Can knowing our natural world inspire us to steward it?
How taking pictures of neighborhood trees led us to a new connection with nature
Kai came home from school recently and said he had to upload a new app onto his phone. “It’s for science,” he said as his fingers moved like hummingbird wings on the screen. The assignment was to learn the names of at least five different kinds of trees, five animals, five edible plants, and five other plants around our house.
He pointed his phone camera at our dog Stella, and a laugh exploded from his lips. “Look,” he said, showing my younger son Nikko and I the screen, “it says she’s an alpaca.” Clearly the app didn’t know the difference between a GMO mutt of a dog and the high-altitude South American relative of a cow. “Maybe we need to do a little better,” said the educator in me. “Let’s also learn about them.”
I’d recently heard the writer Robert MacFarlane mention in an interview that when people know the names of a plant or animal in our natural world, a different relationship emerges. As with people, we begin to care about who we know.
My teenager rolled his eyes, his life so focused on the fastest road to his destination, while I, in my forties, yearned to take the long way, especially in increasingly rarer moments of wonder with my boys.
As with all negotiations with teens, we compromised. He’d find the species, photograph and name it, and little Nikko, a child still sponging up new information with such joy, would join me in sleuthing the superpowers of a few of Kai’s photos.
Kai snapped away, capturing so much and so little in an instant. Like most of his generation, he always turned away from what was in front of him before the shutter clicked. Nikko pressed my phone into Kai’s face, forcing him to look at what he hadn’t really seen. That monarch was the grandchild of those we’d seen in a Santa Cruz eucalyptus forest the previous winter. That pumpkin spiders had a much cooler name (the marbled orbweaver) and though it looked scary, it was harmless. Those twin tuckeroo trees out front came from Australia and their fruit was considered a delicacy by some Aboriginals.
We wandered up and down our street for an hour, meeting residents we’d never paid attention to—the family of lovebird parrots in the Mexican blue palm tree next door, the too-close to our faces june bugs, the sweet scent of our neighbor’s plumeria tree.
Too soon, the boys said they were hungry. I understood, I too was hungry—it’s just that food these days didn’t suffice. I hungered for us all to have a deep connection to this natural world around us. I hungered for them to want to be outside digging for potato bugs or watching a spider wrap a fly in its web. I hungered for wonder, not more scrolling or liking. I hungered for their losses and the only way I could think for them to know all they’d miss was to know, intimately, the personalities of all the beings we share land with. Like the indigenous communities I met researching fire ecology, I yearned for us to listen as the land instructed us how to steward.
The boys retreated inside. The mosquitoes started to nip at my knees, so I retreated indoors to a world of my creation feeling, again, like somehow I’d failed at giving the boys a true connection with our natural world. Was a pixelated view as impactful?
But then, a few days later, our dog found a hurt bird in the yard. Nikko quarantined Stella, and Kai and I went to inspect the bird. Kai knelt next to the bird, and the bird hopped behind our zucchini plant. “We have to do something,” I said, feeling like maybe this was a test of some sort.
But Kai placed a hand on my arm and whispered, “Not yet. This is one of the birds in the flock that lives in the bougainvillea. I’ve been watching them and every day they fly into the dirt,” he pointed to the little indents in the dirt that I’d thought the boys had made playing soccer. “It’s like they take a bath or something in the dirt and then fly over there,” he pointed at the wisps of grass near the kale, “to eat. When birds are hurt, sometimes they get in shock and don’t move. We should just keep Stella inside and check back on it tomorrow.”
I’m not sure when the shift between parent and child occurs, when their knowledge surpasses ours, when their generational wisdom proves that we have more to learn from them than they will ever learn from us. Surely the years of mothering them taught me my edges, my faults, how to laugh through tears, but I didn’t think, already, they could teach me how to be a caretaker. I followed Kai back inside and forgot about the bird until the next morning, when Nikko came running back inside, hollering, “It’s gone! The bird’s not there. It flew away”
Kai looked up from his phone and smiled at the birds tweeting from the tree.
This week’s action:
Learn about the superpowers of a tree, a plant, and an animal on your block. Easy!
If you can, join Friday’s climate strike in your community.
What I’m reading:
Friends, Richard Flanagan’s In the Living Sea of Waking Dreams floored me. I cannot recommend enough the gracious and all-encompassing ways he addresses grief for the living world as well as the losses we endure living in modern times.
Devi Lockwood’s 1001 Voices on Climate Change tells her incredible bike journey around the world to meet people affected by our climate crisis.
Elizabeth Bechard’s new Parenting in a Changing Climate offers parents love and advice about how to be in this planetary moment.
Got a book to recommend?
In this newsletter, I’m going to start sharing youth stories about existing on a changing planet. If you know any young people who love writing or have great stories to share, drop me at line at firstname.lastname@example.org
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You got this, friends.