A few weeks ago, Bob Hinkle, my treasured mentor from my college days, whose class got me so interested in nature that my husband told his mom to buy me binoculars and a field guide for Christmas, wrote a lovely essay, which was inspired in turn by a lecture Bob had recently attended. Bob wrote:
Our host offered one question, and one question only. “The essence of the future of wild lands and wild birds and animals… comes down to one fundamental question. What were you doing when you were seven?”
Each person in that room no doubt flashed back to somewhere in their childhood and remembered what being seven was like. Few pondered school, or playgrounds, or dinners, or electronic toys or other material things. It was not shopping, or television, or theatres, or cities they remembered, it was a fundamental connection with the outdoors. We remembered parents and friends, and open fields and vacant lots covered with tall weeds and wildflowers. At seven there were an endless array of trees to climb, and hills to run and roll down, and dirt to dig in. Rainstorms meant puddles to splash in, and snowfall was for digging in and rolling up and eating, too. The wind felt fine against us, and we loved the feel of raindrops splashing on our tender fresh faces, and the water running down our cheeks and chins, and licking it off.
There were secret places in the outdoors, places where the grass was tall or the grapevines were thick, and there were soft earthen paths which lead us there. They were places outdoors where grown-ups never went, and those places were ours. No one worried that we were there. The outdoors was our friend. There were strange and mysterious bugs and butterflies, and creepy things under leaves and rocks. Every now and then someone would find a salamander or thousand-legged bug, and we’d take it home, for better or worse, to watch. Sometimes we’d find a rabbit and chase after it, and we learned that rabbits always run in a long circle, and that it would always come back to us after a time. Squirrels would always scamper to the far side of the tree when they saw us, but if we all stood still, and one of us went to the other side, the squirrel would creep around to our side so we could see it. There were birds in the trees we barely knew, bright orange and black and red ones and yellow too. If we asked, adults gave them certain names, but we recognized the birds when we saw them, and thrilled at their songs and flight, and made up names of our own. We got scolded if we came home with grass stains on our clothes, but no one was too fancy then, and all the kids had grass-stained jeans and shirtsleeves. It was what being a kid was all about.
The point of our speaker’s challenge was this – what are the kids who are seven years old today doing? Is the mall the only form of walking they know, and is recreational shopping the most exciting thing they do? If all they know is the newest toy or music group or fashion thing, what do they really know? Where is the imagination, the learning, the mystery, the challenge, the fun that they will remember in 40 years? If all they know is fear of nature, fear of bugs and squirrels and birds and weather and the night, what will our environment become?
We develop a relationship with nature only by being in it for an extended time, not just for an hour this month and a week in the summer. Nature envelops you, a little at a time, by extended contact. You cannot experience it, really experience it, in tiny dribs and drabs here and there. Take a child outdoors. Give them a chance at a new and different future, so that when someone asks them, long after you’re gone, “What were you doing when you were seven?” they’ll remember, and smile. And there will still be a nature for their children to play in.
|Photo from Wikipedia by Jacy Lucier|
Addison Creek meandered through town. We moved to Northlake in 1956, at the height of the polio epidemic when no one knew how it was transmitted, so our parents were terrified of the smelly, murky creek water. Nevertheless, my big brother went fishing in it a lot. When he headed out, my mother would warn him not to fall in, reminding him that he could catch polio, but as petrified as she was of the dread disease, it would never have occurred to her, or most of the other parents I knew, to keep him away from the creek. He only caught bullheads, and usually let them go because no way would my mother cook them.