Wherever you are, no matter how lonely,
The world offers itself to your imagination,
Calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
Over and over announcing your place
In the family of things.— Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”
It always begins with a question. And as any parent of a young child knows, if you give a mouse a cookie . . . questions lead to more questions. Sometimes it can be exhausting, having just answered one inquiry to be instantly buffeted by the next.
Yet, remember the nature of questions; remember their parentage — joy and wonder. Questions are the seeds of stories, and stories, as we know, are not limited to flights of fancy, but help us understand the world around us. Science and story are partners for building understanding.
“What does a monarch butterfly eat?”
Watching a monarch caterpillar munching its way across a milkweed leaf, my son makes the connection that the caterpillar will fatten itself, spin a chrysalis, and then, as if by magic, emerge a butterfly. Out tumble the questions like the gust front of an approaching summer storm, metamorphizing from one to the next.
“Do wasps eat caterpillars?”
“How long before it becomes a butterfly?”
“How far will a monarch butterfly fly?”
“How do they find their way?”
“Can we go to Mexico to see the butterflies?”
Remember that questions are opportunities, the threads of magic carpets lifted on the winds of exploration. Instilling in a child a sense of wonder and inquiry they’ll carry with them their entire lives is a delicate matter: Provide enough information to keep the child asking questions; don’t wander too far into the weeds and induce boredom instead.
“Is this a blue jay egg?”
Yesterday, we found the egg in our garden, nestled between the broad leaves of a Hosta and a prickly phlox. The egg was a shade of green between mint and sage, dotted by olive speckles. A few weeks before we’d witnessed two blue jays building a nest in the high-up crook of a maple tree that borders our yard. The pair swooped this way and that, plucking twigs from the lilac bushes for building material. The maple is densely leafed out now, so it’s hard to see any birds in the tree, but we now have proof of blue jay progeny.
Because an eggshell is a fragile, impermanent thing, I encouraged my son to sketch the egg and write about it in his nature journal — a blank notebook we bring on outings along with his “adventure backpack”. The backpack also holds colored pencils, a rock hammer and safety glasses, a compass, and a jeweler’s magnifying loupe. My son, at age 7, is more inclined to reach for the rock hammer — smashing things is fun! — than the journal, but when he does draw and write in his journal, I see in him a deep reservoir of concentration and attention to detail. Even now his drawings are far more detailed than anything I recall drawing when I was his age.
I also bring a small notebook on our adventures and join my son in nature journaling. I enjoy the presence in the moment journaling affords, the tight focus on tiny details. Trout lilies, paper birch, and the distinct red stones against the deep blue water of Lake Superior are some of the sketches that populate my journal.
After finding the egg, we reach for the illustrated kid’s guide to Michigan birds and flip to the entry on blue jays. Indeed the egg we found matches the book’s description. Books like these are wonderful teaching tools; we also have a wildflower identification guide we frequently bring on hikes. We enjoy being nature sleuths, observation illuminating the names of things.
“What’s on the other side of the lake?”
We live just a few miles from the shores of Lake Superior; our house is perched on a peninsula that juts into what we really should call an inland sea. We humans are limited by language; why do we give such a small name — lake — to a body of water that by surface area is the largest of its kind on Earth? Better to call the lake by its Ojibwe name: Gitchigami, the “Great Sea”.
How do we, with our limited language, describe this glittering northern lake? Words fail to record her many moods and colors, her waves and stony beaches studded with white pine. Sometimes calm and glassy, lake surface and horizon indistinct, expanding the bounds of gravity by blurry the demarcation of Earth and sky. Sometimes storm-raised, slate-colored waves beat against the shore with such ferocity one wonders if Superior will ever be calm again. And sometimes, at sunset, striated with rose and the sky’s limitless blue reflected, loon calls traveling across the water.
How do we, when words fail us, pass on such beauty to our children? How do we pass on the knowledge that we are but stewards of this sacred sea? How do we inspire in our children a deep love of place and the desire to protect this vast northern lake already abused by mining and atmospheric deposition of outsourced industry pollution?
Take your child to the sacred places where you live, whether Gitchigami or the stream that runs through your community, the tree groves on the edge of town or to the pothole lakes of the prairie with their citizens crane. Show your child their place in the family of things, small, but never insignificant.
Kelley Christensen is a science writer living in northern Michigan, where she feels blessed for the opportunity to learn new things every day and call it work. When she’s not writing, gardening, hiking or skiing, you’ll find her knitting on the beach. Follow her on Twitter @kjhchristensen
A Case for Wonder by Christopher Norment
eBird by Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Nature Anatomy by Julia Rothman
The Boy’s Book of Adventure by Michele Lecreux & Celia Gallais* (*Caveat: We don’t love the title of this book because of the gendering, but it’s a neat little book once you get past that. There’s a Girl’s Book of Adventure, too, though again, there are blatant gendering issues.)
“Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer” by Wendell Berry
The Raft by Jim LaMarche
The Pond by Jim LaMarche