Wednesday, July 23, 2014

What's in a Name?

I've been thinking a lot lately about how we come to know places in nature. Really know them. Know them in a way that makes them dear to our hearts. Know them in a way that makes us want to protect and care for them. Does a place become special to us though repeated visits and close observations? From the memory of something important happening in a place? From the way our senses can recall that place? From knowing it well enough to name it? Perhaps all of those things.

When I was a child we spent a lot of time on the north shore of Lake Superior. My parents owned a cabin outside Grand Marais. I fell in love with astronomy on the shores of the big lake, under a vast starry sky, away from the city lights. It was absolutely magical. I looked up and wondered about those stars and planets, marveled at the size, the numbers, the distance, hoped every time to see that blanket of light wavering in the sky - the northern lights. I had so many questions. What is a shooting star and if I wish on it, will it come true? Which ones are stars and which are planets? Which are satellites and how did they get there? The stars that are light years away sent their light hurtling out into space long ago. Are they still there or did they die out before their light reached my eyes? If there are so many stars out there, and our sun is a star, how can there NOT be other life out there somewhere? I felt so small, so insignificant in this grand astronomical picture, but so alive and full of wonder and the desire to know more.

I borrowed or bought and read every book and magazine I could find about astronomy. I got a telescope and set it up in Grand Marais and on the deck back home. I begged my parents to take me to the Kennedy Space Center when we were in Florida visiting my grandparents. I skipped school (with permission) to meet an astronaut at a book signing. I studied constellations. I wrote journal entries and poems and research papers. My love of the night sky began on the rocky shores of that big lake.

There are many, many things that connect me to the North Shore: the pine, spruce, birch, and aspen trees along Highway 61, the goldenrod-colored lichen on boulders, the memory of picking wild blueberries in the woods, spotting deer and moose and the occasional wolf, noisy gulls, a solitary loon on the lake, family stories around a campfire, the sound of our footsteps on a damp trail through the woods, the constant draw to the lake's edges, and that incredible night sky.

What does all of this have to do with urban nature? It has to do with a child spending enough time outdoors to really come to know a place and develop a special bond. It doesn't have to be the North Shore. It could be at the base of a favorite boulevard tree. It could be an alley where a child discovers raspberry bushes or bunnies. It could be a sidewalk crack where ants are constantly coming and going and doing mysterious things. It could be a small garden visited by pollinators. It could be a backyard bird feeder. The key here, I think, is for a child to be able to have repeated visits, unstructured time, be in a place that feels safe and happy, and for the child to take the lead (maybe we can all try to be "hummingbird parents" rather than "helicopter parents").

When I think about why I, as a parent and a preschool nature teacher, care so much about the natural world, I think back to my early experiences in nature. In fact, many environmental stewards can pinpoint early experiences as a key factor in their love and concern for the earth. So if we want to raise children who take care of the natural world, we can start by letting them get to know it.

Last spring at my preschool, another teacher documented some of the children's conversations at one of their favorite places (children's names have been changed):

Hank: This is the children's forest.
Teacher: The children's forest? Brady: Yeah, the children's secret maze forest. Gregory: It's the children's secret hideout maze forest. Over there is the Wild forest. The really wild forest. Hank: That's a really long name.

Naming something is powerful. What's in a name? In this case the children were taking ownership and telling us what is most important to them about this place, what they love about it. I'd like to think their experiences there, playing, exploring, discovering, and just being, helped connect them to nature in ways that are lasting.

Before I go, here's some advocacy from a former child of the North Shore (yours truly) hoping to keep the skies dark for future young astronomers. Photographer Bryan Hansel puts out this plea with a gorgeous image.

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