I met the Last Child at the Pond* yesterday. I’ll call him LC for short. He and his father came to help me sample my creek for macroinvertebrates (See: http://www.halcyonnature.com/2012/12/17/in-praise-of-small-things/) because LC had never done it before. Truth be told I think LC already knew the names of at least half of what we found in the net. I already knew he was smarter than the average nine-year-old, especially about natural processes and wildlife. But what I saw yesterday was much more than an intelligent child. I met an explorer. I met someone with a profound fascination for life and the world around him.
This shouldn’t be so shocking. He is after all a child. Aren’t children the embodiment of curious? We tend to ascribe this curious stage to younger children, particularly three-year-olds. Somewhere along the path of development it seems many children lose this innate inquisitiveness and need external stimulation for play. I never once heard LC say anything remotely close to I’m bored. Nor did his actions or body language suggest he was bored. He would have stayed for hours if not for other happenings in his day. I’ve worked with fourth graders, who can be very excited about a chance to explore the natural world, but their excitement does not usually transfer to true curiosity, a desire to first know and then understand, and so their excitement quickly turns to boredom. What’s next? Now what do we do? This is shocking.
I believe that we are all natural born scientists. We see this in those young children, those three year olds that always ask why? Science and exploration are related. Wikipedia defines exploration as “the act of searching or traveling around a terrain for the purpose of discovery of resources or information. . .” Watching LC explore I realized that I am not discovering as much as I could about Halcyon. I’m not doing it right.
I do walk the property often, hoping to see wildlife in action or find a new plant. I thought it was all about being in the right place at the right time – something interesting could happen just after I pass a particular spot, or could have already happened right before I passed through. My senses are not as honed as most of the other species at Halcyon and so I know I miss a lot. But this method has resulted in some pleasant discoveries over the years: fox and bear scat, various caterpillars and butterflies, box turtles, numerous birds including a flock of turkeys, and most notably a plethora of plant species.
Less often, I try and sit quietly, watching and listening. I reason that I am more likely to see and hear wildlife if I am still. The problem with this method is that I often find my mind traveling while my body sits, and suddenly I realize I’m not seeing or hearing anything.
LC’s method is more purposeful and honed. Instead of ambling along my paths, he is like a magnet pulled toward possible habitat in which he peers in, over, and under. With this technique more often than not, he finds an animal. For example, the large rock by the bridge drew him in because of his knowledge of amphibians. He squatted down and stuck his head under and exclaimed, “A young green frog!” How many times have I walked right past this rock?
LC can do this because of the compounding effect of natural experiences – in other words because his parents have allowed, encouraged, and shared time in nature since (and probably before) his first question. I’ve worked with elementary-aged students with fears of venturing outside because they’ve not explored much since uttering those first natural questions. They’ve been told, “Don’t get muddy” and “Don’t touch that.” They’ve seen a parent kill a snake or purposefully run over a coyote (I almost cried when I heard that story). The outdoors is no longer an integral part of their lives, but something to be feared or at least be very cautious about.
I’ve worked with college students whose experiences outdoors are so distant or even non-existent that they show mixtures of fear and boredom. We don’t all have to spend hours of each day exploring nature, but I believe kids have a right to play outside in nature and deserve a chance to experience nature as a co-inhabitant of the planet, not as an outsider.
My outside experience was heightened with LC’s and his dad’s knowledge yesterday. Since I was engaged in sampling, my senses were keener than those times when I can’t seem to keep my inner thoughts at bay. Also, three sets of senses are better than one less-experienced set. In a short three-hour period we heard a deer snorting in the woods behind us, the raucous cries of crows mobbing a hawk, the quick warble-like chirps of a white-eyed vireo, and lots of other birds. We counted a couple hundred macroinvertebrates including a white mayfly and another kind of mayfly I’d never seen before, several salamanders, the crows mobbing that red-tailed hawk as it flew over my chickens in the garden, a painted turtle, a green frog, some small fish, some large olive-colored tadpoles, and a lot of spectacular damselflies and dragonflies – I’ve already ordered a book to help me explore them. We touched all those macroinvertebrates, and a tadpole; we got our hands wet in the cold stream. We smelled honeysuckle. We used all our senses except taste, a sense more wisely saved for the kitchen.
So I want to thank The Last Child at the Pond for showing me how better to explore. I understand that the more time I spend, the more I will find, and the more I find, the more I learn, and the easier it will get to find more. I need to start compounding my experiences. Children have so much to teach us.
*The Last Child at the Pond name is inspired by Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2006.