“Discovering Nature,” Ensign, June 1977, 54
Near a tangled city suburb, a young mother raced madly down a warm spring hillside, trying to catch a snake. Racing madly down the hill trying to keep up with her mother, a young girl captured forever a moment of beauty and adventure—and much more.
I was the child chasing my mother down that green hillside. The lingering feel of that and other, now-forgotten experiences with her has truly shaped my life and values as an adult. Countless magic moments have spanned the years, filled with ever-new discoveries as tiny as a sparkling, dew-tipped blade of grass and as vast as a clear, moonless, midnight sky.
In her book, The Sense of Wonder, Rachel Carson describes waking her twenty-month-old nephew in the night and carrying him out to experience the majesty of a raging thunderstorm. When was the last time you took your family walking in the rain, wading in the stream-like gutters? When wind whips through the night or when fog lies so thick and low that streetlights become pale glowing orbs, do you venture out, all of you holding hands, without a flashlight? Have you simply slept under the stars in your own backyard?
Think of the attitudes parents convey to children in such experiences, not necessarily attitudes about thunderstorms or snakes, but about life and the joy of living! Spiritual experiences can’t be staged, but one fruitful avenue that involves our children and ourselves in inspiring experiences is to explore—fully and enthusiastically—God’s creations. In the course of growing up we tend to acquire a worldly sophistication that dampens this enthusiastic sense of wonder about nearly everything. Cultivating wonder about nature heightens our appreciation of all creation and begins to break down our artificial distinction between things temporal and spiritual. (See D&C 29:34–35.)
In our increasingly urban world, we often think only of national parks and other distant vacation spots as being “nature.” But actually nature is all around us. It is in our city parks and vacant lots, our gardens and our streets. Even the most crowded city has sunlight and wind and dandelions growing in the cracks.
“Well, then,” the parent asks, “how do I teach my children about nature?” I’m an interpretive naturalist; “teaching” is my job. So I speak from experience when I say, “You can’t, yet. Not until you know that nature really can’t be taught; it can only be discovered. And we adults cannot share in discovery until we reawaken our own ability to see the world through childlike eyes.”
“Discovering nature” makes the common uncommon. But “doing nature” makes the uncommon common by dully labeling countless plants and animals and reciting collections of detailed bits of lore. “Discovering nature” has a lot to do directly with fun and something to do indirectly with facts. I never overtly “taught” my toddlers anything about flowers, but when they were eighteen months old they began gently cradling blossoms in their hands, stroking the petals, sniffing and searching the centers for tiny “inseks,” and comparing buds with seed-heads. Gentleness they may have learned by example, but the rest is surely innate in the human child, curious to comprehend his world. Appreciation must surely begin with awareness; and awareness involves all one’s self.
A good way to begin discovering nature is by becoming more “sense-able.”
Teach your eyes, for example, to see, not just to look. Become alert for movement, large and small, in the grass, in the sky, at the borders of your vision. Look for colors that differ from their surroundings and for subtle changes and mixtures of hue. (There must be a hundred shades of green or brown in any summery scene). Look for shapes that seemingly don’t belong—a bird-shape or pine cone amid the fine branchlets of a tree.
Carry a small mirror with a hole at one edge on your adventure walks. Use it to get a worm’s eye view of the underside of a mushroom or the inside of a hollow tree. Put a long stick into the mirror hole and reach up for a bird’s eye view of a nest and its contents.
At night, hold a flashlight in front of your nose and scan with the beam; you’ll catch the gleam of reflected eyeshine in grass, bushes, gravel—anywhere. Possibly hundreds of creatures are looking at you: moths, beetles, spiders, frogs, mice, cats, raccoons—each with its own sparkly or glowing eyeshine color, like jewels in the night.
Then turn out the light. Although in that narrow beam you can see clearly, without it your eyes will quickly become dark-adapted, and you will see vastly more.
Concentrate on smells. Sample the breeze. Then take your nose up close and sniff the bark of trees. Different species often have characteristic odors (vanilla, cinnamon, or just pungent, sweet, indescribable). Unlock the distinctive qualities of leaves by crushing one, or (better for the plant) by rubbing it firmly between your fingers.
Experiment with taste and touch. Close your eyes and let someone put an object in your hands. What shape is it? What size and texture? Is it wet, dry, smooth, sticky, rough, furry, brittle, flexible, heavy, light? Smell it; brush it against your cheek. You might not know what it is, but could you find it again amid a number of other, possibly similar objects? Making a more complex game of it, could someone else identify your object from just your description?
Feeling the shapes of plant stems may bring you some surprises. Although most are round, some are square (the mints), and others, found in damp places, are triangular (sedges have edges).
Once, after a family-oriented discovery walk I conducted, a woman confided that she’d never seen her children so vitally involved and active. “I’ve always told them ‘Don’t touch!’ about everything,” she said, “and now I see what a mistake that has been.”
Exercising your sense of taste in the outdoors requires more caution, of course. There are many interesting books on the identification and use of edible wild plants, although they may not be applicable to your area. Further, many plants that are edible in one portion or growth stage may be poisonous in another, or require special treatment to become edible. Acorns are a good example. Although nutritious and tasty when properly prepared, the bitter tannic acid they contain must be leached out first. But at the very least you can nibble on lichens, those crusty little plants that coat rocks, fence posts, and tree trunks. You will find their flavors as varied as their colors and growth-forms—perhaps they will taste nutty, bitter, or bland, but all will be rather like cardboard!
Teach your ears to really hear, too. Be silent yourself sometimes. Consciously sort out the many sounds around you. Do they tell you anything new? After days of noting the train sounds from the not-too-distant tracks, my daughters and I planned a train-watching excursion that proved quite grand. Cup your hands behind your ears to help you focus on elusive sounds. (And marvel at the ear structure of a cat, or of a fox, who can hear a handclap a mile away!) Put your ear to the ground like a movieland Indian; you actually will hear something exciting, if there is movement nearby, either above or below the surface.
Your ears can aid you in having fun at night with the help of a cheerful cricket. As a cold-blooded creature, his body temperature, and hence, his activity, vary according to the temperature of his surroundings. Count the number of chirps he makes in fifteen seconds, then add forty and you will know the temperature of the night. Check his accuracy with a thermometer; remember to hold it at cricket level, deep in the grass or near a stone, where the temperature might be different from that at your level.
Trying to locate your little insect can be quite a challenge too. Spread out and have each member of the family shine his flashlight at the spot where he thinks the little ventriloquist is hiding. Shift positions until all agree. Then search carefully. If you have been quiet enough, you may be rewarded with watching him make his cheery chirping.
Learn to be very still while using your exploratory tools. If you can tolerate the consequences to your lawn, why not stake out the next small gopher mound that begins to form in your yard till you see the furry creature himself working like a nearsighted little bulldozer?
And always ask questions—especially how and why. See if you can tickle a spider web with a piece of grass so that the spider mistakes the vibrations for those of an entrapped meal, thus revealing himself. How? Overturn stones and boards to find life forms that hide from the light. Why? (Then remember to replace their roof!) Pour water on a moss- or lichen-covered surface and watch the changes. “How come?”
Your ability to reason far exceeds your sensory sophistication. Your exploratory efforts may easily supply all the data you need to reason out the answers. If not, “I don’t know” is the beginning of the next step. Once your sense of wonder is aroused, remember that books and local experts can help.
A question as important as “How does it work?” is “How does it fit in?” Here’s where events and relationships, both large and small, enlarge your understanding as you look for similarity and variety, adaptation and development, interaction and interdependence, change and continuity. Each discovery is a fascinating glimpse into the intricate relationships of creation, which relationships are the true substance of ecology.
Thus, an old dead log becomes the center of the universe for the creatures who live there and a muddy streambank becomes an animal newspaper filled with footprint stories for the alert and curious eye to read.
What are the results of this sensitization? Family outings and vacations become more meaningful; but also the neighborhood park, the walk to the market, the backyard play area, and ultimately all of life takes on new dimensions. You may qualify for a merit badge or a college degree along the way, but that’s not the point. Something wonder-filled is undoubtedly happening this very moment on your own doorstep!
By this time, if you do care to tag names onto your animal, vegetable, or mineral discoveries, the names will have meaning; the concepts will have substance. You (and your family) will be involved in nature. You also will have become more deeply involved with each other, of course, for exploring together entails developing (and possibly changing) attitudes and values. The first attitude that may be troublesome is fear.
Really, what’s so fearsome about a beetle or a snake, especially when reason tells you it is harmless? Remember that just as enthusiasm is contagious, so also is fear. Instead of simply fearing, consider ways to become happily acquainted with a potentially dangerous creature, such as a bee, without harming either you or the bee. A mother on a nature walk was worried that her children might encounter snakes, including poisonous varieties, in her area. I suggested that when her children were familiar with the appearance and habits of many different kinds of snakes they would be better able to avoid dangerous ones. Our own small daughters are fascinated with spider webs; and they have learned how to tell if a black widow (we have a lot) is occupying a web. At the age of two our girls knew that all spiders were for watching, but not for playing with. I do not now worry for their safety; we have taught them correct principles.
There’s a special dimension in discovering nature for Latter-day Saints. We know that “all things” were “created … spiritually, before they were naturally upon the face of the earth.” (Moses 3:5.) That element of eternity means that we can never be calloused or careless about any element of our mortal experience. Our attitude toward nature, I’m convinced, is vitally connected with our attitudes toward ourselves. One discouraging example I witnessed a couple of years ago was when a ranger asked a group of young visitors, “What is the environment?” He expected someone to say that it is everything around us. Instead, their answer was: “It’s pollution.”
“Can we do anything to improve the environment?” the ranger countered. Distressingly, their reply was “No,” and this incident is part of a larger, darker pessimism.
Every year, my husband assigns his junior high school social science students to write an essay entitled “What Is Man?” Their responses are dismal. They paint man as a terrible monster who has no place in nature and no capacity except to destroy. As a child matures with such negative values and attitudes, how does he feel about himself? About his family and society? About man’s ability to solve ecological, social, and political problems? Indeed, what would motivate him even to try? How receptive is he to the gospel of repentance and eternal progression?
We know that each of us is a child of God, that the earth is our stewardship as well as proving ground. Yet our children are being exposed to views of man as a beast, of pollution as inevitable and irreversible, of cooperation as futile. Will they be prepared to refute those influences, not necessarily with the knowledge of a scientist, but with the testimony of the Spirit, acquired through personal, significant involvement with the Lord and his creations?
When such questions trouble us as parents, the gospel gives us perspective. We know that committed Christians are neither cynical nor slothful; and as we, with our children, develop an appreciation for our Father’s creations, we also develop those other elements of faith—a sense of wonder and a sense of truth. Together we are discovering nature—including human nature and the divine nature as well.