Lime Hollow Nature Center
Covered Bridge at the Lime Hollow Visitor Center

From My Sit Spot

by Pete Angie

Kid in a PuddleA large mound of stones in the woods by the edge of a soy bean field is a ruined rock castle, once inhabited by goblins a very long time ago. Facing attack from knights, the goblins fled through the forest, leaving signs of their retreat everywhere, visible to those who are willing to look with sharp eyes. Eyes closer to the surface of the ground are best, eyes belonging to four, five and six year olds are just the right height. That was fortunate for my son Odin, age four, and a small group of his peers who were on an impromptu expedition for goblin artifacts. Squatting, crawling, climbing, overturning, excitedly sharing their discoveries, they located mysterious, curvy symbols carved into the bark-less surface of a fallen tree, grooves and gouges in stones that marked the location of hidden treasure, and tell-tale holes underneath those stones, where mice had carried away the chunks of gold that had surely been placed there—among many other finds.

An adult with some knowledge of nature could have told them that the symbols on the log were, in fact, the trails left behind as insects burrowed through the wood, that the stones were shaped by jostling and scraping when glaciers advanced and retreated over the land, and that the holes beneath the stones were dug by mice and chipmunks who carried seeds in their mouths, not chunks of glittering gold from a treasure trove. I possess such knowledge—and share it at the right time and place—but that day I kept my mouth shut, except to express my amazement at the children’s discoveries. They were completely rapt in their interaction with the woods and each other, deepening emotional attachments to nature in a way that facts could not enhance. They were seeing through the enviably open eyes of children.

Author Gary Paul Nabhan said of the difference between how children and adults view nature, “…we do not see the land with the same eyes, nor smell it with the same nose. It sings different songs to each of us, and what we hear changes in accordance with our years,” (p. 3). That contrast was clear when I played with my nephews Sam and Joel, ages nine and seven. There are special plants behind their house, growing in the permeable tangle of knee high underbrush where the yard merges into forest. One of them is a tall stalk with grape-like clusters of juicy blue berries, and the other is short with demure yellow blossoms. To me, they barely stood out, but to the boys the plants were the means to perform rituals and make art. They explained how they crush the blue berries and use the juice to paint their arms, and draw stick figures on pieces of bark. The one with the yellow flowers contains orangey sap in the stems, which they carefully applied to their faces and hands as “war paint.” I asked what they call the plants and the boys said thoughtfully that they had never named them, as if no one had ever named them, as though the species, and its bright colors, belonged to them alone.

I would’ve liked to have known some interesting trivia about those plants, or at least their names, to invite the boys to connect their beloved flora to a wider world of knowledge—but I didn’t, and didn’t sweat it. “Don’t feel badly about not knowing names,” the nature educator Joseph Cornell tells us. “The names of plants and animals are only superficial labels for what those things really are,” (p. 15). It’s a liberating piece of advice, though it contains a powerful challenge—to see and feel the essence of the natural world as it really is.

This summer I have been repeatedly humbled by children’s abilities to do just that. It is evident in their inspired curiosity, abandonment to place and moment, shrieks of joy at the sight of fireflies, and their awed silence after the boom of thunder. Though I provide opportunities for my children to experience nature, and draw them into it with activities, stories, and suggestions that piles of stone were once castles, I know there is a deep education to be found for both child and adult when we follow the child’s lead in the woods. That lead can take us to damp places under rocks, into raspberry thickets, or to quiet moments where we can feel, as Odin once said in a voice that was almost a whisper, that “The whole world is green, and we are the only people in it.”

References
Cornell, J. 1998. Sharing Nature with Children, 2nd Edition. Nevada City, CA: Dawn Publications.
Louv, R. 2008. Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.
Nabhan, G. P. and Trimble, S. 1994. The Geography of Childhood: Why Children Need Wild Places. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.