Idealizing a distant wilderness too often means not idealizing the environment in which we live, the landscape that for better or for worse we call our home. —William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness”
I came downstairs this morning to find the kids already up and getting ready to settle in for a round of cartoon watching, but I managed to lure them away from the screen and out into the yard by offering to let them use my good camera on a bug hunt, taking an idea I first saw on Rick Van Noy’s Dirt World blog. “Find me a Praying Mantis,” I said, and they were off (after a brief care-and-feeding-of-camera lesson). I had never let them use my Olympus unsupervised before, and that opportunity proved more seductive than Phineas and Ferb. (Truth be told, they weren’t entirely unsupervised this morning, either; I just let them feel that way.)
In the end, they didn’t find a Praying Mantis (neither did Van Noy’s daughter), but they came back with eighty-nine snapshots after thirty minutes or so, a few of which turned out to be keepers. Over the years, I’ve put in a lot of plants to attract butterflies, and this made the hunting easy on a warm summer’s morning.
Gulf Fritillary—worth clicking on to get the full-sized view
But the fun didn’t end there. When we came inside and loaded the pictures on the computer, it was time to turn to my butterfly field guide and figure out just what they had come up with. We won’t stake our reputation on all of our identifications, but we’re pretty sure we’ve come close—the boys can at least tell a Sulphur from a Fritillary from a Skipper. And viewing the good shots at full size was a revelation: “Whoa, look at its eyes!” shouted Andrew when we magnified a Gulf Fritillary, the camera recording detail that we certainly would have missed otherwise.
Gulf Fritillary—also particularly impressive at full size
Hummingbird Moth (looks enough like a bumblebee to give Andrew a fright when it buzzed him)
Bumblebee “hugging” the business end of a flower
After our summer of wandering the continent, I was glad to see them so engaged with the natural world right at our doorstep. I’ll be curious to see how this activity lingers with them—when they finally do find a Praying Mantis, I bet they come running for my camera.
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The trip is over, the gear is packed away, Will and I head back to school in short order. Is this the end of the road for Postcards from the Outback? I don’t think so. After returning home, I got to reading A Natural Sense of Wonder, by Rick Van Noy, another father’s account of trying to get his kids outside, and I realize I have (or will have as the boys get bigger) some of the same sorts of stories to tell. (I’ve also come across and am inspired by Van Noy’s blog.) Our narratives shape our culture, and so if we are going to reverse in any way our kids’ wholesale retreat into artificial (and virtual) environments, then I think it’s important that these stories get shared. I don’t presume to do it particularly well or have any radical new ground to cover; I’m just adding my voice to the chorus.
Moreover, I have some questions to ask of my profession. In my darker moments, I wonder why I teach my students the distinction between a tercet and a quatrain when they know nothing about tanagers and cardinals. Which kind of learning is more likely to help develop them into the kind of adults that will make our planet a more livable place? And the narratives that might help us at this point in our history, why are they not a part of the canon we typically share in school? In the early years of this new and uncertain century, what does it mean to be educated any more? Should young people be more familiar with Chaucer and Harper Lee than Rachel Carson or Aldo Leopold?
For myself, I often think about the fact that I live a collection of half-lives–husband and father, teacher and coach, wannabe mountain man–rather than one whole. Some wise-ass (like my good friend Chris) will inevitably point out that my math doesn’t work here, but go with the metaphor. The times when I can get these worlds to overlap, these are by far my happier and healthier moments. Can this virtual world help refocus my real-world vision? (Or maybe spending more time at the computer is moving in exactly the wrong direction.)
Anyway, that’s the idea. Who knows. Follow-through isn’t always my specialty. When I look back through the naturalist journals I started keeping in 1999, I come across a number of embarrassing pledges to myself to journal more often followed by gaps up to a year in length before the next entry. Then again, I have filled two of these journals . . . if my progress has to be measured in geologic time, then I’m comfortable with that.
By the way, after dropping Will off at a day camp he’s attending this week, I carried (literally) Andrew down to the Chattahoochee this morning, plopped his butt on a sand bar for a while, and spent a nice thirty minutes with him before the day heated up too much. At one point I pointed out a resting butterfly, and he said “I wish we had your butterfly book so we could look up what kind it is.” Our summer adventure has left its mark.
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