When I think about my relationship with nature, it's hard not to think about my father. He's been an avid birdwatcher for the past sixty years, and his naturalist tendencies were 100% responsible for me winning the Golden Guide to Cacti at science camp in the 3rd grade (they tossed up a softball mystery item for us to identify: coral mushrooms, which my dad liked to gather and then saute in butter for us after a nice woods walk).
Lest you think I grew up in some grand expanse of wilderness, let me disabuse you of that notion: 100% suburban upbringing. But my dad, because he liked to be outside with his binoculars, and because he loved our dogs so much, made sure our house was within walking distance of the woods. Not just green space, but woods. Interesting, because, although it's a lucky break that we have decent schools (yay, kids!) we (my husband and I) really moved to our place so that our dog, may he rest in peace, could romp through Rock Creek Park.
So I'm going to go out on a limb and say that a healthy relationship with nature, for me, has been interwoven with a number of things:
- learning to love being outside by getting to play for hours in my backyard and the woods
- being outside with knowledgeable people who could identify plants, animals, insects, constellations...
- learning to garden and to love eating food I'd grown (and mushrooms + Jerusalem artichokes foraged from the woods!)
- loving dogs and recognizing their need for open space
- learning to exercise and play sports outside
- going camping, especially at national parks, as a child
- going backcounty camping as an adult.
I'd like to say here to boot that somehow prior generations seem to have romanticized nature less than we do nowadays with our fuzzy polar bear cubs. My dad was a big Alpha-Wolf-talkin', nature-is-ferocious kinda guy. And he was pretty interested in taxidermy as a kid, enough so that my sweet grandmother used to save dead birds in her freezer for the neighborhood kids long after that childhood hobby went out of vogue!
As I raise my children in a city, the element I think about the most is having access to (an unromanticized) space in which animals (including my kids) can run free. Not the fact that they're in a walkable, dense, little urban community. I love that! We can skip on down to our own woods to feel a little closer to those trees and birds. What I don't want them to miss out on is the ability to run free (or study cicadas) for hours on end.
A love of nature that will lead to environmentalism? I think that will come simply from my daughter's boundless empathy and her genuine interest in critters (and her little bro's too young to peg). If not from empathy, though, it might come from that expansiveness that comes from a visceral reaction to wilderness -- and wanting to protect that experience. That feeling of freedom, of peace within nature? May have to come when they are adults, perhaps following in my brother's and my footsteps and taking a 3 month backcountry trip with each other! I know if I lived in a more rural area, my kids could have this freedom routinely. When I think about my friends who live in Vermont, it's not the rolling meadows or the pond with a canoe or even the cross country trails out their back door that make me daydream about packing up my house. It's the thought (that others have voiced) that kids should be able to putter and daydream for hours on end all by themselves, without being monitored.
As their childhood experiences shape them, I hope that a sense of independence from needing to be entertained can come for my kids even if my eyes are ever-present. Somehow, I think that, in my psyche, being able to be alone in the woods may be a prerequisite for happiness and self-sufficiency, and certainly for self-directed learning. Gotta get those kids on some camping trips!
P.S. My dad's kept detailed notes of all the wildlife he's seen since he was a kid. When I lived in California, it was fascinating to go to Tilden Park in Berkeley with him 'cause he could compare his wildlife trackings from the early sixties (when he was in grad school there) to what he saw in the beginning of this century. Suffice it to say that when he sees a new bird, it's pretty huge. So the picture at the top? Is what he would call a Life Bird: an Ivory Gull (he emailed the photo tomy daughter). As he says of these sightings: "These are spiritual moments for me." I think that pretty much sums up his legacy.