While I was working around the cabin preparing for the upcoming duck season, Sydnie, 7, and her grandmother were searching for frogs and toads. They found that and more.
I knew Sydnie had discovered a critter of special intrigue when I heard the simultaneous squeal (Sydnie) and scream (grandmother). Seconds later, Sydnie was holding a garter snake. Her grandmother was behind a tree.
Critters of all types fascinate Sydnie. Hopefully, it's a fascination that endures.
Babies are born with a sense of wonder, a need to explore with all their senses the world around them. As the baby ages, something as ordinary as a caterpillar on a leaf can awaken those senses. Mud, bugs, flowers, stones, animals small or large, slippery or furry - all part of a magical mystery tour in a child's world.
A Canada Darner, one of 316 documented species of dragonflies in the United States.
I don't know what Sydnie was thinking as she intently studied the snake slithering around her fingers. Nor do I know what flights of imagination she enjoys while digging in sand or mud in search of shells, crayfish and minnows. It doesn't matter.
What does matter is that she is playing. Outdoors. Play is healthy, providing for creative and emotional growth. At the same time, she is having fun while learning about the fascinating world around her. And she loves it.
"Children are born naturalists," someone once observed. Unfortunately, the naturalist instinct in many children fades away before it flowers. The lucky ones continue to be fascinated by nature's mysteries throughout their lives, thanks largely to caring adults who helped nourish the child's natural inclination.
A person I know must have had such adults in his life. Steadfast in his desire to live in the world, not merely on it, he and his wife recently spent hours capturing and photographing dragonflies as part of a study. For many of us, probably, a dragonfly is a dragonfly is a dragonfly. Not so.
In the United States alone, there are 316 documented species of dragonflies. Like snowflakes, each is uniquely colored and shaped. Sydnie and other kids would have been spellbound by the 15 different species this couple found. As adults, many of us would simply yawn. Somewhere along the way, our sense of wonder died.
Returning from the cabin that night, a harvest moon was slowly rising in the eastern sky. I've gazed often at full moons over the years while heading back to the cabin after an evening duck hunt. Invariably, an acute sense of wonder overtakes me.
In the back seat, Sydnie sat quietly, toads, frogs and snake in a jar on her lap, Charlie the lab curled up next to her. I pointed the moon out to Sydnie and she responded with a simple "uh huh." She's too young, I suppose, to look at a moon with ponderous thoughts of past and future. Her life is still very much in the here and now.
Someday the past and future will merge with the present in Sydnie's world. She'll reflect on prior choices and experiences to help make plans for the future. Hopefully, she will remember her early fascination with snakes and snails, baby rabbits, pheasant feathers and caterpillars.
More hopefully, those youthful fascinations will ripen into a lasting appreciation for wild places and wild things. One day, perhaps, she, too, will gaze in wonder at the moon and ponder the amazing world we have been given.
Teaching children about nature is one of the most important things we can do for them. And us. For more information about how you can introduce a young person to nature's mysteries, visit the DNR web site at www.dnr.state.mn.us and click on the Nature link at the top of the page.
TOM CONROY is a DNR information officer in New Ulm. He may be reached at email@example.com.
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