Naturalists, Naturally

After all the jelly beans, chocolate bunnies, and high-intensity Easter egg hunting at church, we were all in need of simpler, quieter pleasures on Sunday afternoon. The weather had been warm and sunny, coaxing forth green growing things (including many exuberant weeds) and a variety of birds and bugs. The flora and fauna were loving it, and so were we. Just as I reached for the door to head out on a tour of the blossoming neighborhood, my daughter Frances suddenly raced upstairs to get something. “Wait! It’s important!” she shouted over her shoulder.

She returned stuffing some mysterious paper and books into a small backpack, slung it over her flowered Easter dress, and we were off. Her brother rode his tricycle, slowly, so he and I watched her pink and blue dress billowing as she zoomed off down the block and turned the corner towards the footbridge. When we finally caught up, she had left her scooter on the bridge and had scampered down to the muddy bank beneath it. We peered over the railing.

“A toad!” I pointed down to a spot in the mud about two feet from where Frances was standing, where a bumpy-backed dark little creature breathed almost inperceptibly.

“Is he sick?” asked Frances, sidling up to the nearly motionless toad.

A sick toad sparked Gabriel’s interest. The two of us picked our way down to meet Frances and have a closer look. I had no compelling diagnosis to offer that might explain the toad’s reluctance to move (besides terror), but the children had lots of ideas. Gabriel announced he would be a veterinarian for toads when he grew up. Then we spied a frog poking his head out of the water, a glistening green face calmly surveying us with its big, black, copper-rimmed eyes.  The two children squatted down in front of him at the mucky water’s edge, and the three parties silently gazed at one another. Suddenly the frog jumped towards Frances, who squealed in delight and invited him to please hop just once more, right into the apron she made from the skirt of her Easter dress. Eventually he leapt back into the water and we lost sight of him. But what a thrill! We three explored the bank, poked around with sticks, holding out hope for more amphibian encounters.

The next day, yesterday, was the last day of Frances’ spring break from school. We headed right back to the footbridge, and again she brought her backpack. This time she opened it up once we settled ourselves at the water’s edge and brought out a book about frogs, trying to determine the kind of frog we’d seen yesterday. She put the book down when we found another, and then watched water bugs darting across the water’s green surface. Eventually we continued on to a playground, and while Gabriel played I noticed Frances quietly slip off to a shady picnic table and open her bag once again. I came and peeked over her shoulder, and saw that she was writing notes about the frogs we’d seen.

Then she matter-of-factly brought out a new sticker book about North American birds, and we studied the pictures, remembering different sitings in our backyard. There was a chickadee, and our old favorite, the brilliant red cardinal. Gabriel eventually came over to see what was absorbing us so completely, and found the images and names of birds just as irresistible as we did.

Knowing the names for things transforms one’s vision. Birds are one thing; downy woodpeckers and mourning doves are something else entirely. We see details we never noticed before; we feel a new connection with and understanding for a thing when we know its name. Our imagination is richer, and our empathetic response more sensitive. When we meet someone new, the first thing to do is to learn her name – because then a true relationship might begin.

Kids get this so intuitively. When left to their own devices, their desire to know the world motivates a kind of serious inquiry that takes my breath away. Frances’ school is a lovely place, but the style of education practiced there does not honor this natural sense of wonder and curiosity at all. It took a break from school for her to develop her budding naturalist’s routine. She – and all children – are such naturals when it comes to observation, description, and learning new names. I need to hear a new word about a hundred times before I integrate it into my own speech. Gabriel, on the other hand, asked this afternoon if we could pretend that we were a family of blue gray gnatcatchers.

Which one are those again?

These past few days have offered a taste of summer. When that green season finally arrives, kindergarten will release its grip and we can hit the yard with our backpacks full of nature identification books, notebooks, and colored pencils. To see the world through my little naturalists’ eyes is to reconnect with my own sense of wonder, and my own desire to know the words for all those bugs and birds and trees that are presently indistinct and nameless for me. Not for long. Summer, here we come.

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Here are a few of our latest favorite books for children that draw forth and enrich the natural naturalist in all of us. (You can see more about what we’re reading at my blog, Homemade Time.)

The Young Birder’s Guide: Birds of Eastern North America by Bill Thompson

The Best Book of Bugs by Claire Llewellyn

Animals and Their Hiding Places by Jane R. McCauley

*note: this book is part of the National Geographic Society series Books for Young Explorers (see a list of titles here). I love these books, maybe because they were published in the eighties when I was a kid and I remember them so fondly. Check Life in Ponds and Streams for some fantastic eighties style, effortlessly embodied by a couple of kids exploring tide pools (not to mention lots of cool frog portraits). Vintage kids natural history!

How Animals Work DK Publishing

Beautiful, awe-inspiring photos.

A Seed is Sleepy by Dianna Hutts Aston, illustrated by Sylvia Long

Ultimate Sticker Book: Birds of North America DK Publishing





About Meagan Howell

Meagan Howell is a freelance writer and social worker who loves art, books, yoga, friends, music, being outside, and helping to build communities of all sorts. Meagan lives in Maryland with her husband and two children and writes about motherhood at Homemade Time.

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