Bringing Families Back to Nature

by Mary Clista Dahl

A Woman Shows a Toddler an Interesting Rock While Wading in a Creek

There is recent resurgence in the movement to reconnect families with nature. I recently attended a fundraiser for one of my favorite organizations, Earth Spirit Educational Services, who has been loyally demonstrating this mission for more than thirty years; one of hundreds who got caught up in their passion.  The events of the day reflected their typical work, led by avid naturalists wanting to inspire the same in a captive audience, young and old.

I arrived a little late for the bird banding demonstration and found Bill, a former Audubon Society president, already gently holding a mother bird in his hand.  His gentle demeanor comforted her as he spoke of her nesting habits and physical traits without causing her the least bit of distress.  Bill passed us on to Jan for a guided bird walk where we experienced song sparrows, robins, starlings and a happy pair of kingbirds.  The botanical wonders were just as plentiful as the airborne ones.  Jan and group members pointed out May Apples, Wild Roses (which mischievously engaged themselves with my socks) and Trout Lilies, whose leaves I delighted in tasting after our guide proclaimed their edibility and took a safe bite first.  Note to self: add to salad recipes.

The morning programming morphed smoothly into a friendly chicken barbecue, highlighted by the singing duo of Kerri and Joe who complemented each other well; she in an earthy flowered blouse and he in cowboy boots and flannels, fashionably matched to reflect their perfect vocal harmony.  Their friendly rendition of  “Who’ll Stop the Rain” under a mercifully clear blue sky had the audience clapping and singing along, even more so when Roy joined them on his fiddle. Lunch choices included light vegetarian dishes or generous proportions of piping hot barbecued chicken, rice, potatoes and more all served with kind greetings and smiles.

After he mingled with guests, founding member Sandy invited me to “dine” with him, his wife and friends.  This was as far from the etiquette-required, white linen and china outing as you could get; we sat across the slightly warped picnic table from each other eating from paper plates with plasticware, the occasional napkin blowing away into the wind.  It was refreshingly casual, lending itself to comfortable, relaxing conversation.  I was humbled to watch members of his nature family approach and greet him in the warm atmosphere that he helped create.  And as has been the case with every event I’ve attended since becoming a member last summer, I left the table with new friends to enjoy nature with.

After lunch parents and their children were invited by a local animal adventures group to gather for an up close and personal encounter with exotic creatures. This group often works with the organization to expertly introduce potentially creepy critters to little ones.  Toddlers decked out in droopy hats and sunglasses gazed in wide-eyed wonder as a tarantula, blue-tongued skink, boa constrictor and kookaburra were walked around in the hands of volunteers for a live show and tell.  Working their magic of combining child-friendly narrative with intuitive respect for what might be frightening, volunteers Melanie and Jen reinforced the love of nature to children through osmosis, instilling fascination in the adults in the process.  I photographed all, petted the boa and (following their instructions to the children if frightened), shook my head “No” as the tarantula neared. The children seemed more interested in than intimidated by the spider, yet not even Melanie’s enthusiasm delivered in a gentle voice could persuade me to take a closer look.

The afternoon programming held an option to head out in search of salamanders and crayfish in a stream-exploring expedition.  This group was the most popular for parents with children, adding a lively dynamic. Tim, our fearless leader hoisted buckets, nets and other capture and release tools as we headed down the gravel road toward the West Branch of Cazenovia Creek. Tim ‘s trained eyes spotted an optimum nature find…a completely gnawed branch indicating beaver activity.  We eagerly followed him as he traced the evidence to the active construction site where he pointed out a tree (about a foot in diameter) that had been felled by what he estimated to be the work of two beavers that had taken about a year to accomplish.  He explained the process in detail, enjoying the undivided attention of the group long enough for a lesson in Dam Building 101; brief enough to prevent the restlessness of the children brought on by their need to explore.

The creek banks and bottom were lined with rocks of every color, shape, texture, size and shine imaginable.  Socks and sneakers were removed from tiny and large feet alike.  I waded to my shins, some submersed to their ankles, knees or thighs.  Rocks were thrown, skimmed and flipped depending on intent.  I was part of the group content just to get caught up in the tranquility of the sound and light reflections of the running water.

The sights and sounds of families interacting with nature supplemented my meditation.  There is comfort associated with watching children grasp a parent’s fingers in one hand while flipping rocks with another, and humor to be found in the uninhibited fashion statements that result from the desire to progress deeper and explore more… wet bottoms and randomly lifted pant legs.  Not to mention happy expressions of delight and victory, “Look what I found!”  “Hey, what’s this?”  “Take your shoes and socks off so you can come in the water.”  “You gotta get dirty, you’re in nature now, dear.”  “I think you have an obsession with ants.”  All answered with heartwarming giggles.

This group welcomes everyone as family.  Wafting in the air that day accompanying the aromas of grilled chicken and herbs was the almost tangible sense of belonging that comes from being embraced into the arms of Mother Nature.  This is the definition and true essence of the spirit that every organization dedicated to sharing nature with children inspires.