“Mama! My bug friend!” My three-year-old son points gleefully at the insect slowly crawling across the window screen. It is, in fact, a leptoglossus occidentalis (Western conifer seed bug). We started noticing them on the windows and vinyl siding last summer and his curiosity prompted me to look it up (nope, not poisonous). We’ve started doing this whenever we see something in nature that we can’t identify, not just to satisfy my over-protective streak, but because I firmly believe that naming things is important. If we can identify what something is, it gives it more value—we are more likely to notice it and appreciate it in the future. This is a gift my mother passed on to me, and I am trying my best to pass it on to my son.
I have vivid memories of the walks Mom and I took when I was little. She named practically every flower we saw: rhododendrons, Lily of the Valley, chrysanthemums, marigolds, etc. I would roll these exotic pronunciations around on my tongue as we walked.
Mom also has a keen eye for birds and keeps a running commentary about the activity at her backyard feeders. Hummingbirds were and still are her favourite—especially the little rufous hummingbirds that arrive in B.C. each spring—but I also learned early on about chickadees, nuthatches, towees, juncos, and different types of woodpeckers. Back then there was no Internet, so my mom’s knowledge formed the basis of mine.
Did I always love this? Well, there were definitely some teenage eye-rolls, as I’m sure my son will give me one day: “Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever, Mom.” But Mom continued to speak of nature with the same love and detail, regardless of my reaction. Like it or not, she drew my attention to the smell of lilacs on the spring breeze, the call of red-winged blackbirds, and those ubiquitous little ants feasting on the nectar of peony buds. Once she pointed these things out, I noticed them more.
As an adult, being in nature and appreciating the beauty and diversity all around me is an ever-ready panacea—nature is where I go to heal, to reconnect with the world and with myself. At first glance nature can seem chaotic, a wildness of not-knowing. But then I will see something I can identify and it’s like little spotlights of knowledge start to light up. As my familiarity increases, so to does my comfort and sense of peace.
Mom also taught me to attune to nature’s rhythms. She speaks often of the seasons, the cycles of the moon, and the weather (I don’t know where she gets her forecasts from, but she’s always bang on!). Because she spoke about this while I was growing up, I’ve internalized it, just like the names of flora and fauna.
I amaze myself everyday with knowledge that has lain dormant in the deepest recesses of my brain. Once tucked away as being “uncool” while I focused on friends and other kinds of entertainment, this information now tumbles forth—when we walk around the neighbourhood, play in the yard, hike through the woods, or explore the beach. I hear myself naming flowers or birds and it is like my mother’s voice is speaking through me.
We live in disconnected times. Yes, we are digitally “connected,” often 24/7, but we are more physically separated from each other and our planet than at any other time in history. I hear so many parents complain about how much time their kids spend indoors, especially when it’s beautiful weather.
“Nature” has become an abstract concept for a lot of city dwellers, and when we think of something in this way, as apart from ourselves, it becomes a lot harder to remember to care for it.
I realize how fortunate I am to have parents who encouraged and fostered a love of nature in me, passing on their knowledge about plants and animals as we spent time together outdoors. I understand not everyone had the same experience. But you can give it to your kids. This column is called, “Is There and App for This?” In this case — for identifying natural phenomena—yes, yes, there is. There are lots of them. Some of them are even free!
There is an outdoor preschool in our area that my son will attend in the fall, a place where nature is celebrated in all of its manifestations. A lot of schools are starting to incorporate more outdoors-type programs, too. This is wonderful, but I think that, as with most mindsets and habits, the love of and curiosity about nature starts at home. It starts as simply noticing, wondering, and identifying.
My mother has given me many gifts, for which I am so very grateful, and her love of nature is one of the most important—a legacy I am now passing down to my son.
Kelly McQuillan is a writer, musician, teacher, and fledgling mother living in Comox, BC. kellymcquillanwriter.weebly.com.