I recently finished up a summer of being a counselor at nature camp. Every week I had a new group of campers (usually five and six year-olds). Although it was exhausting and took everything out of me, I also had a blast and learned a lot.
Reflecting on the experience, I feel completely astounded and in awe to think about just HOW MANY individual creatures we encountered over the course of the summer. From the daddy long-legs the kids watched while waiting under our tent during pickup time, to the goldfinches that flew in circles, showing off over the meadow; to the froglets we caught in the pond, and the grasshoppers that camouflaged with the rocks, the wild raspberries we ate from the side of the trail, the trees and butterflies and slugs, and on and on….
It also occurs to me that many of these creatures, especially the insects, may have lived out their entire lives during this time.
Spending 7 hours a day outside all summer in the same forest allowed me to become much more closely connected to the place than if I had just gone for a hike there (even on multiple occasions). Since it wasn't just a snapshot, we could see how things changed over time. We saw caterpillars change into cocoons and then moths. The wildflower species passed the baton in their relay race. For most of the summer, kids gleefully ate sour green apples from the apple tree, but by the last week of camp the apples were turning red. And I remember how shocked one of my campers was when I explained that these apples used to be flowers.
I especially came to love our pickup/dropoff tent in the field next to the parking lot. It became like a “sit spot” for me, where I could observe how things changed day to day. I became familiar with the daily patterns of some of the animals who lived there, such as the Indigo Bunting who was often singing on top of the telephone pole. I taught the kids to mimic the song with the common mnemonic "Fire fire where where here here!"After that, they started to yell this when they heard it, without me even prompting them. That was adorable, but I started to think maybe whoever came up with this memory device hadn't worked with children, who would yell "FIRE, FIRE!"...
There was an interesting juxtaposition I noticed, though. Nature camp takes place in a protected forest. But right across the street, where we parked our cars, there's a huge gravel quarry pit. Whatever habitat used to be there has been completely obliterated.
I can't help but wonder.... why is this forest protected and beloved, but not others? What chance had prevented the fates of these two places from being reversed?
I don't know the full history, and I suspect the woods wouldn't have been a great place to dig a quarry anyway: with its flowing creeks, and the steep valley trail we hiked up and down each day.
But I do know part of the reason -- this forest is protected because it has people who care about it, who make sure its story gets told.
And now, the kids who visit learn to love the specific sites within the forest. Maybe the connections they make with these places will change the way they think about nature around them as they grow up. When places have names, they become someplace really special. Destroying "Peanut Hill" or "Harrison's Hideaway" would be unthinkable.
The kids didn't need to know all the names or facts about the many species we encountered. It was the first-hand interaction that was important, that created the connection. I loved witnessing the excitement of the kids whenever they found something cool, their voices rising: "Miss Rebecca, come here, we found a frog!!!" (Or slug, worm, mushroom, etc...) I loved getting to be their sounding board; to share in their enthusiasm, listen to their story, and be a role model affirming that these creatures are worthy of our love and attention.
The pure joy and enthusiasm the kids displayed gives me hope. We all have that same potential for connection inside of us.
It starts with being fully present in a place, giving our attention to the "little" things we've learned to overlook, and sharing our stories with each other.
P.S. If you're reading this in real time, I'm currently holding a giveaway in celebration of my upcoming new class, "Nature Journaling for Ecological Re-STORY-ation." I'm giving away a copy of the John Muir Laws Sketchbook for Nature Journaling, which is what I used for the nature journal pages shown in this blog post.