There is, literally, a plague upon my household.
It erupted out of nowhere. My daughters and I left a quiet, normal house this morning for an extended trip to the library (we’re story-time savants around here). We pulled back into the driveway a little after noon, swung open the back door, and walked into a house swarming, buzzing, full of flies.
They crouched, licking their feet, on every kitchen counter. They zoomed through the hall like it was a bug superhighway. They slammed against the window screens, inched along the ceiling, zipped past my ears. All afternoon, I chased them around the house in vain, opening windows and doors, shooing, smacking at them with rolled-up political ads.
My three-year-old watched me silently with round eyes, ripe for impression. When she asked me what I was doing, I danced around the word “kill.” I told her I was “getting rid of” the flies because I don’t like them. This, of course, was a mistake: I just endorsed violence as a reasonable means of dealing with something she doesn’t like. One day I’ll catch her smacking her baby sister with a shoe in a moment of irritation, and I’ll no longer be able to claim “she didn’t learn that from me.”
I’m all for the appreciation of our many-legged friends outside of my home—why, just this morning I spent a few minutes of half-fascination, half-disgust with a centipede I found in a pile of dead leaves. But once these creatures cross the threshold into my house, I like to say that Colorado’s “make my day” law will be used without hesitation. Many-legged intruders will be squashed on sight.
Now, I’m a nature-lover—I guess. It’s in my blood. My dad had me on backcountry trails before I could walk. Through most of my childhood, my family backpacked, cross-country skied, and camped in places remote enough that you needed to carry in your own toilet paper—and a small shovel. When I was in elementary school, my family trekked the hard way through Yosemite National Park, carrying all requisite gear on our backs. My siblings and I griped and groaned when the trail turned uphill, but today I’m grateful for the memories. We picked through frigid creeks barefoot beneath the shadow of Half Dome; we scrambled to summit boulders in the early mornings, testing footholds.
I’m not quite as hard-core as my parents were (I enjoy car camping, for instance, and appreciate a well-kept porta-potty), but sure, you could probably label me “outdoorsy…ish.” Like my parents, I’m trying to instill a love of nature in my children. I’ve read Last Child in the Woods, which sits on my bookshelf next to Walden. I’ve taken up the battle cry for emphasizing free, unstructured play out under the sky.
I could wax poetic for quite some time about the benefits of allowing (or, sometimes, forcing) my children to interact with the natural world: It improves attention span and increases empathy; it builds problem-solving skills and encourages imagination; it enhances motor skills and builds a foundation for literacy and science—and that’s just off the top of my head.
Basically, I subscribe to the belief that the human brain is designed to grow by learning in an outdoor environment with Mother Nature as the ultimate professor. Isn’t that how the human race developed for thousands of years? I think children do best by observing the real world in which we live, by testing hypotheses, by taking risks, by making back-up plans. So we live by the rule that, unless it’s truly atrocious weather, we are outside every day.
My ten-month-old usually doesn’t make it through the day without consuming a little something she found in our back yard, and almost every night I need to wash mud or sand from her hair. She could spend hours digging through leaf piles and already shows a penchant for free climbing. My three-year-old sports deep tan lines all summer. She can’t operate an iPad, but she can describe migration, hibernation, and adaptation, and give you examples of each from our local ecosystem. She tries to catch squirrels with long sticks (having about as much success as you’d expect), clambers down a steep embankment of rocks to the pond, climbing back up with the pronouncement, “I’m so proud of myself!”
This is where my children learn best, where they gain confidence, and where they become the people I want them to be: curious, brave, and confident. I’m horrified by the cultural shift that’s been moving kids inside, harnessing them early to a screen of some sort. I consider the 15-minute recess allotments of my local school district a tragedy. What I want for my kids is a world where they’re submersed in all five senses, where they get to test their footholds.
There’s just one enormous caveat: In spite of my upbringing and my strongly-held beliefs about child development, deep down, I’m afraid I’m a bit of a fraud.
Maybe I’m not in love with nature; maybe I’m just in love with my idea of nature: the sunsets, the mountain views, the fields of wildflowers, the pride of the summit, the wonder of my children. Just this week, we spotted a doe picking her way across the trail not 20 yards ahead of us, and the moment was absolute magic, a memory I’ll cherish forever. But inwardly, I still groan when the trail turns uphill. Being outdoors is just uncomfortable, fraught with tiny annoyances: bugs, sunburn, a pebble in your boot, whiny kids dragging behind on the trail. Secretly I sigh with relief when the camping trip is over. Then I can get a hot shower, a cozy bed, and a good book.
Maybe we all sigh a little when we come back home. Last week, when I tried to get my preschooler out the door to take advantage of the year’s last warm weather, she said plaintively, “Can we just stay inside and relax?” Part of me wanted to, but I insisted we at least walk around the block first.
Acting out of the intellectual belief that children (and adults) belong outdoors, I plant gardens and praise worms, embark on bird-watching safaris, observe bugs with the ardency of the devout. Yet I’m such a wimp, I won’t pick up the worm barehanded. I snatch the feathers my kids pluck from the grass, fretting about parasites, promising to give them back after I’ve bleached them. I have run screaming from our garden at the sight of a garter snake.
I prefer for my nature experiences to be contained and conveniently packaged, to be consumed at will, like granola bars. I want to play in the mud without getting my hands dirty. I want all the benefits for my family without the discomfort of knowing nature let off her leash.
Let me come to you, oh Mother Nature. I’d like to call your shots.
Mother Nature steadfastly refuses to play by these rules. She won’t let me pick and choose, won’t cater to my tastes, won’t give up the magic without the barbs and the bugs. Laughing at my barriers, she won’t be contained. Instead, she comes crashing in.
Or, in this instance, swarming in. So, for this afternoon at least, I plop my preschooler on the couch with a movie, simultaneously grimacing and thanking the good Lord I can stream “Dora the Explorer” online. I just hope Dora can drown out the racket coming from the kitchen.