Nature Notes
Fiona Reid, education director at the Highlands Center for Natural History, is a passionate defender of nature and outdoor time with children.

Monday, 01 February 2010 00:00    E-mail
One hour to instill love of nature in Bear Cubs

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Seven young Bear Cubs, one younger 2-year-old sibling, myself and four or five parents wandering behind us along the forest trail sets the scene for an after-school special program for this little group.

The fact that they are dressed in their smart little scout uniforms and some of their parents are present doesn’t alter the fact that these are little boys moving after a day of sitting in a classroom.

That means I’m in for the usual energetic explosion that happens when all these things collide, and they collide in the forest!

It’s kind of like plate tectonics, I imagine to myself—the plates move ever so slowly toward one another over a long period of time (the kids in the classroom from 8 a.m. through 3 p.m.) and finally, when the plates meet one another, and pressure builds up, something’s gotta give, something’s gotta escape to relieve the pressure.

The kids finally getting outside into the open, into the fresh air, and doing what comes naturally to them—shrieks of joy, laughter, rambunctious behavior, running and play.

Don’t you remember those times?  Can you still play, or have you forgotten how? I admit, it wasn’t too many years ago that I moaned to my roommate at the time that I really had forgotten how to play. I’d become far too serious.

She dragged me out and across the road to little Flynn Park and we spent a couple of wonderful hours playing on the swings and slides and, basically, fooling around. Two adult women shrieking with joy, laughter, running and play. It was as though I had emerged out of some confining cocoon and at last saw the light of day.

I haven’t looked back since, which probably explains why I love my job spending time outdoors with kids.  On the day of which I am talking, I had barely an hour with the kids to meet some Bear Cub badge requirement; something about conservation.

That meant I had barely an hour to squirrel my own love for nature into the minds of these little guys.

If I could crack open the doors to their young and alert minds with some of the stories to be found in nature, then I would have found the key to their hearts.

Once the heart is hooked, then the idea of conservation makes sense. So, off we went, down the trail.

Touching, squeezing, smelling, looking through loupes—all this becomes part of our walk. Rubbing the juniper twigs between our fingers turns out to be a prickly experience, but also results in that oh so fabulous fragrance from the oils in the scaly leaves.

Everyone sniffs deeply and then I rub some behind my ears and suggest it would make a really cool cologne for them to wear to attract the girls. Is she for real, is the look on their faces. I smile. They smile.

On we go. But now every other green leaf is squeezed in order to discover more fun colognes. I search for the perfect juniper berry, then chew on it.

“Can you eat it?” comes the chorus.  Well, you can if you want, but the trick is to find the sweetest one, and that’s the one coyote likes to eat, too.

We chew, we discover hard seeds in the berry, and later on we discover the same hard seeds in coyote scat.

Wow! Then we add Manzanita berries, lemonade berries and acorns to our nature trail mix, tasting and spitting out as we go.

Then, the prize—we wander past a ponderosa pine underneath of which, on the brown forest floor, are lots and lots of tips of bright fresh green pine needle twigs.

NOW we have a story! I look way up into the tree; their eyes follow mine. I look down on the ground and their eyes follow mine.

I start walking gently through the debris of green, wondering out loud to myself if I will be lucky enough to find …Ah Ha!

By now I have them all, including the 2-year-old, caught up in the magic of the forest as they clamor to know what I’m looking for.

Caught—hook, line and sinker!

Now their mission is to find, somewhere close to the fallen green pine needles, some little, skinny white sticks about “so big.”

I tell them that whenever I see green like this under a ponderosa tree I always, without fail, find the little sticks.  Here come the shrieks of delight and success. Little hands offer up their stick loot.

I find a nearby young pondy pine, break a little twig off, and we all settle down on the forest carpet to unravel this great mystery.

Who lives high in the tree tops here?  If you lived in the pine trees, what kind of food would you like to eat? Do you see any yummy fresh pine cones around at this time of year? So what else might you eat then?

It’s winter, and you might think the pickin’s were slim, but you might be wrong! Hidden under the outer bark of this little twig I hold in my hands is squirrel candy.

Abert, the squirrel, sits way up there and breaks off the end of the pine twig, keeping a little bit for himself.

Holding onto the tree with his sharp back claws, and balancing with his thick, bushy tail, he nibbles off the outer bark (if you happen to be sitting below a pine tree when he is busy doing this its like raining bark—we laugh) and finds the sweet inner bark that he is looking for.

I chew on my twig. Everyone leaps up to find their own twig. Parents wonder what we are doing.

Everyone chews and spits, chews and spits. Everyone finds the pink inner bark, and everyone agrees it’s pretty yummy. We clean our twigs and drop them where Abert dropped his. Heart connection.

My job is done.