Friday, March 5, 2010
Newspaper Column for February 2010
Beyond Your Front Door
Is there a memory from your school days that stands out in your mind? A pleasant memory whose recollection brings a smile?
My answer is “yes“. It was a class field trip to a country estate called Wollaton Hall in Nottinghamshire, England. Situated on 500 acres, Wollaton Hall is an impressive old country house that houses a natural history museum.
Our assignment for the trip was to open our eyes - really open them - and record some of nature‘s masterpieces. It was also our mission to collect anything that had fallen - seeds, leaves, cones, twigs and the like - for placement in a nature scrapbook. Along with the leaves and seeds from each tree we were to include bark rubbings. I well remember the bark rubbings. Before the field trip I’d never paid much attention to the bark of a tree, so I was surprised and delighted to see the varied patterns you could get when you leaned a piece of paper against a tree trunk and rubbed across it with a wax crayon. I remember happily moving from tree to tree, basking in the freedom of being outdoors in the warm sunshine and then, feeling like I came upon a celebration when the winged seeds of a Sycamore tree showered down around me like confetti drifting on the breeze. At that moment I felt a connection with nature, an awareness of how special and inspiring the natural world can be.
Perhaps in part because of that special day, trees still hold a lot of appeal for me. When traveling I’m usually on the lookout for trees with unusual character, special beauty, or trees that hint at a story. In our area you occasionally see a circle of old oaks standing sentinel over an empty space, the home once guarded by those faithful trees now long gone. Before air conditioning came along such stately trees were highly esteemed for the cool shade they provided during long hot summers.
Nowadays, tucked away in our comfortable heated/air conditioned homes, we’re more removed from the outdoors than folks were a few generations back. Nature doesn’t hold as much sway over people’s lives as it used to. And in a lot of ways, that’s an improvement. When the mercury is in the upper 90’s, I’ll be the first to admit that I’d much rather have a home with an efficient air conditioner than one shaded by large oaks. But I can‘t help but question… do we get so used to relegating nature to the back burner that we miss out on many ordinary wonders? What a shame it would be to miss the adventure of learning new things, the fun of outdoor exploration, the good feeling of turning our attention away from the everydayness of our lives to a fresh awareness of a whole other world waiting for us just beyond our front door.
But back to the field trip. Our school also nurtured learning and exploration by having a nature table in the classroom where "treasures“ were displayed. What was on the nature table? Most anything that’s nature-made and will hold still! Leaves, nuts, seeds, twigs, stones and rocks, dried flowers, seashells, dead insects (I can hear you thinking “Ewww” but you know how fascinated kids are by that kind of thing), exoskeletons, berries (none that are poisonous of course) and a few well chosen books to encourage kids to read and learn about the world around them.
Over the years, most classroom nature tables gradually disappeared in favor of more high tech methods of learning; but now teachers and parents, realizing the unique benefits of acquainting children with nature, are campaigning to “Bring Back the Nature Table”. What a great idea!
Besides giving children hands-on experience collecting nature items, it’s also a wonderful way for kids to let their imagination fly and develop creativity. Who knows how many budding artists may be inspired by drawing and painting the treasures found on a walk? Not to mention the benefits of the exercise you get while out exploring!
I realize this isn’t the season of the year when you think about long nature walks outside. But winter, too, has its own beauty. You don’t have to go far - or stay out long. There are items of interest practically under your feet.
As I finish this article, it’s Friday night, February 12th, and it’s snowing. According to the weather forecasters we may end up with several inches of snow. And though it’s going to be cold in the morning, I’ll be outside, bundled up and trekking around with my camera recording the beautiful sights. Guess in some ways I’m still the same kid who was fascinated all those years ago by the spinning seeds from a Sycamore tree. I’m glad. Glad the wonder of nature has never dimmed, glad its beauty and variety continue to fascinate and inspire. So much to see, hear and experience… and all just beyond my front door.