The other day my family took a walk in the woods. It was mid-autumn, that short, magical time when there is a thick carpet of brilliantly colored leaves all over the ground but also leaves still falling, and if you stand and watch the same spot long enough you’ll see one drop. Falling and fallen all together, so that it feels like the world is drawing you close and whispering something.
Our feet made a light rustle in the quiet as we progressed along the path, the girls running ahead and circling back. When we reached a spot where our trail met up with another, I directed everyone’s attention to what I thought was a truly spectacular fungus on a stump beside the trail. “I think it looks like a flower,” I told them. My six year old informed me that it was actually called turkey tail fungus, and the moment she said the words I realized that was indeed exactly what it looked like--a brown, orange veined fan of feathers like the spread of a tom’s tail growing in full circle, layer upon layer in the center of the stump.
As we continued we encountered more fungus and mushrooms than I have ever noticed in one place my life, here where leaves are allowed to stay and die and feed the world right where they land—the polar opposite of our yard of turf grass. There were ivory toadstools, knobby gray growths on dead trunks that looked like clams, and then all over the floor of the wood something that resembled peanuts connected by black and white string. I pinched one thread between my fingers and lifted it, and a whole row of them came up from the ground to dangle bizarrely from my hand. One patch a few feet away from the trail looked like a collection of fat, shallow cups. We poked them with a stick and watched a green plume of spores shoot up from them like smoke.
It is difficult for me, and I imagine for many of my generation, to step outside and engage with the natural world in any way without worry. Is this the end? Will we lose it, all of it? The worry was there that day, thrumming along in the back of my mind as we enjoyed the woods and the abundant variety of fungus, there as it is every time. That feeling of impending loss on a catastrophic level, unstoppable.
I grew up in a time of public awareness, of earth day projects and concern about vehicle emissions and tips on recycling and keeping things unplugged to save the planet. But as an adult I know that none of these things will save the planet. Coming of age in these days means knowing that the forces causing all this destruction are greater than I am and don’t answer to me, either. I can reuse as many cloth shopping bags as I want; it’s still happening.
As I watched my children take turns making little green clouds, I was reminded of an essay I read a few years ago in Harper’s that laid out a case for teaching children to love nature as the only path forward to protecting it. The author said that instead of presenting children with a barrage of facts about endangered species or plastic in the oceans and trying to spur them to action, we should show them how to love the natural world. That love is where a real motivation to change things can come from. Mary Oliver said something similar, though less direct, in Upstream:
Show them daisies and the pale hepatica. Teach them the taste of sassafras and wintergreen...Give them the fields and the woods and the possibility of the world salvaged from the lords of profit. Stand them in the stream, head them upstream, rejoice as they learn to love this green space they live in, its sticks and leaves and then the silent, beautiful blossoms. Attention is the beginning of devotion.
I take walks like this with my children because my father did it with me, and it comes to me naturally. He was not able to stay with me but he was able to do this--wander the ranch when I visited, name the wildflowers, walk upstream for hours in creek shoes. So now I know how to do it too, and find it much easier than pretending to be a dragon or a shark or whatever imaginative play happens when we stay inside. I did not set out to save the environment by making them love nature, it was just what I knew.
And in my older daughter, at least, is a love for and interest in nature so fierce and seemingly inherent I would be foolish to take credit for it, even if I had done it intentionally. And it makes me fear for her.
Last summer on a road trip to Colorado she collected dead bugs and butterflies of all kinds at every rest stop. She wanted to bring them all in the car so she could show them to my husband’s father, with whom she shares her naturalist streak. The only way I was able to convince her to leave them behind and not fill the nooks and crannies of our car with bug parts was by taking pictures of them, cupped in her hands, and promising to send the pictures to her grandfather on my phone.
And then I read an article in Nature about German scientists who have discovered that insects across Germany are declining at alarming rates, not simply in agricultural areas but in forests and other natural oases they had previously thought would preserve such populations. I scroll through these pictures I still have of her small hands cradling these bugs and I imagine her heart broken a thousand times over if she continues to love this much.
Her current ambition, grandiose as the ambitions of six year olds always are, is to become the next David Attenborough. But what kind of world will the next David Attenborough have to share with the rest of us, fifty years from now? What kind of life will that be? I can’t imagine she could bear it.
And yet there are so few answers in our hands as the world we know starts to die. And I do believe that this love my daughter has been given is a powerful one. If enough people feel this kind of passion for the natural world, could they win a late, just-in-time fight against those who don’t care at all? I haven’t managed, in my life thus far, to do anything that has made a difference, but then I also don’t love mushrooms enough to know what turkey tail fungus is.
This, I cannot help thinking as she presents me with another ailing beetle, chatters about its elytrons, insists it must come home with us to be rehabilitated. This, this if anything might save us, though it seems to me as fragile as the world I want to hope it can protect.
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