Mae and I went out to Rancocas Nature Center for a walk on one of those warmer winter days that tricks us into thinking spring is near. We checked out the nature center building, where she blew kisses to the stuffed owls and swimming turtles and birds inside, and I picked up a new bag of bird seed and a handy little laminated Native Plants and Trees of New Jersey guide. Most of our time was spent on the trails outside, though, enjoying the sun and fresh air.
If this was three years ago, I would also have been trying to get some exercise. That’s not what’s happening anymore, because, see, on walks with an 18-month-old, the pace is slow. We stop. We walk a few steps. We turn around and walk back a few steps. If the thing we’re walking on is a bridge or resembles a bridge, we might do this for a very long time. It’s a new kind of hike I’m embracing, one in which the most joy comes from watching Mae’s discoveries.
We spent a significant amount of time picking up and looking at “spikeys,” some big, some “baby,” some covered in mud, some “ouch!” The truth is I had no idea what spikeys are actually called. The results of my quick Internet search led me to discover that they are the fruit of a Sweetgum, and have lots of funny names. When a bug flew out of one, I suggested they are tiny homes for bugs without really knowing.
She also loved finding and picking up bright red berries scattered across the trail. She remembered what her father had told her about bright red berries that we see on our walks, and picked up red berry after red berry, telling me, “birds eat this” each time.
As Mae picked up the little red berries — “birds eat this” — I agreed, pleased with my little lesson only to find out later that they weren’t from common winterberry as I thought, but actually the berries of an invasive plant called Japanese barberry. (Japanese barberry has a more oval-shaped berry and thorns on the branches; whereas winterberry berries are round and thornless. There were berries everywhere, because the birds were not interested in eating them.)
Here’s the thing: At this point and for a long time, it doesn’t matter that “spikeys” are whatevers and that birds don’t really feast on the berries as we agreed. I was letting Mae lead, letting her make these little discoveries and latch on to the things she found interesting. I didn’t get any real exercise, because we went at her pace and she refused a ride in the Ergo carrier.
Mae looked and listened when I pointed to a bird watching us from above, and loved the idea that a pile of twigs and leaves surrounding a dead tree might be an animal’s home. But I really tried to not say so much, and let me tell you something: that’s not actually easy.
The moments when I don’t know something, can’t identify a species or recognize the call of a bird overhead, call a cormorant a duck or vice versa, are anxiety-inducing for me. I’m her mother, and I want to know everything. I want to tell her the truth. I want to know one berry from another, even in a moment when I’m balancing showing enthusiasm for her discovery, making sure she doesn’t eat it, worrying whether whether she’s had enough to drink, whether she’ll fall asleep in the car ride home, all the while ready to leap at any moment to prevent her from running off a boardwalk into a patch of thorns without making it look like that would be scary.
How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature helped me with all of these anxieties. In this beautifully written, data- and science-backed guide to raising a nature-lover, Scott D. Sampson suggests the best thing we can do as parents of a toddler is a.) take her outside b.) let her lead c.) use these experiences to teach empathy.
“As a nature mentor, the key is to give young kids plenty of time in natural places—backyards, beaches, forests, deserts, creeks, parks—where they can play with all those loose parts until exhaustion sets in. Show interest when they bring you some random object for inspection, but otherwise feel free to let kids hang out and explore with all their senses. The end result result for the child will be an amazing experience in which she deepens her bond with you and with nature.” – Scott D. Sampson, How to Raise a Wild Child
Mae doesn’t need to know now that the reason all of the berries seemed to remain on the shrubs we saw was because they are not intended for this region and not beneficial to the wildlife flying above and scurrying below. She’s not even two years old. My job was to bring her outdoors on this warm day and let her decide which path we take and how fast or slow we take it.
It’s okay for her to believe that bugs live between the seeds of a Sweetgum fruit, because that tale excites her. Thinking about bugs having a home gets her more interested in bugs, and eager to make more discoveries. She then points out other things that could be “homes.” It’s showing her that bugs and birds also have places they call “home.” It’s triggering that sense of wonder that comes so naturally with children this age, and is one of the most rewarding and unbelievably amazing things that we get to be apart of as parents.
“I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel when introducing a young child to the natural world. If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow. The years of early childhood are the time to prepare the soil.” -Rachel Carson, A Sense of Wonder
When we were leaving the nature center to go home for lunch, I looked down and Mae had another handful of gravel in her hands. “Ooooh, wooowwww,” she said, looking to me for some validation that it was indeed a good find. It was just driveway gravel, but she needn’t know that now. It was indeed an excellent find.
Later that day, I reached into my pocket and pulled out a rock Mae had found and I accidentally brought home. I thought about how funny it was that for a little girl whose world is expanding all of the time, there was wonder in this basic little man-made rock.
“What do I do with this?” I thought, wanting only to get rid of this one little piece of gravel. I stopped and remembered a moment from a few years ago, when I found a bunch of little stones and pebbles while unpacking boxes during our move a few years ago. I was on a “Do we really need this?” tear, and presented the items to Tim. “Do you really need these rocks?” He paused. He said he would sort through them, had always kind of liked them. “Oh, they don’t seem to be that interesting, so I figured this one might be an easy decision.”
Tim, someone who has loved and explored the great outdoors his whole life, held on to the rocks for a long time. I’m not sure how long. I wish I had realized then the truth and meaning behind that small collection then, but the good news is that I think a new collection is about to begin.