Thursday, July 30, 2009

Passing It On

As a child I always loved wandering around out in the wild with my father. It always impressed me that he could identify pretty much every tree in central Illinois by leaf, bark, or wood grain. There is something special about knowing something about the nature you pass through. It all takes on so much more meaning if you know what it is. If all that green stuff around you gets mentally categorized simply as “plants,” you are really missing a lot. You SEE so much more when you know what the plants are, and more importantly what they do. Some plants are edible, some produce berries at certain times of the year, some have thorns, some produce dazzling flowers, and some are poisonous.

But the natural world is so much more than plants. My father would help us catch grasshoppers so we could put them in spider webs and see the wonder that is a spider trussing up its prey. We would sneak up to trees and he would lift me up to see baby robins hatching from their beautiful blue eggs. We would catch stick insects, toads, snakes, moles, and much more, just to observe them and learn about what makes them work and how they live. My father helped me become the biology geek I am today.

Now that I have children of my own, I am passing along to them the wonder of the natural world around us. About eight months ago my family and I moved to a new apartment in a neighborhood that values open space. Now I have seven acres of virgin chaparral right out my back door to explore and learn about. The proximity to wilderness has also provided a wealth of wildlife to observe. Recently, a spider moved in to our back porch and it spins a large spiral web right by the light every night. Soon thereafter, we found a mortally wounded wasp and took it as an opportunity to feed the spider. So I gathered the kids around and tossed the dying wasp into the spider web. The spider pounced on it, securing it with a line of string, and then jumped back and waited a few seconds. When it didn’t get out, the spider jumped in again and quickly wrapped the head and then the wings with silk. Then it began turning the wasp and wrapping it fully. Once that was done, the spider bit the wasp and then retreated again. When the wasp stopped moving, the spider moved in to feed. The kids were fascinated and barely talked except to say “COOL!” during the whole process.

My community also has a community garden. While I have gardened with my kids before, I haven’t had my own garden for a few years now. My daughter particularly appreciates wandering the garden and has learned to identify many plants. She has picked up my habit of grazing on the plants as she walks through the garden, her favorites being purslane, mint, swiss chard, and basil. I took my daughter to the neighborhood’s community garden a few weeks ago and selected a plant that looked ready to harvest. I asked her what it was. She correctly guessed that it is related to cilantro, but couldn’t identify it. The surprised delight on her face when I pulled it out of the ground to reveal a carrot was an emotional jewel I will carry with me a long time. The fact that she got to eat it was an extra bonus.

Recent monsoon rains have brought the local flora to life. On my way home through the community garden I noticed some mushrooms. Then I noticed some different ones growing up in the community lawn area, so I collected a couple of each kind and brought them home. I explained to the kids how there are different kinds of mushrooms and suggested we try to identify them. So I pulled out the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms and we started comparing features. Once we were fairly certain that we had the right identifications, we took a spore print of each mushroom to verify our identification. In the end we were pretty sure that the yellow one was a deadly lawn galerina, a deadly toxic mushroom, and the large white mushroom was a spring agaricus, a choice edible. No, we didn’t eat it. I don’t trust my identification abilities that much, plus it was full of worms.

A few evenings ago we spent nearly an hour observing a tarantula that came to our back patio to hunt. We initially caught him in our bug cage, which has a large magnifying glass for a lid, so we could look at him up close. Once we had looked at him enough, we let him go. To our delight, he didn’t run, but instead continued up the wall to hunt near our patio lights. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see him catch anything. Nonetheless, my daughter remarked the next day that that experience was “awesome.”

So take your kids out and show them, hands-on, about the world around them. Teach them what you know. Show them the wonder, beauty, joy, and flavor of the life around them. I hear so many people these days complaining that our children don’t know where food comes from. How can they, if we don’t teach them?

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