passes over the world, over fifteen thousand bloggers will be posting about the environment on their blogs.
As you might know, I'm writing a manuscript for my master's thesis about children and nature, and so I've been pretty big into the environment lately, especially concerning kids and their connection to it. I believe this is at the heart of environmental issues as a whole. Because however we have to do it, if we don't get the next generation passionate about some aspect of nature, they won't care to save it -- and won't have the first clue how to do so should it occur to them.
OK, so we all know that already. But what I didn't realize until very recently is that I needed my son to help me remember how to appreciate the environment.
I've wanted to recycle, protect the environment, adopt endangered animals and save the rain forest since I was five. And I guess I did, at least as much as I could. My fourth grade class adopted a humpback whale and I stared at the pictures they sent us in the donor packet for days. I crushed and collected more cans than I can count, trading them in for approximately 1.5 cents per zillion cans, but not really caring, because money's not the point. I reminded anyone who would listen that rain forests are home to two-thirds of all the living animal and plant species on Earth, and even knew the save-the-rain forest rap-jingle ("Welcome to the jungle; it's so exciting/ Exotic, mysterious: we are inviting/ You on an adventure, so pay attention please/ Pythons, macaws, all the other species." Put it in a jingle, and I'll remember it.)
Of course these are all necessary efforts, and, I still think, essential issues to get kids interested in. But the one thing that was missing in these efforts was the constant, hands-on contact that allowed me to really get to know nature.
As author Richard Louv wrote in his awesome book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, "A child today can likely tell you about the Amazon rain forest but not about the last time he or she explored the woods in solitude or lay in a field listening to the wind and watching the clouds move." This, I think, sums it up perfectly.
As enlightening and crucial as global-environment understanding is, it wasn't while adopting humpbacks or singing the Rain Forest Rap ("Where living things vary from jaguars to ants!") that I really got to know nature.
I got to know nature in my own backyard, mucking in the dirt.
When I was in elementary school, some friends and I decided we were going to save the world. Or at least the world's snails, scorpions and horned toads. I'd read plenty of books on the topic - did you know that in Greek mythology, the scorpion is conjured by the gods to hound and punish Orion? Or that with the tail, containing neurotoxic venom, is removed, one can eat a scorpion, if chewed rapidly? Or, that horned toads can squirt blood from their eyes, for a distance of up to three feet, or that all land snails are hermaphrodites? I did. My two friends soon did, too. We decided we were on a mission to educate the world. Because how can you not think something's worth saving that shoots freakin' blood from its eyes?
I spent many a weekday afternoon idly roaming, catching geckos and horned toads among scrub where the Sonoran Desert met quasi-developed land while waiting for my dad, a teacher, to finish school business. One friend would con a teacher of hers into allowing us to appropriate classroom supplies to house the critters, and my other friend, a talented artist, would sketch the animals. Add to that an obscure 1948 paper, Snails of the Sierra Ancha, Arizona, that I'd come across in the American Midland Naturalist journal (my hours not spent traipsing through the desert were spent pestering librarians); a covered irrigation something-or-other I discovered at my grandma's apartment complex that doubled as a haven for perpetually mating brown garden snails; and a piece of plywood that resided outside the west end of our home for a decade, whose purpose was never revealed to me but which I assumed was there to shelter the scorpions I visited each night -- and you can't help but have the makings of a naturalist, specializing in yucky stuff.
This -- the comparatively mundane, until you account for the hands-on factor -- was what got me into nature. And it's what excites my son.
Today, I'm back into research papers; exotic creatures; and political moves that could alter, or destroy, or save, our planet, on a planetary scale. And of course it's important. And of course I've grown up, and should move beyond only mucking around.
But while I haven't ever forgotten that we need to save nature, I think I forgot how to be stoked about nature. And kids. thus stoked, tend to remember the innate facts of nature better than adults.
Nature is fragile. Grown-ups revere the grandeur of nature, imagining that the natural world operates only on the scale of the immense and in slices of time so monumental as to approach eternity. But kids know the split-second rain starts to fall, or the fragility of a bird's egg fallen to the ground.
Nature is connected. Everything is connected. "There was an old lady who swallowed a fly" might not be biologically accurate, but kids have the right idea. From the bacteria upon which all life depends, to a virus sixty times smaller than a red blood cell destroying the life of a young woman, to the star exploding across the galaxy, witnessed by an astronomer eons after the fact. It's all connected. My son's a lot better at remembering that than I.
And nature is funny. David's reminded me, for example, that the nature-show narrative "The boobies come in great numbers, as far as the eye can see," is good for an afternoon of laughter. I know the simple joy that comes from pulling up to the stop sign beside the neighborhood horse stables at the exact moment two mares engage in synchronized defecation
And nature is experienced in daily, almost mundane vignettes of life.
He's in kindergarten now. I pick him up from school, and after a snack of cheese and juice, he wants to paint. This has become my favorite part of the day: the sun is nearing the horizon, dinner is cooking, and the house is calm. I get the watercolors and an old margarine dish for water, and we sit at the dining room table and begin. I used to coach him, try to guide him to use the correct colors -- cardinals are red, not purple, and there really is no black or brown in a rainbow.
I've learned better.
He finishes his painting. It's a rainbow -- this one features, top to bottom, red, yellow, purple, black, yellowish black, green, brown and orange -- surrounded by cerulean blue sky over an emerald swath of grass. A yellow-ball sun breaks through patches of sky in the top right corner, and in the bottom left he's written in red crayon: "David loves Mom" and "10 + 20 = 30" (he's proud of his mathematical prowess). Later he uses a black crayon to add a conglomeration of rectangles, circles and triangles with appendages. "That's you and me walking in the wild," he announces.
Or: I pick him up from school another day. He clearly is bothered by something, but he doesn't reveal it to me for a few minutes.
Finally: "I did a really sad thing. There was a cricket, and Matthew was hurting, it, and I didn't stop him, and I think he squished it."
His inaction clearly bothers him more than his classmate's action. I have the urge to tell him that it's okay as long as he tries next time, that maybe the cricket is okay if he didn't see it get squished. But I know we're past that stage.
That weekend, it looks like rain. We pop in a SpongeBob DVD and eat a lunch of French toast and eggs, and hear the beginning patter of rain outside. We smile. It hasn't rained for months, and we've missed it. The sentence "The weather is nice," here, means rain, not sunshine.
"I want to go outside," he says. "I want to see if there are any puddles yet."
I say sure, let me get my sandals on. But he is already up and at the door, barefoot and resolute. We forgo shoes.
There are indeed puddles forming, and I flash back to when I was ten. The retention basin by our church would fill up during monsoon season, forming an overnight swimming hole. The puddles here are much more shallow, but the rain is coming down steadily now, an insistent pounding and susurration instead of a patter. The puddles cover David's bare feet and he pounces into them, splashing mud and water up to his shoulders. Several minutes later, winded and soaked and smelling of rain and soil, he dances, dislodging arcs of droplets as he flings his arms and spins.
I used to be mortified if I attracted attention. Now, despite the odd glances from a couple walking their dog, I dance with my son in the rain. Later, we go cricket hunting. (We let them all go, of course.)
Perhaps, in introducing nature to my son, I'm not merely passing down a legacy. I'm preserving it, reawakening it, in myself. There's nothing more humbling, after all, than the constant bombardment of questions from a child. Take this recent exchange:
My son (pointing to a tarantula we'd discovered on a walk): Is that a boy or a girl?
Me: I think it's a girl.
Me: Well, she's larger, and ... You know, wait. I think some male tarantulas actually are bigger.
Me: I'm not sure. But anyway, this one is hunting, I think.
Him: What's it hunting?
Me: Well, maybe insects, or rodents, or a centipede like that one we saw back there.
Him: What about the centipede?
Me: What about it?
Him: Why do you think it's called a centipede, when it doesn't have a hundred legs? And why does the tarantula hunt it, when it's hard to catch and eat? Why doesn't its body eat plants?
Clearly, the wonder, in both senses of the word, is thriving in at least one of us.
All this comes at a time when the latest generation needs, perhaps more than ever, to become acquainted with nature. Icons that even the most casual and disconnected couch potato could name -- the Everglades, Glacier and Glacier Bay National Park, the Rocky Mountains, saguaro cacti -- may not survive in their present form much longer. In our back yard, my son and I might be looking at the last sentinels of a dying breed: within five years, scientists say Arizona's iconic saguaros will face a substantial increase in the threat from fire, thanks to the expansion of the insatiable, invasive buffel grass, introduced in south Texas and now taking over vast swaths of the Southwest.
Nature is meaning. It is reincarnation, and life, and words, and laughter and heartbreak and alliances and pride and shame. It is where things have begun to make sense to my son. It is where motherhood has begun to make sense to me. It is where I will continue to teach my son about life, although I'm sure, in a few years, he will pretend not to care. I hope he will rediscover, as I have, that he loves it.
I am not saying that everyone will find magic and salvation in snail slime, or in a stream, or in the crazy-fragile spiral dance of monarchs. I am only saying that it is there. And those who find it are better for it.
Posted by Kimberly Hosey at 10:52 AM