By Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter
Human beings, possibly above all else, excel at being absorbed in themselves and the minutiae of their lives. It’s a habit I’ve worked hard to ensure doesn’t become instilled in my daughter, and not just because I’ve always preferred national parks over theme parks, but so that she understands there is another world beyond the din of our society’s increasingly urban lifestyles.
As part of creating an awareness and appreciation of this world, starting with the wild places near home, we started taking daily nature walks before she could walk. Now, nearly 3 years old, she wouldn’t let me miss one of our field forays even if I wanted to. We go regardless of weather, because there is always something to be seen and learned, even in inclement conditions.
We follow trails left by moose, collect treasures like tiny spruce cones or unusually shaped stones or pick berries and mushrooms when they’re in season (only after I’ve identified them as safe.) All these capture my daughter’s attention, but of all her favorite outdoor activities, few compete with the curiosity she holds for the birds that visit our feeders.
All of it seems to enchant her — from the careful selection of on which branch a chickadee will wait while awaiting its turn to claim a sunflower seed, to the nuances of where a nuthatch chooses to cache its cherished meal and, especially, any new avian arrivals.
A small flock of grosbeaks flew in. Hardly a life-list species for most birders, but its year-round commonness in the boreal forests of Alaska didn’t make the sighting any less spectacular to my daughter.
They’re a beautiful and charismatic bird, quite large and plump for a member of the finch family, and with a stubby bill. The males have a chokecherry-red back, breast and head, even in winter, which is what caught our eyes in a seasonal world of white and various hues of blue. The females are more grayish with a bit of olive coloring to their heads and rumps.
Grosbeaks are tame by wild bird standards, not easily perturbed by human movement, but I still steadied my daughter by placing my hands on her shoulders, since the birds landed mere yards from where we were standing.
We froze, still as statues and silent enough to hear the natural wind chime of the last few dried leaves still clinging to branches above blowing in the gentle breeze. The grosbeaks flitted on the ground around us, sorting still-good seeds from empty hulls under the feeders. Through my palms I felt my daughter’s pulse increase as her wonder-filled heart picked up pace from the exciting spectacle.
Time pooled in the present as we stared, completely in the spell of these birds, until — as toddlers are wont to do — my daughter finally broke the silence to ask a question. At the sound, the birds flushed before the first word completely left her tiny lips. It was an ephemeral experience to witness that she clearly thought about for weeks afterward, as evident by the litany of questions that followed, which I used as teachable moments.
When she wondered aloud where the grosbeaks were in the following days, I asked her questions, not just about the birds themselves, but the world they live in. Why had they been there at that time of day? Where did she think they were before we saw them, and where did they fly next? What were they eating when not at our feeder? Did they have friends and families? Did they have enemies, such as predators?
To be sure, even I didn’t know the answers to some of the questions I posed, but that wasn’t the point. The goal was to stimulate her brain, to get her to think about what she will one day learn to call an ecosystem.
We could have stayed indoors by the warmth of the woodstove, reading books to learn about the world rather than from it. Likely the same folks who don’t get any more specific than lumping everything with wings into “birds,” and everything with bark and trunks into “woods.” But for me, as someone who enjoys identifying a grosbeak as well as noticing it in an isolated stand of cottonwoods mixed into a sea of spruce, it’s my belief that knowing these details adds to the texture and delight of the encounter. And I hope to pass this acknowledgement and appreciation of the nuances of nature on to my daughter.
In the future, she and the rest of her generation will face many complex issues, from climate change to protecting endangered species, shifting food-production methods to feed the ever-growing global population, and myriad more. But the first step to raising adults who believe in stewardship enough to attempt to solve these nature-related problems must first come from encouraging children to be in nature. To think globally, they must first learn to care locally.
Like Henry David Thoreau once said, “The more slowly trees grow at first, the sounder they are at the core.” I hope my daughter will remember, as an adult, down to her core, the sights of the birds and other creatures she sees daily, remember the sounds of their whistles and warbles, and remember to care about them and protect their wild habitats. Perhaps, one day, she’ll then share her interests and concerns for the natural world with her own children.
Joseph Robertia is a freelance writer living in Kasilof with his wife, Colleen, and daughter, Lynx. He and Colleen operate Rouges Gallery Kennel.