Saturday, August 29, 2015

Comfort in Nature

Related to my last post,  What's in a Name, about my granddaughter’s mastery of some names of common species while staying with us this summer, I recently discovered that names also can help adults feel that mastery and confidence.

Last week, my husband and I took our camper to Johnson’s Shut In’s State Park in Missouri.  The plan was to camp, kayak, and hike while the weather was so beautiful. So, one morning we went to Taum Sauk Mountain State Park to hike the trails.  I had never been there before and was looking forward to exploring a new site.

Our hike took us past the highest point in Missouri, along the Ozark Trail to Mine Sauk Falls.  The terrain was steep and rocky; the habitat was an extensive woodland-glade complex.  Because I had worked almost 10 years in the state, I knew what I was looking at and recognized many species.  There were lichen grasshoppers and collared lizards, Goat’s Rue and cup and doily spider webs.  As we went along the 3 plus mile trail, I rattled off names of species I the point where my husband said, “Are you making all this up!”  No I wasn’t.

But I surprised myself at how much I knew about he habitat and species that lived there.  For me, it was a source of a feeling of self-confidence and competence, similar to what I’m sure my granddaughter experienced when she recognized a plant or animal that she encountered while staying with us this summer.

So the idea that this type of knowledge brings a certain comfort level in nature was correct, I thought.  That is, until we lost the trail!  I am a person who can get lost just turning around, so the fact that we had to roam around looking for the trail frightened me.  Suddenly, my comfort level evaporated.  Fortunately, my husband is a hunter and used to getting from Point A to Point B without a trail. 

After looking at the map and my compass app, we decided on a direction and headed out.  I was worried that I didn’t have enough food or water to survive in such a wilderness bushwacking through the brush.  So as we set off, I was still worried.  Perhaps less that 20 yards away, I found the trail.  Whew.  Relief.  I realize I need to practice off trail hiking in order to gain confidence in that realm.  I was glad for the experience, though, and I learned that I am comfortable in long as there is a trail leading to the car!!!

Monday, August 24, 2015

What's in a Name

Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet?  Perhaps not.  But what I have learned from my granddaughter this summer is that names are important.

I used to train teachers in using outdoor activities and realized that some of them feared what might be called “ the unknown”.  I used to say, “You don’t need to know the names of the things in nature”.  I had learned this tack from a naturalist who used to say that your name isn’t the most important thing about you.  While true, names are important.  It makes you different than all the other beings that look very similar.  The same is true for names of plants and animals. I learned how important this is as I watched my granddaughter gain competence and confidence in being outdoors in nature.

As my husband and I spent time each day outside, we pointed out some obvious species.  These would include Red Bud, Hackberry, Mayapple, Black-eyed Susan, 5-lined Skink, Gray Tree Frog, etc.  Along with the name, we pointed out some of the key characteristics that would help in identification.   In the case of the Red Bud, the heart-shaped leaf is a distinctive trait.  These species were pointed out many times until it was our granddaughter pointing them out to us!

It seems the more species she learned, the more comfortable she appeared to be in nature.  When I think about it, at first I’m sure our 80 acre wood seemed just like a field of green....  Like a jungle.  This could be intimidating to a small child (or my teachers)!  But by slowly learning a few of the more common and easily identified species, a level of comfort, and a young naturalist was born. It was part of the summer transformation.

The next step was to use field guides.  We often did this when we encountered something that looked distinctive, but we didn’t know what it was.  We had a stack of guides specifically written for young people along with adult level field guides.  Although she was not yet reading, she could find the pictures of species that resembled something we had seen in nature.  From there, we would go to the more specialized guides.  Once we found the species and put a name on it, it was more likely to be remembered.

As an example, one day we observed a bee building a nest on our deck roof.  We had seen many different types of bees over the summer, but watching this one, looking it up, and attaching a name to it made it a species that she would remember.  Days after identifying the species from the field guides, she saw another and said, “Look, there’s a Mason Bee!”. I doubt she would have remembered if we had not taken the time to look it up and find its name.

So here was another lesson I learned from my granddaughter: Learning the names of plants and animals is an important step in competence and confidence building for a young naturalist.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Joy of Discovery

Here she points out a skull on our deer head trail.
My granddaughter was staying with us for the summer, so we were excited for the chance to expose her to increase her comfort in being outdoors.  Her normal life is that of the suburbs..... full of roads, cars, buildings, people, etc.  This summer was different.
Our routine involved daily walks in the woods.  She happily traversed the nearly one mile trail with her grandpa and the two dogs. Along the way, Grandpa would take the time to point out something they had seen the day before or find something new   That’s the nice thing about nature....there is always something new.  Something to learn.  And she was eager to learn.

Whether it was a flower, tree, bug or bird, she would come back to the house after each hike, race to find me, and share with great excitement the things they had discovered along the trail.  Part of it was the joy of discovery, but part also was pride in her growing competence.  Sometimes when I would walk with her she would point to something and shout, “Look! There’s a......”  And it didn’t have to be anything big, like a deer or bear.  It could be something as simple as a Black-eyed Susan or Question Mark Moth.

I had read, and realize from my experience with her, that a child will experience the joy of discovery if the adult shares an appreciation of nature with genuine enthusiasm.  As Rachel Carson once wrote: “If a child is to keep his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.” So I realize, this is what we did all summer long.

One time, early in her stay, I saw a Wheel Bug on the screen.  When she saw it, she said, “Ugh”....a response probably learned  from other kids in her daycare.  But in an effort to dismiss this attitude,  I looked at it closely and said, “What a neat bug!”. I didn’t know if it would work, but when Grandpa came into the room a little later, she cried, “Grandpa, there’s a neat bug!”  She became fascinated with insects and even started her own insect collection.  As luck would have it,  this year, the 17 year Periodical Cicada emerged, and she became obsessed with pointing out every one she saw. We were constantly stopped on one hike with shouts of “Look!” There were so many cicadas along that trail!.  

So the first lesson I learned this summer from my granddaughter:  Enthusiasm for nature really is contagious.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Summer Transformation

I have to say, I have not blogged recently for a couple of reasons.  One is due to connectivity problems, but mainly it is because of the time spent taking care of my granddaughter while she was  here for an extended period of time this summer..

She turned four while here, and I am amazed at how much she has grown and learned since I last blogged about her.  My blog about the “bumpy trees” when she was not yet three can be found here.  I remember she was almost afraid to touch trees when she was about 2 ½.  She was tentative about most things in first. 

So our summer routine involved daily walks in the woods  on one of our three trails.  This was nearly one mile in length and excellent exercise for her and the two dogs that would end up following her along the way.  We camped, kayaked, biked, gardened, explored, watched birds and other wildlife, and much more.  Many hours were spent in outdoor pursuits. And the results were amazing.

By the end of the summer, she was romping through the trails, confident and competent.  How did all of this happen?  I will spend the next few blogs describing our activities and what I learned from her along the way.