In the shade of mingling Paulownias, eight children sprawled like a litter of puppies atop the blue tarp, fair heads and dark dappled by sunlight. Seasoned veterans of the library’s summer “reading program,” they radiated skepticism. Under their scrutiny, all my hours of planning – upwards of twenty – and gathering – five, two of them after twilight the night before, three before dawn this morning – for a one-hour program, including craft, juice and cookies, seemed paltry. Not up to the task of engaging such a jaded lot of post millennial first to third graders.
On the table before them, my overnight harvest jostled across its top like so many drunken sailors; spilling over onto the poplar logs I’d stood upright as three-foot mobile labs. Excreting from the trees’ exfoliating bark, an arboreal feast of Polypore and parchment mushrooms and gelatinous oozes of Crustose and Foliose lichens posed, waiting to entertain the budding naturalists, or so hoped my cynical heart. Decorating every available surface, vignettes of discarded turtle shells, abandoned bird-nests, butterfly carapaces parodied Wonderland, “Touch Me.” And in specially prepared, purpose built, living museums – a flat of old potting soil and a quart jar with a perforated lid – dwelled several earthworms and two teenage tadpoles, all four legs exposed. In addition, plants of various olfactory and tactile properties flaunted their earthy attributes.
Not really a sea of faces, more a puddle, looked up at me, expectant. My charges, then, for one fleeting hour, this small congregation of fledgling souls, held within fragile vessels of flesh and bone – together a sampling of our homogenous world, individually as unique as snowflakes. So I began, “I am a very, very lucky person. Every morning I get to go outside and play. If I really listen, I’ll hear the very first bird of the morning say “hello.” If I close my eyes and breathe I can smell the licorice of the fennel and the sugar from my sweet peas and tea from my rose garden. I can hug a hickory tree and taste raindrops. Every day I get to watch the frogs leap into the pond and feel the water splash on my face.”
My squirming octet stills. “Now let me show you what I found right outside my door.”
I plucked a nest from its log pedestal and held it in the palm of my hand. Upturned faces, expressions rapt, made me feel like Merlin, or Gandalf, or Dumbledore.
“Where’s the eggs? Let’s see the eggs?” Chin jutted, jaw set, one six-year old demanded an answer.
I tell them I never collect a nest until the birds move out, finished for the season. “Even this one”, and I lift my husband’s straw hat off the table. Tucked inside, a nest woven of grasses and fluff and hair from one Great Pyrenees lay emptied of its small family of Wrens.
I pointed to the logs, pregnant with fleshy protrusions, and invited them up to touch the swelling amorphous masses.
“Ewww!” One little boy shuddered. “No way!”
Shoved aside by a dark-eyed pixie, crimson ribbons in her springy curls, he watched with admiration as she squeezed and patted a lump. “Feels nice.” She said.
Now, they’re all on their feet reaching for a nest, stroking a potted lavender plant, digging into damp soil rooting out an earthworm.
One puzzled second-grader contemplated the shell of a box turtle, and I told them that one time I watched just such a turtle dig a hole with her fat, clawed feet, lay her eggs and then cover them up. “And it took longer than a Spongebob Squarepants show.
“This kind of turtle can live to be a hundred years old,” I said. “That’s even older than me.” They looked from me to the shell, suitably impressed.
For long minutes we immersed ourselves in bits and pieces of the natural world, awash in the mystery of it all. Imagine, right outside our own backyards. Astounded at the sights seen through the magic of magnifying glasses – eighty-nine cents courtesy of the dollar store – the children studied an earthworm’s belly corsets, the hieroglyphics of a swallowtail’s wing and stroked the nesting material contributed by a woman’s best friend. One little girl held a lens to the sky and trained it on a fork in the tree where swallows had made a home. “Where is it? Where is it?”
Good citizenship in action, they shared the four spyglasses amongst themselves, with minimal prompting.
As the hour wound down, I presented the piece-de-resistance – the living, breathing tadpole twins, out adventuring in their retrofitted RV, straight from their home shores and shortly to return.
We were almost there, the end in sight. Only one remaining spectacle to behold, only one more song to be sing. In the long, long time ago, a band of intrepid Girl Scouts roasted marshmallows over an open fire and beneath a silvery moon serenaded a sparkle of fireflies. My voice rusty and of insignificant timber, I sang “There’s a hole, there’s a hole, there’s a hole in the bottom of the sea,” and I go on to populate the hole with a log, then a knot on the log, next, a FROG! on the knot, followed by a wart on the frog, and a hair on the wart, and so on down the line of memories. The crowd cheered, a mother applauded, a cohort said “bravo!”
It was over. My hope rekindled. It could have been my daughter there on the big blue tarp, and her mates from a too distant childhood. Same curiosity, same excitement, same wondrous awe. And I thought, let them be children. In time they will take on the mantle of caring for the earth. But first they must be allowed outside to play upon it, only then will they love it, only then will they care