Today I sat outside and looked at a fallen tree for about a half an hour.
This isn’t as crazy as it sounds.
In that time, I found a little blue and red treehopper, a nifty jumping spider, a vividly yellow slime mold that was wandering off in search of food, fruiting bodies of…something, and a pretty orange mushroom.
I was looking at the tree in hopes of finding things for close-up pictures, and I handily found them, all on this one tree.
Was I lucky? Well, yes and no. I wasn’t lucky that my particular rotting tree had things growing on it and living around it. I knew they were there.
Well, I didn’t know for sure they were there. I guessed. I knew that in theory rotting tree + sunlight + damp = critters (and interesting fungus). I also knew that this particular tree was a couple years on in its decomposition, and had a nice blend of still-solid wood and decay, so there would be a variety of things calling it home.
So in one way of looking at it, I wasn’t lucky. I made educated guesses and found what I was looking for.
In another way of looking at it, I was even more lucky than one would first suppose.
Why is this? After all, it was knowledge, not luck that led me to my pretty little blue and red hopper.
I was lucky because a number of people over the years had both the patience and the knowledge to show me how this works. I lived in suburbia like many other kids. There wasn’t really any “real” wilderness around, but that never seemed to stop my parents from treating the backyard like its own wilderness adventure. My dad taught us how to catch the crawdads that lived in the occasionally-marshy area that ran along the back of the yard. My mom pointed out the toads that lived in the window well. They both spent hours watching/helping us catch Pennsylvania leatherwings that frequented the black-eyed susans next to the swingset. They helped us catch fireflies and pitched tents in the backyard. They imitated bird calls and pointed them out to us. They called us from whatever we were doing when owls were hooting or coyotes howling. They brought home turtles and rabbits and kept them for a day so that we could see them, then they would take us out to help release them back.
None of these simple activities were overtly educational, and I doubt any of the neighborhood kids, my siblings or I ever noticed that we were learning during any of this. We just thought we were having fun doing something exciting.
But we were learning. We were learning that certain animals preferred certain habitats. We learned that plants attract different kind of insects. We learned that the locust tree had a particularly effective protection against predators or small feet that seemed to belong to predators. We figured out that lightning bugs showed up at the beginning of the summer, with the heat and humidity, and left when cold regained its hold on the area. We learned that owls are awake at night and songbirds are awake during the day.
Most of all, we learned how to observe. We weren’t taught to observe, in the way we were taught math or history. We just picked it up from watching the adults around us observe.
Once the habit of observation was in place, the learning became, in a way, autocatalytic. I was in a t-ball team when I was a child, but to this day, the only thing I remember learning from that team was that the butterflies in the outfield would come to you if you stayed still long enough, and that the gully next to the church where we practiced was wet enough to harbor toads, dragonflies, and all sorts of stream rocks, which were duly put in pockets and taken home (the rocks, not the toads or dragonflies). I was delighted by these discoveries. The fact that I wasn’t particularly delighted with t-ball was an entirely different topic.
None of these things are huge, groundbreaking ideas, but they’re groundbreaking to each and every child involved. We decry the lack of the natural world in our increasing technological lives. We whine that our children can’t experience nature the way we did because it’s just not there in the same way. We justify our lack of nature time by the fact that we live in cities, or suburbs, or apartments and don’t have “nature” around.
But it is. It’s all in the way you see it. Yes, a marsh was drained so that the subdivision I grew up in could be built. This was a huge loss to biodiversity and the health of the local environment, but it wasn’t the death blow to children’s experience of the world that it’s made out to be. That former environment can still be seen in remnants – in the crawdads, and the flooding during rains, in the area of the neighbor’s yard that never quite dried out, so it had cat tails and long grass. In the suburbs nature might be constrained by neatly manicured lawns and strange non-native plants being carefully tended, but you can still find the bugs, the birds and the fungus.
Even a careful walk through the city will show off bits of the natural world that you never noticed and that can easily provide valuable background awareness, if pointed out. Look up. Do birds prefer one type of building over another? Where are spiders building webs? Are butterflies near one window box but not another? Look down. Why are plants pushing through the pavement? What kinds of critters are in the little bit of dirt around the scraggly planted tree?
You might live in a suburb or a city and feel like you can’t provide the kind of Nature Experience(TM) that you want your kids to have, but remember, to a kid, all of the little bits add up. They may not be seeing grand stretches of untouched wilderness, but at the end of the day they’re going to babble at you just as excitedly about the sparrow they saw eating a french fry on the sidewalk as they would about a bald eagle soaring majestically over a forest. Your job isn’t to take children somewhere spectacular and educational. Your job is to point out the spectacular in their own backyard. Trust me, the education part will come naturally from that.