Having confessed in my first post for Neighborhood Homeschool to being sort of an “inside girl,” it may seem strange for me now to write a post about nature. I should say, I’m an inside girl except when I’m not; I grew up in a state known for its outdoor activities (West Virginia), I’m an avid hiker, and I camped frequently as a child. As I’ve grown up, I’ve become a vegan and an environmentalist, with a strong love for animals, plants, and other wild things.
Still, one thing I mourn about modern life, and modern city life in particular, is the loss of an intimate experience with, and therefore knowledge of, nature: its seasons and its processes (though I totally agree with Tracy Born that one can take nature walks in the city!). Several years ago I took a walk with my father, who unassumingly identified different trees along our route, and I was amazed to discover this about him. It never came up when I was a child. But, of course, he lived on a farm until he was a young teenager and this knowledge is a part of him. (I think this also had to do with his generation; my family has recently been enjoying Jean Craighead George’s hilarious autobiographical book, The Tarantula in My Purse, in which she describes her kids growing up in the 1960s and having closer relationships with wild animals than I can imagine any family having these days.) I realized simultaneously that this was knowledge that my father never taught me, that was lost from his generation to mine. And now, living in the city, nature isn’t something I have to confront in my daily life; I can choose to completely ignore it for the most part. At the same time, it is here, just as present as the more demanding facets of city life. An uncultivated woods is just blocks from my home; an ecosystem is all around me.
As I have been homeschooling my son (now nearly six years old), one of my priorities has been for us to rediscover knowledge of nature together, in part because I long for it and in part because it feels necessary and crucial in a world where nature’s voice is so often drowned out by other louder, human priorities. When I say voice, I mean that literally. Though we have used several resources so far in our quest to learn more about nature, including classes at a local nature center which focus on things like identifying animals and plants, some of the best resources that I have discovered are the Kamana for Kids series and other books by the skilled tracker and formidable nature educator, Jon Young. Last winter, after my grandfather bought a bird feeder for my son, I brought Young’s book, What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World, home from our library. In this revelatory book, Young shares the truth, supported by research, that birds can communicate with each other, as well as with other animals, and that their communications are heavily influenced by their responses to the human world. Humans, Young points out, used to understand this language because it revealed information that contributed to hunting and gathering, and to avoiding predators; this is, again, knowledge that has been largely lost, but it can be rediscovered.
Learning bird language is a topic that is deep, but also fairly accessible and rewarding even for a beginner. In just a few months, my son and I came to know some 6-7 species that visited our feeder and the “baseline” sounds they made, enough so that we could begin to recognize when they were communicating something different—and, equally importantly, so that we could not interfere with them in our unconscious movements through the world, so that we could walk by them gently and acknowledge them, so as not to cause them to fly away in what Young calls a “bird plow.” Acknowledgement of nature, it turns out, is a natural offshoot of having knowledge about it—and Young argues that it can have a positive effect on keeping the animals around us safe from predators. Hawks apparently frequent trails popular with runners, so that they can take advantage of the birds fleeing from the humans.
My son seems to be drawn to nature as much as I am, though his investment is as much in playing in nature as in learning anything specific about it. The Kamana for Kids book series put out by Young’s organization is brilliant in its understanding of kids’ need to play in nature. (I recently heard that Young developed some of his ideas about nature education through his experiences with homeschoolers when he was involved with his mentor’s nature program in New Jersey!) The books are composed of magical stories, which teach kids about “nature awareness skills”: deer ears for listening, owl eyes for seeing, raccoon touch for feeling, and dog nose for smelling. While Young recommends that children and adults can learn a lot by staying still and observing one “secret spot” on a regular basis, his Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature emphasizes that for most kids, this skill is best learned through play—hiding under leaves, for instance, which emerges organically in many child-initiated games, is a great way to experience stillness and a chance to notice minute things about nature.
I was glad to remember this when my son and I recently visited the “secret spot” we chose in our urban woods. My son is the most active person I have ever met, and rarely sits still, so though I am drawn to the meditative aspects of Young’s ideas for nature learning, I wanted to be careful not to require this of him. I was happy when he developed his own game for using “deer ears,” a sort of blindfolded hide-and-seek where we took turns running away and seeing if the other could tell which direction we went with hearing alone. It was the most fun. (The other thing that my son wanted to do in the woods was take pictures—and I was intrigued to see what things he wanted to preserve and see again. He was especially interested in the interplay of light and shadow under the cover of the tall trees. All of the images in this post were taken by him!)
Though we haven’t visited the “secret spot” as often as Young recommends (he recommends going every day), I think learning about nature is going to be a big part of our learning together. In addition to feeding and watching the birds, we have a garden and my son loves picking things to plant. I am learning about natural medicine from Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide. With all of my explorations, I am increasingly aware that nothing is truly wild and nothing civilized; we are deeply interconnected with the natural world and the interface between humans and nature is fraught with complications. In the end, I don’t know exactly what I’m planting by trying to learn about the natural world with my son; the past of humans’ relationship with nature has been, to a large degree, devastating and the future of our lives as humans in nature is uncertain. It is inevitable in the changing world in which we live that some of the old knowledge about nature will be lost; I’m hoping that some of it can be passed on and there is still room for a more respectful acknowledgment.–Anne