I love walking through the woods – they are always changing. When I go with my 4-year old sidekick, we ask each other a lot of questions and take the time to explore whatever we stumble across. We have learned that we have more fun when we stop and take the time to observe nature.
She likes to collect nuts – I identify them for her and I often end up holding them.
“Grandpa. Hold onto these nuts.”
“I want to save them.”
You can’t argue with that. In fact she has small hordes of nuts and rocks stored in the cubbyholes in our cars and around our house. She always checks them out and entertains herself a lot by going through her collections when driving in the car or staying overnight.
When my pockets are full on hikes, we try to find a hole in a tree and put them in the hole – helping the animals who live in the tree build up their food storage for the winter. We know better than to reach into these crevasses, knowing there might be a hungry squirrel, raccoon, or snake nesting in there.
Speaking of snakes. My little friend and I found a snake lying on a gravel road.
“Is it alive?”
“I don’t think so. It’s not moving. Let’s take a stick to see.”
“It must be dead.”
“Yeah. I see three puncture wounds near its head. I wonder if a hawk, a fox, a coyote, or a cat killed it or was it just run over by a car?”
It was beautiful creature. Long stripes lay along both sides. We had seen garter snakes and black snakes before but this was more colorful. We determined that is was not poisonous because its head was not triangular or coppery. It was a sleek Eastern ribbon snake.
“Can I touch it?”
I thought about this for a moment and agree. So a certain 4-year old was authorized to pick it up. It was about 20 inches long. We took it home and put it in a ziploc bag and showed it off to all the people who came by over the next few days. After a week, the other residents of the house started complaining.
“What is that smell?”
We just looked at each other. “What smell.” We were instructed to bury our treasure. We discussed how it would make the soil richer for new life to come.
As a grandparent I want her to be aware of and respectful of nature. I want her to love the outdoors and to always be curious. I also want her to learn to think logically and creatively when it comes to how she interacts with all of life on this planet.
Most snakes in this region are beneficial and not poisonous. For example, black rat snakes are quite common and play an important role in keeping the ecosystem in balance. They also get to be 6-feet long and so they can be a little scary. In all my hikes I have only seen a single poisonous copperhead. It just lay there, it was not aggressive at all. But I did make a wide circle around it.
It’s hard to keep kids out of rivers. There’s a natural attraction for Homo sapiens to throw stones, build dams, and to get wet. How can you experience a river without getting wet? I hope I never lose this impulse.
I can’t tell you how many times when walking along a river, I turn around and someone in my care has her feet in the water. This must be genetic. My mother always did this as well.
Recently, I and a certain 4-year old were negotiating rules and setting limits for her activity on a sandbar. Somehow, I found myself needing to get in the water as well in order to enforce the rules. This of course led to a lot of splashing and both of us getting drenched.
4-year olds, as you know, are great collectors of things. So when one is standing on a sand bar with thousands of pebbles, cobbles, and rocks, a few get picked up.
“What’s this grandpa?”
As a geologist I feel obliged to try to identify every rock that she brings to me. She now knows the name of some of them as well as I do. And of course, she wants to keep many of them so someone has to put them in his pocket.
But what I like even as much as the stones she finds are the other living critters in the water. Today she is the first to spy and marvel at the water-striders.
“How do they do that?” she asks.
I of course have no idea – unless I resort to my phone, which is safely on the bank. All I know are that arthropods are good indicators of water quality.
“Come on, let’s catch one!” She chases after them trying in vain to grab one to look at. I know better and don’t move. They are much too fast.
I stand motionless and look for fish, wondering if there are any trout, bass, perch, suckers, catfish, or minnows that can be seen or caught. Then I check out signs for otters, muskrats, beavers along the banks. There are often numerous signs that beavers have visited many of the lakes and rivers in this area. I point out anything I find. She is mostly interested in the fast-flowing parts of the river. I keep a watchful eye on where she is at all times.
While she is collecting rocks, I wade along the banks, just watching for anything unusual. I see something, cobble-sized, dart right in front of me. I bend over and deftly grab it with my left hand wondering if I am going to be bitten. I cover it with my right hand and swirl it around in less turbid water. I take a look. I have grabbed what looked to me to be a small lobster – about 5 inches long. It’s a crayfish – often call a crawfish, crawdad, or mudbug. I wonder if it’s going to pinch me.
“Hey take a look at this!”
“What is it? Can I touch it? Will it bite me?”
I hold it by the sides of its abdomen so it won’t pinch me and I let her touch it. She then wants to hold it. Of course, she wanted to save it but I said she needed to put it back. She held it delicately – neither of us got pinched.
“Let’s find some more.”
We tried for a while but without success. We turned our sole victim loose, both realizing that we were lucky to have found the one specimen. Rivers are wonderful places for exploring. You never know what you’re going to find.
Of course, rivers can be dangerous, too, especially after a heavy rain. The first thing we all need to appreciate is the power of water. One should always go with a person who can swim and who can judge where and when to go in. Our rule is that a 4-year old always needs an adult for exploring a river. We have also discussed that water quality may not be good right after a rain, especially if we have any cuts on our bodies. It’s best to stay out for a few days till the water clears up. Surface runoff during storms can carry a lot of bacteria and pollution with it.
Some of the first words my grandchildren said were “walk” and “outside”. They always calmed down as soon as the door or window was opened. They quickly forgot all the chaos of being inside and pointed to the sky, the sun, or a bird. Their eyes would widen as they slowly took into account this much larger world outside their home.
Even now when I get the honor of going for a walk with a grandchild, I jump at it because I learn so much from their point of view.
One of the main attractions as they learned to walk was picking and eating berries. Berries are found in meadows, along hedgerows, and on the edges of forests. In berry picking season we head off to pick black and yellow raspberries, wine berries, and blackberries. We also pick and eat mulberries, blueberries, and grapes.
But, of course, it’s tricky. What berry is safe to eat and how ripe does it have to be are always challenges?
“Berries!” My granddaughter cries out.
“Don’t pick the green ones. Make sure they’re ripe. Let me see them before you put them into your mouth.” One has to be diligent.
What’s nice about a 4-year old is that they can almost be trusted in knowing what to pick and when to pick it. They also have developed an ability to pick and not eat everything immediately. They can even share some of their bounty with others.
“No, grandpa, these are for mama.”
So, its great fun to forage for edibles. Now you might think that meadows lose their attraction when berries are not in season.
“Grandpa, lets go pick berries.”
“We can go check but I don’t think there are any ripe berries in season right now. But we can look for other things.”
“Okay. Let’s go.”
Fortunately, there are so many flowers throughout the summer and with flowers come all sorts of insects. Dragonflies and damselflies, preying mantises, cicadas, and butterflies are great attractions in meadows. I love to pick up and examine ones which have died. They are beautiful and if you give your 4-year old a box to store them in, they can create quite a collection.
“That’s a Chinese preying mantis.”
“I want to pick it up. Can I touch it?”
“Be careful, it’s alive and can pinch you. You have to hold it like this.” I show her but it flaps away into the grasses like a wind-up toy. It’s pretty exciting.
Now there are two challenges with falling in love with meadows. First is that they are the most endangered habitat in many parts of the country, so they’re hard to find. I dedicated a whole chapter to this challenge in my second book, Saving The Places We Love. We have regulations that preserve forests and wetlands, but in most areas, meadows are just mowed down for farming or development. Where I live we have lost the beautiful sounds and sights of the meadowlark and the Bobwhite. They have left because there is no longer enough habitat for them here. What a loss! I can still remember how I used to call Bobwhite into my backyard just by mimicking their call (bob…bob…white).
The best meadows we have locally are at nature preserves and under power lines. Some of these meadows are managed as areas where native grasses grow – which of course support many native insects, birds, mammals, and reptiles.
The second challenge when exploring meadows is that you should always check for ticks when you are done. Some ticks carry diseases. We have found a few deer ticks over the years which can transmit Lyme disease. So we have made it a practice to check whenever we go for a walk through brush.
I was out and about this summer and spent a fair bit of time exploring lakes. One of my companions on some of these jaunts was a 4-year old. This was great. She helped me see things in a whole new way.
Hey granddad, “What are all these squiggly lines?”
I waded out to where she was standing waist deep (her waist) in the cool, clear lake waters. I still had my glasses on so I bent over and waited for the ripples to subside. As the waters calmed, sure enough there were lines in the sand as if she had drawn them with a stick. They were 5 to 10 ft long and often looped back on themselves. I considered but dismissed hydrologic origins to these phenomena – the lines cut right across the ripple marks on the lake bottom. I started wondering what creature could have done this pattern in the sand.
“Look, they are all over the bottom. What are they?”
The more I looked, the more I came to believe they were tracks. We had seen snails the day before and also small intricately patterned water snakes. They were both interesting possibilities but not quite right. I looked more and more carefully at the lines as she became more animated and started churning up the water, her energetic side overtaking her scientific interest in our discovery.
The flashes of light from her frolicking reflected off shiny nubs at the end of several of the lines. I reached down and scooped up a handful of sand, silt, and pebbles.
As I watched the sand and silt sift through my fingers, I discovered something larger left in my hand.
“Hey, come look at what I found.” She came over wide-eyed, splashing me in the process.
“What is it? What did you find?” She asked. I opened my hand and showed here a bluish-black mussel about two inches across, with a shiny nubby hinge on one side.
“It’s a mussel,” I said.
“I can make a muscle.” She flexed here bicep, grinning ear to ear.
“Not that kind. This is what we call a shellfish. A bi-valve. It has two shells. It moves by filtering water and sand through the edges of their shells. That process propels it along the bottom, leaving these tracks behind. Let’s put several in a bucket for a few minutes and see what happens.”
We put 2 inches of sand and 6 inches of water into a bucket and placed 2 mussels, lying flat on their sides on top of the sand. We then put the bucket in the shade sitting in a few inches of water to keep it cool.
Nothing happened while we watched so she was off exploring other things. Five minutes later we took another look and found both mussels to be standing on edge and puffing water out of their shells.
“They are making tracks in the sand in our bucket! Let’s put some more in.”
She was right. They had already made 4-inch long tracks in the sand. We had tested and proven our theory that these mussels had created at least some of the tracks that we had discovered. She was excited about her discovery.
Someday she will ask more questions about some of these discoveries. She will learn that mussels are important filter feeders that help keep our lakes and rivers cleaner. We did ask the locals about eating them but were discourage from doing so for two reasons. First, they are not as tasty as their saltwater relatives. Secondly, since they are long-lived filter feeders, pollutants from the burning of fossil fuels and storm water runoff that settle to the bottom of our lakes, can build up inside them making them distasteful and potentially harmful. That put a slight damper on things for me.
But we loved talking about our discovery of the day, amazed at how easy it was to discover something new to us, simply by exploring nature.
Scientists deal in the non-fiction world most of the time. We want to ask questions, collect data, make tentative interpretations, and then test these theories. It’s the old scientific method that has worked so well for creating our modern world. But sometimes it’s too hard to explain the complex details of science and technology to everyone and debate can devolve into a matter of who do you believe.
Can fiction help us in those situations?
Dicken’s prose is lauded for exposing the ugly underbelly of 19th century industrial England. Sinclair Lewis exposed the meat packing industry and the horrid conditions of labor in the United States. Orwell showed what man is capable of doing to his fellow man with his demagoguery. All were and are powerful works of art that exposed our darkest moments.
In looking at the environmental literature, there are landmark non fiction pieces such as Silent Spring, The End of Nature, Collapse, and Earth in Balance. But it’s harder to select nominations for the Great American Novel that deals with climate change. The best known pieces of eco-fiction (or Cli-Fi ..climate fiction) include Flight Behavior, The Water Knife, Odds Against Tomorrow, and Oryx and Crake. But these touch on future dystopian worlds or singular elements of a warming climate.
The most classic novel that reflects the anger many have in response to unrestrained growth is The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975) by Edward Abby. It’s about a small group of people who take into their own hands a campaign to stop the development/destruction of the canyonlands of Utah. As well written and entertaining as it may be, it has been blessed and cursed by it’s impact on decades of budding environmentalists.
Some claim it was the primer to the ecoterrorists of the 80s and 90s. Many of you may have forgotten but there were efforts to prevent the logging of old growth forests and the development of pristine habitats in the west. Some of these efforts were violent, most were not. Just before 9/11 President George W. Bush declared The Earth Liberation Front as “The greatest terrorist threat in the country.” Then the towers went down and all our attention was focused on Al Qaeda.
I actually believe that Abby showed most of us how futile violence is in the long run and that his book launched a whole generation of advocates that have done a whole lot more working with the system than trying vigilante efforts to stop it. There have been many places preserved in this country since those dark days back in the 1970s when Abby wrote his treatise. In fact the whole environmental movement has matured and has become part of our culture.
Our trouble today is that our population continues to grow and so does consumption, and our overuse and abuse of fossil fuels. Our everyday activities are warming our oceans and our atmosphere. We need another wake up call that all of us will heed so we can all work together to tackle this climate challenge. I would love to see another piece of fiction stimulate a whole new cadre of people to take action to slow down the warming trend that is destroying the favorable climate that we all grew up in. Stay tuned.
Let me hear from you if you have other works of literature that have inspired you to take better care of our Earth.
Not a bad day. Aside from bluebirds, gold finches, and cardinals fighting over my bird feeder this morning, a full grown pileated woodpecker landed on the top of the pole holding the feeder. He gave me a great display for at least 20-30 seconds. Fabulous.
I was then lucky enough to catch a bald eagle fly by and land in a tree this morning. so I decided to go for a walk and saw a turkey run across the path out of the wetlands by Lake Elkhorn. I had not seen one here in this green buffer before.
Not a bad day, indeed.