Magazine article American Forests

Teach a Child to Wonder

Magazine article American Forests

Teach a Child to Wonder

Article excerpt

Patience, curiosity, and the lush laboratory of a suburban backyard have captivated three generations of this family.

I had always dreamed of living on a farm, where I could be as close to nature as possible, but my wife Lonita, an Atlanta girl, found the city more to her liking. So we compromised. We moved to the edge of St. Albans, West Virginia, about 20 miles from Charleston, where we bought a broad piece of land that had most of the characteristics of the farm but wasn't so remote from the conveniences my wife desired.

Our move was brought about by a job change. We moved from Richmond, Virginia, where I had worked for the Virginia Commission of Game and Inland Fisheries, to West Virginia, where I joined that state's Department of Natural Resources. As you can tell, I have always had a deep interest in the outdoors.

Shortly after moving into our house, I planted 150 white-pine seedlings on the lower end of the lot. My idea was to keep the trees pruned and shaped for five or six years and then sell them for Christmas decorations. There was a problem, however--every time my three-year-old son Mike got near the infant pines, he broke off some needles. Repeated scoldings and hand-slappings did little good. Then one day I noticed that Mike was fascinated by the new growth emerging from the pines. He caressed each tender shoot lovingly. Maybe, I thought, the answer to our problem lay in the boy's curiosity about growing things.

"Mike," I said, "how would you like to have all these tiny trees for your very own?" He brightened. "Okay, these pines are all yours now, to protect and care for, and it's up to you to see that they don't get hurt."

The change that came about was pure magic. From that day forward, Mike did not break a single needle, nor did any of his friends. He protected those seedlings at all costs, one of which was a bloody nose from a slightly indignant pal.

That was my first adventure with our children in the world of the great outdoors, but thanks partly to that first revelation, they were to become a thousand wonders richer. I guess I spent more time and worked harder to encourage Mike than I did with Carol, who was pretty young right then for such learning, but later on she seemed to learn more from her big brother than from me. And if he was interested, she was interested. Our backyard was a laboratory where youthful genius was brought to light.

Both plant and animal life were abundant there, and Mike's increasing love for and curiosity about living things continued to amaze me. To Mike, the backyard was where "Charley Cottontail" made his home and where the bobwhite quail called at dawn and dusk. It was where the violets and buttercups came up in the spring, and where Mike pointed out to his sister, "God makes it rain when the plants are thirsty." And it was the oak where the robins nested and raised their young, and the place where the "sassafras tastes pretty."

As Mike and Carol grew older, they never forgot that the dogwood has opposite branches and biscuit-shaped buds. They learned to recognize the heavenly scent of honeysuckle emanating from the roadside, and would often mention at breakfast that their syrup came from the sugar maple.

Mike didn't require much prodding to search out new mysteries or to ask questions about anything and everything. And as Carol grew older, she began to pay closer attention to our backyard lessons. I didn't know the birds too well, but we had a Peterson's Field Guide that was almost as much fun to study as the birds themselves. All of us learned about field markings and bird calls that thrilled us as we reviewed them together.

We almost lost one of our most fascinating attractions--the rabbits--when I cleared a portion of our yard to make room for a wildflower garden. After I'd cut the brush and mowed it to provide light for the transplants, the rabbits disappeared. If you have ever seen the excitement of a youngster as he watches a cottontail do flips in the yard, you realize what a loss that would be. …

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