As a Child I Loved Nature

Chickadee Courtesy edbo23, photographer and Pixabay
Chickadee
Courtesy edbo23, photographer and Pixabay
As a child I loved nature. Not liked: loved.

I consumed it. I learned the names and types of animals especially, from all over the world. My love was ceaseless, carefree, and itself consuming.

There were phases of course, too. First it was bats, then dinosaurs but back before they had feathers, then penguins, dogs, spider monkeys, and sharks. With each new kind of animal I learned about, I was drawn in closer by what makes them special and sets them apart. I could imagine myself as any one of a million kinds of critter. I could play as if I were one, hunt or forage like one, build a den or nest like one. I was what I imagined myself to be and I loved it. My world was infinite.

Those days though are decades behind. For a long while now, I’ve thought about what happened to that child; what happened to that infinite world? Years of schooling and structure had pushed my attention into books, screens, and facts. The world did not leave me, I neglected that infinite world, and so it too became schooled and structured and sterile.

This realization of what had happened first hit me when I began student teaching kindergarten a few years ago. One day at recess a child asked me to play with them. I realized then that I couldn’t remember how to play and imagine and see the world as infinite still. I awoke from the dream of education and discovered that I had not learned but books, screens, and facts.

Since then, it’s been hard to relearn how to play and imagine. This relearning casts a shadow of struggle over you, especially as a teacher. It can drive you to try and find what obscures and what shines.

My search for reprieve from a knowable world has taken me all over this country: from coast to coast, and from northern desert to southern swamp. Just the other day though I finally found a true breadcrumb back to the infinite world: a black-capped chickadee.

Sitting in my springtime backyard, one came to my only, lone bird feeder that I got at the grocery store. As it sized up the plastic tube full of food, I began to do something that I hadn’t done for a very long while: I just watched it. It was not like how I watch ducks or deer or loose neighborhood turkeys, as food if only it came in range or the city ordinances were a bit more forgiving, but instead I watched it just to see what it did and who it was.

The small songbird flew from its perch and simply rummaged through my discount bird feed until it found a black sunflower seed and flew back to a higher branch. It worked the shell off the seed with diligence, determination, and intelligence. No schooling required. After eating the morsel within, it flew back for another and ate that one in the same wild manner. It then called out, perhaps to pay the good fortune forward, and flew off without giving the feeder another glance. The momentary abandonment of gluttony is the privilege of spring.

It felt strange to just watch a bird for a few minutes. It felt foreign. My mind kept asking me why I was watching such an unassuming creature and for why. There were books that need reading, screens that need seeing, and facts that need knowing. In the end though, it felt good to stick it to what organized my wild instincts and to just watch the chickadee like a true human being again.

I could in that moment imagine that I was that chickadee: wild, rebellious, and free. Never before had I thought of myself as a chickadee though, truth be told. If any bird, I would have before liked to be a Canada jay, or a raven, or a Swainson’s thrush. But after seeing that chickadee, and thinking on it, the chickadee seems the best of me now and the best of who I want to be. It can be humble, measured, and cooperative, or proud, excitable, and driven, depending on the needs of the season. It’s easily seen, easily unnoticed, and easily pleased.

Importantly, though it reminds me of that child with the infinite world. It reminds me why I loved nature. It gives me hope that I can again.

I’m Patrick Kelly and I’m Wild About Utah.
 
Credits:

Images: Courtesy and Copyright Stephen Peterson, Photographer
Audio: Contains audio Courtesy & Copyright Kevin Colver
Text:    Patrick Kelly, Director of Education, Stokes Nature Center, https://logannature.org
Included Links: Lyle Bingham, Webmaster, WildAboutUtah.org

Additional Reading

Kelly, Patrick, The Canyon, Wild About Utah, Jan 28, 2019, https://wildaboututah.org/the-canyon/



Wild Neoteny

Annual Wildflower Festival Cedar Breaks National Monument Courtesy National Park Service, Cedar Breaks National Monument
Annual Wildflower Festival
Cedar Breaks National Monument
Courtesy National Park Service, Cedar Breaks National Monument
“Hey, stop the truck!” my wife called from the passenger seat, her nose pressed against the window. I already knew what this was about; she was out the door before the dust had cleared the hood, kneeling in the grass. While she hovered over something newly found with purple petals, I stared out across the high, open meadow of blooming wildflowers, the urge to run surging into my feet. I turned at her exclamation several seconds later, half a football field of colored space between us now. Arms spread wide; grins from ear to ear. In a field of wildflowers, we were kids again.

Scientists call it neoteny, the retention of juvenile features in the adult of a species—basically, the harboring of a playful nature into adulthood. The research into the benefits of play, especially outdoor play, is becoming more replete by the day. In humans, play puts the right hemisphere of the brain into gear, that portion responsible for artistic and creative notions, imagination and insight, and holistic thought. The cerebellum and frontal lobes light up as well, increasing attunement to coordination, executive functioning, and contextual memory development. Neoteny, scientists say, is the key to a species’ adaptability and, therefore, its survival.

Alpine Pond Upper Flowers Cedar Breaks National Monument Courtesy National Park Service, Cedar Breaks National Monument
Alpine Pond Upper Flowers
Cedar Breaks National Monument Courtesy National Park Service, Cedar Breaks National Monument
Wild neoteny could be the term used to describe the human affinity to explore one’s natural surroundings, to wander off into the hills in search of something new and interesting, to learn the nuance of a place and to gain some intimacy with it—to call it home. We do that, I think, when we go on hikes into the wild hinterlands, catapult ourselves down the turbulent waters of our rivers, or climb the rock faces we stumble upon. It’s an adrenaline rush to be sure, a high on life as they say; but it’s also an act of survival—and of remaining human.

Robin Moore, a professor at North Carolina State University, says “the natural environment is the principle source of sensory stimulation….” “Sensory experiences,” he says, “link [our] exterior world with [our] interior, hidden, affective world.” The outdoor environment is a medium of human connection where, as Moore puts it, the “freedom to explore and play…through the senses…is essential for healthy development….” Dr. Stuart Brown, clinical researcher and founder of The National Institute for Play, behooves us in his Ted Talk on the subject to explore our individual histories of play. If you close your eyes and imagine yourself at play, where are you? The open water, a deep forest, a mountain peak, or maybe a field of wildflowers?

In his national bestseller, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv calls nature a “reset button.” It is the place where we are reminded of ourselves and our purpose. Australian musician Xavier Rudd sings, “Take a stroll to the nearest water’s edge/Remember your place.” It’s often proffered that in a time of industrial expectation and hyper-communication, we need the wild spaces more than ever. There’s some truth to that; but I think I’d go play there anyway, even if it wasn’t to escape the, quote-unquote, “workaday life.” I’m most human when I’m running through a field of blooming wildflowers.

I’m Josh Boling, and I’m Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy US National Park Service, Cedar Breaks National Monument
Text: Josh Boling, 2018

Sources & Additional Reading

Cedar Breaks, Plan Your Visit, National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/planyourvisit/event-listing.htm?eventID=68A2C9C9-155D-451F-679007F885E5FA1A

Cedar Breaks National Monument, National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/cebr/index.htm

Neoteny, Reference Terms, ScienceDaily, https://www.sciencedaily.com/terms/neoteny.htm