By Patricia Drackett, Director, The Crosby Arboretum/MSU Extension Service
The Picayune Item
PICAYUNE — When I arrive at work each morning and make my journey to the Visitor Center, new delights are always waiting to welcome me. Today a yellow tiger swallowtail butterfly swooped by as soon as I closed my car door. Birds twittered in the nearby trees, and I spotted ripening berries on the inkberry holly that line our loop drive. But I wonder – without the chance I had to run unfettered as a child through fields and woodlands, would I have even noticed these seemingly minor things today?
Do you enjoy spending time outdoors? Perhaps your idea of fun is to be out in your garden, go birdwatching, take a hike, canoe down a local river, or engage in other outside activities. If so, think back – what was your first “aha” moment as a child, surrounded by nature, the moment that served to forge your first memory of the natural world?
This was the same opening question that was posed to the audience at a recent conference I attended, by the executive director of an “outdoor classroom” program, a venture designed to forge deep and lasting connections between children and nature. Area schools had begun to take notice of the program when the test scores of the students participating began to rise.
You can imagine that since the speaker was addressing a roomful of people who had come great distances to be with others who shared their passion for native plants – basically a room filled with landscape designers, nursery growers, schoolteachers, public garden administrators, and professors hailing from a variety of plant-related university departments. So, when they were asked to describe their first “aha” moment in nature, there was a rush to raise hands to answer the question.
The stories were incredibly colorful, and delivered in enthusiastic fashion. It was easy to see the connection, to note the ease with which we were able to immediately think of these meaningful moments so long ago, and understanding that these moments had served to put us on the path to where we were today. Members of the audience described the ways they explored the wonders of nature, perhaps with their favorite dog, horse, friend or relative in tow.
My “aha” moment took place in the fall of my kindergarten year, when I walked through the woods in our suburban back yard to discover a gravel road that ran behind our property. It paralleled a stream that eventually spilled over a small concrete weir. With bare feet, I carefully walked along the top of the weir, wading in cold crystal clear water up to my ankles, watching golden sugar maple leaves as they floated on the surface of the water, dancing among diamond sparkles of sunlight, and slipping over my toes and across the weir.
When children visit the Arboretum on school field trips, it is a delight to watch them experience what they find along our pathways. I imagine the lasting memories that may be forming that day. Years ago, a student discovered a strand of silk from an orb weaver spider’s web was astonished to see that it was not white, but gold. Did you know that cloth can be spun from this spider silk, yielding fabric with the same beautiful golden hue? Try your favorite Internet search engine to find a photo of this cloth.
Some students bring along nature notebooks, and they will begin making observations and sketches as soon as they arrive. One day I peeked over the shoulder of a child after we had talked about the bog planter we have on our Visitor Center deck, to see that she had written, “We saw a pitcher plant display”. Occasionally we receive bulky packages of thank you letters from the classes after their visit, including facts they have learned on their visit. These are treasures indeed!
Often at the Arboretum, and especially in the summer months, we encounter family groups that include grandparents and other family members who are making the obvious effort to bring their children to a place where they can experience nature. Occasionally we are treated to stories by visitors about their childhood adventures playing outdoors, and the fact that feel quite fortunate to have had the chance to explore the hills and dales when they were young.
Some families have become members of the Arboretum so they can walk the trails regularly as part of their exercise routine. On their journey, they are treated to an ever-changing show of Mississippi wildflowers, breathe fresh air, and do some birdwatching, too!
For further exploration: Write down or talk about memories of your time spent in nature as a child with the children in your family. Ask them about the places they like to visit outside, and why. Then, go there together. Write a short story about this experience. Include photos, leaf rubbings, or draw a picture to add to the story.