It’s Nature to Nurture

It’s Nature to Nurture

Tea bud and leaves. Tea plantations, Kerala, India

By Diane Lowman

I met a friend for lunch the other day at a restaurant called Green & Tonic. She walked in and we hugged, and then I started to explain Green & Tonic’s offerings.

“They have pre-made salads and sandwiches over there in the case,” I said, pointing, and then turned her manually toward the menu board, continuing “and they make good smoothies…” But I trailed off, my hand still on her shoulder, as I heard my boys, in my head, in unison, protesting:

“Mom. Thanks. We can read the menu.”

I looked her in the eye.

“Sorry. You’re a full grown adult. I’ll bet you can navigate the place on your own.”

The need to feed our children is perhaps our most primal instinct, taking precedence even over feeding ourselves. Especially we of the Jewish persuasion. Animals in the wild, and wild Fairfield County mothers alike will go to great efforts and distances to make sure that their offspring have adequate nutrition. Some of us are pushy about it. Some of us forget what the jungle moms aim for: training their young to hunt for and nurture themselves, so they can quickly step out of the picture. I remember a very wise pediatrician telling me, “Diane, the only thing your young children can control is what goes in and what comes out. Don’t fight with them about either.” But I neither followed the laws of the jungle, nor the sage advice of my kids’ doctor.

Long after they could read, long after they graduated from high chairs to big boy seats, long after they transitioned from the children’s to the adult menu, I remained involved.

“Look, Devon,” I’ll say. “They have a T-bone steak on the menu.” I neither eat nor cook red meat. He does both.

“Thanks, mom. I can read.”

“Dustin, they have gluten free crust!” He does not have Celiac, but refined wheat doesn’t agree with him.

“Thanks, mom, I see that.”

Their reactions range from mildly amused to mildly annoyed, and vary in direct proportion with how many menu items I’ve pointed out. So I bite my tongue now, both when we peruse menus together and when we order. I try very hard not to let my mommy and nutritionist personas rear their Hydra heads in unison, saying things like, “Lamb? I didn’t know you ate lamb?” or “That’s all refined carbs, honey, no protein?”

Yet I wish, too, that they would see that I offer these well-intentioned interventions in the spirit of love, concern, and wanting my children to be sated and healthy.

My teenage and young adult irritation gave way to appreciation when my mother, having seen a news report on an impending storm or subzero temperatures would call from Florida. “You’re not going to drive in the storm, are you?” or “Are you dressing warmly? They say it will feel like 10 below with the wind chill.”

Now that she’s gone, I miss the motherly admonitions.

I try hard to navigate the fine line between nurturing and noodging. I will never stop doing the former, but need to wean myself, as I weaned my children, from the latter. When I do that, their annoyance might tip toward appreciation, too.

Meanwhile, my friend managed, with elegant aplomb and without my guidance to pick out her own lunch. I know my children can do the same.

Diane Lowman is a single mother of two young adult men, living in Norwalk, Connecticut.  In addition to writing about life, she teaches yoga, provides nutritional counseling, and tutors Spanish.  She looks forward to what’s next.





Flash Fiction: Motherhood is Natural

Flash Fiction: Motherhood is Natural


ussr-young-mothers-talking-near-a-fountain-at-a-park-ek3h74By Erika Murdey

Jill sits on a park bench at the fountain to rest her feet—she finds it harder to move in her fifth month of pregnancy. She had needed to get out of the house, to enjoy the sunshine and warmth. Other women sit around the fountain too: a woman in a blue skirt with a baby, a woman with red hair who looks eighteen months pregnant, and a woman in a yellow dress cuddling her own infant.

Beside her, the woman in the blue skirt takes a bite of her sandwich, chews it for a moment, and plucks the soggy lump out of her mouth and stuffs it past her baby’s lips.

“Oh, are you baby-birding?” the woman with red hair asks.

The blue-skirted woman smiles. “Yes, it lets my darling Juniper experience new flavors and textures.”

“How delightful!” the woman in the yellow dress says.

“I love it too. Such a natural experience for the baby. Maple loves to baby-bird, doesn’t she?” the red haired woman says to her stomach. Jill starts when a small white face pops out of the woman’s belly, skin damp, red hair plastered to its skull.

“You’re kangarooing?” asks Blue Skirt.

“Yes, I had a pouch cut into my abdomen right after she was born. It gives her the comfort of being in the womb, and she always feels close to me.”

“I did too!” says Yellow Dress. She then lays her infant on the towel-covered park bench. “So much nicer than pushing my little Boxelder around in a buggy. Those things are always being recalled.” The women shudder together; Jill tries to muster a small shake of her shoulders to fit in. Yellow Dress strips the infant of clothes, then diaper. The full diaper disappears into a plastic bag. Jill watches as the woman proceeds to lick the baby clean.

“Kittening?” Blue Skirt asks. Yellow Dress pauses to wipe a greenish-brown streak from her mouth and nods. “I kitten my baby too, but I wonder if it’s too late to kangaroo her?”

“Hard to say,” Red Hair says. “I wouldn’t imagine so. Though if you had wanted to cichlid your child, then it would be too late.”

“Cichliding? I never heard of that.”

“My friend had it done before her baby was born. She made the doctors unhinge her jaw when she discovered she was pregnant so the skin of her face could stretch. Now she carries little California Redwood in her mouth wherever she goes.”

Yellow Dress stops for a moment and claps her hands together, “Marvelous!” Her baby raises its glistening arms as though to fend off the next approach of the pink tongue.

Jill shifts on the bench. “I was thinking of suggesting Sea Horsing to my husband.”

The three women jerk their heads towards her, eyes wide. “What is Sea Horsing?’

“You know, like how with sea horses the male carries the eggs to term? I bet he’d fall flat to the floor if I mentioned it.”

Red Hair sniffs. Yellow Dress raises her eyebrows. Blue Skirt says slowly, “I never heard of Sea Horsing.”

“It’s not a real thing,” Jill says, “I was joking. But didn’t you wish sometimes, when you were feeling all sick and huge, that your husband was the pregnant one?”

The three women turn away, whispering among themselves. Jill sits for another minute, listening to the crashing water of the fountain, before walking home.


Erika Murdey is a student of the Central Michigan University MA program in English Language and Literature with an emphasis in Creative Writing. No human children, but more fur-babies than any reasonable person could be expected to count.


How to Raise a Wild Child: A Book Review

How to Raise a Wild Child: A Book Review

By Hilary Levey Friedman

WO How to Raise a Wild Child ARTI’d never heard of Scott D. Sampson, but a few weeks ago he changed my parenting after I read his newly released book, How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature. How did this happen? He convinced me that I need to be a nature mentor to my kids.

As it turns out, I actually have heard of Sampson before, because he is “Dr. Scott” on the PBS Kids show “Dinosaur Train.” As he writes in How to Raise a Wild Child, “For preschoolers, the marriage of dinosaurs and trains is like mixing chocolate and peanut butter—almost irresistible.” But this is not a book about a TV show. Not even close. The PBS show is only mentioned in the Preface and for about 10 pages in Chapter 9 when discussing balancing nature and technology. However the tagline Dr. Scott delivers at the end of each episode encapsulates the primary thesis in How to Raise a Wild Child: “Get outside, get into nature, and make your own discoveries!”

I have the “make your own discoveries” part down, but the first two steps to get outside and get into nature are much harder. I could give a lot of different excuses (allergies as a kid, being the child of a single mom who herself isn’t a nature lover, etc.) but the truth is that I just don’t like to get dirty. But as a parent I know kids get dirty. And I know that to understand the natural world, develop independence and safe risk-taking, and appreciate the diversity of our planet and others, outdoor play is important. Moreover, if I ever needed more evidence that outside play burns off energy I only need to recall the multitude of snow days from this past winter’s epic eight feet.

While many have written about the importance of nature in our lives, and especially for children, until How to Raise a Wild Child no one had delved into the nature connection, let alone process changes in this connection as children age from early childhood to adolescence. Given Sampson’s science background (he has a PhD and gave up tenure in order to bring science education to the masses), he is also the first to synthesize academic research on the nature connection across a wide range of disciplines—from psychology to paleontology to education to engineering.

In addition to harvesting a variety of research to make his case that nature connection is vital to the healthy development of individuals, communities, and the world, Sampson devotes the majority of his book to offering practical, no-nonsense, and helpful advice to parents, educators, and anyone else who can serve as a nature mentor to kids. For example, at the end of each of the ten substantive chapters, Sampson summarizes with one “Secret for Raising a Wild Child,” followed by a variety of specific nature mentoring tip, including recommendations for other books to consult. Chapter 2 offers up Secret #2 for Raising a Wild Child as, “Children will tend to value what you value, so start noticing nature yourself, taking a few minutes each day to become more aware of the other-than-human world around you.” And Chapter 3 suggests kids start “sit spotting” nature (a spot to regularly visit several times per week for 30 minutes to record the sounds and sights and smells of nature), offering the book What the Robin Knows as a helpful guide.

In addition to practical tips, Sampson offers practical observation. In How to Be a Wild Child he writes that it is far too simplistic to blame technology for decreased nature connection, also citing parental fear factor of abduction, fear of litigation, overscheduling, and the rise of urban living.

But don’t let his practical insights make you think he’s not offering deep insight. Sampson discusses the three roles a successful nature mentor must take on: teacher, questioner, and trickster. But it’s the last two that really matter. He explains that, “When a child asks a question and you know the answer, it’s natural to want to share it. Providing the answer makes us feel good and we presume that kids really want to know. But this inclination can lead us astray. Often times, our response ends the interaction by cutting off curiosity. Counterintuitively, children are often looking for our engagement more than our answers, hoping that the focus of their attention will become ours too.” He also suggests that when we pose questions to kids about 70% of them should be easy, 25% medium, and 5% hard. Of course this is all helpful advice for most any parenting situation and not just those that have to do with nature….

For such a thoughtful, well-researched, and useful book, my biggest complaint about How to Raise a Wild Child is that the epilogue, an imagined acceptance speech by a young nature lover, was not a worthy end. A much better conclusion to the book begins on page 278, summarizing his findings and advice, while also pointing toward schoolyards and playgrounds as a way to promote thrivability.

This weekend I know we’ll be getting out into nature both days—and I hope to hone my nature mentor skills as we thaw out into glorious spring (and save a Dinosaur Train episode for a snow day next year).

Hilary Levey Friedman is the Book Review Editor at Brain, Child, and the author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture.

Hawk Mountain

Hawk Mountain

WO Hawk Mountain ArtBy Campbell C. Hoffman

If I look hard enough, I can make out the faint spring green underneath the still mostly gray tones of winter. Winter is slow to release its grip, and though it is now April we are just beginning to feel the reprieve. The trees have called us to them and we are answering, thankful to not be forgotten after a winter that was too long.

We drive up the winding forest road to Hawk Mountain, and the kids begin to recognize the place. This hike begins high in the mountains and the car does most of the climbing, making it a bit easier for those kid-legs while still giving the spacious views. My ears pop. We pull into the parking lot, not surprised to see it full. This is the first warm weekend; you can see the hibernation from winter is over.

Stepping out, I stretch my legs, tired and cramped from the travel. Mark releases the kids from the back seat and they bound out of the car, energetic to explore once again this mountain and these hiking trails.

Louisa died four weeks ago. That fact hasn’t left my mind since. Without warning, her four-and-a-half-month old body stopped breathing. Four weeks ago, I answered the phone on a normal Monday morning, and things have not been normal since. Then I flew miles in the sky, leaving my own children, crying most of the way at the distance between us, to grieve with family, to shake our fists together, and then to open them, releasing life into the winds.

Who is Louisa, you ask. I could map out my relationship here, tell you how she is my cousin Beth’s only daughter, making her my first cousin once removed. I could explain the bloodlines, draw out the family tree. I could justify how my relationship with Beth is special, how she was one of the first people to hold and touch my third born, when hers—Louisa—was still just an idea, a twinkle. I could write about my time living only miles away from Beth in the mountains of Colorado, and the sad facts of life that make it so we now live thousands of miles away.  But, really, that doesn’t get at it at all. Here’s what you need to know: Louisa was, and is, part of my tribe. She died, tragically and abruptly, though peacefully, when she was four and a half months old, falling asleep for an early evening nap and never waking up again.

I’m here in the wilderness today with this ache in my heart. I’m desperate to receive some beauty from this wild.

At the trailhead, Grant, six years old and with a knack for details and a steel trap memory, reminds us all where to go. This way first to go to the bathroom; that way next to find the trail. He and Renee, his four-year-old sister, each carry a trail map, numbering out the many options for our adventure. Griffin, now two, has gone from a baby-hiker to a little-kid-hiker in the six months since we were last here. This means that instead of being happy to travel in a carrier on my back, he now wants to walk on his own. And who am I to stop him? For this reason, though, it means that we can’t head down the River of Rocks trail, with all its boulder scrabbling and tough climbs. No, today we’ll have to stick to the more populated Lookout trail, with its places to pop through the tree line onto the crest of the mountain and see out over the valley.

We’ve been hiking for about fifteen minutes, though it feels longer, filled with start and stop frustrations. Griffin is being particularly difficult, veering off trail for no other reason than to be chased back. He hasn’t been looking where he is going and has already nearly run into trees, rocks and other hikers. I’m slowly losing my patience and almost run into a rock. That’s when Grant calls out: “Hey, this is the lookout where we saw the snake last year.” I pick my head up to notice that I have stumbled my way to the next lookout, where Grant and Renee are waiting. Grant is pointing to the spot where last summer we watched a snake sunning on the rocks. He is right. He remembered.

When the permanency of most things in my life is questionable, and the delusions I’ve held about security have been pulled from under me, I’m spun in a way that makes it difficult to know what to trust. Being out on the trail, for me, is often about adventure.  It’s about exploring a place, and exploring myself.  But, as I’m learning now, standing on this place of remembering, it’s also about finding stability. It’s landing somewhere that is harder than I am, stiller than I am. More secure. It’s about returning, and remembering last year, the snake and the lookout, coming back to it again and finding it there still, almost unchanged.

I try picking Griffin up to help him through the rocks, but he will have none of it. “Me do it!” he says, swatting my hand away. I have no other option than to let him. Grant pulls out his binoculars and we sit for a moment, looking at the valley. It looks so different from the last time we were here. Last time, it was the end of summer and the valley was swollen and heavy, weighed down with thick green swaths of life. This time, the valley is gray, or light purple even. The trees have yet to grow their leaves and up close look spindly and strong, but in the mass of the valley they look haunting and ghostlike. It looks the way I feel inside, and I take comfort in this landscape that mimics mine.

Four and a half months ago, I was a fairly typical mother of three small children. Of course, I adored them, but I was bogged down with the daily frustrations. How hard is it to get your shoes on, anyway? I’d bark out orders, snapping at them when they needed help or couldn’t get it right. Then I’d be annoyed at myself for behaving this way. I had been rushing through the motions, checking things off lists, getting it all done, but I was missing the joy. Now, this act of mothering in the face of death has me feeling slightly ghostlike, too. I am haunted by the guilt for how I’ve mishandled these lives.

The beauty of the lookout and the valley is unmistakable, evident, but seems just beyond our grasp. We are off to a rough start. Grant complains that it is hot. Renee says she is tired. Or hungry. Griffin is like a drunk and rowdy college kid, albeit a very short one. The trail is crowded. The peace I was hoping to find seems out of reach.

We pull off to the side of the trail to regroup. Mark and I muscle Griffin onto my back. I dole out pretzels while Mark passes around the water bottle. Griffin is not happy about his loss of autonomy, but we quickly gain momentum and are soon lost in the rhythm of our steps and hypnotized by our surroundings. Griffin quiets down. We all do.

The terrain becomes rockier, more rugged, and I start paying more attention to my steps.  The big rocks that had only punctuated this trail earlier become more consistent and the trail climbs higher, steeper. Our family’s chain of hands breaks as we each need our hands for balance. I reach out to grab a thin tree that leans over the trail and feel the bark worn smooth from countless other hikers doing the same thing. The movement of my hand is so slight, but somehow not insignificant when added to the layer upon layer of life that has happened here. How many other hikers have traveled this path? How many eager parents have watched kids revel in the glory of the mountains and the splendor of the snakes?

The sixth century monk St. Benedict reminded his students that they should live in such a way as to “Keep the reality of death always before [their] eyes.” I think of Louisa as I hike. I think of her family, who in their blinding grief, feel the dark edges of this reality.   I think of how my life is small in the ways of the universe, tiny in the eyes of the sun or the shadow of this tree. I glance up and see Grant ahead of me, his strides growing confident and sturdier as we climb. I turn and see Mark behind me with Renee, weary from her fearless exploring, hoisted onto his shoulders. They are all so full of life. The blood pumps through their bodies, the neurons explode, rocket-ship-style, in their brains.  Unpredictable, wild, beautiful. Alive, like the trees growing skyward, like the hawks catching the wind, all but a breath.

Louisa’s death has left me with little option than to keep death before my eyes. And I don’t like what I see—jagged scars, a void, abyss, darkness. Even the very act of living is a step into the scary world, a world where babies die and siblings are lost. With this reminder of mortality, my heart hardens at the prospect of loss, a protective shell against the death of my own children.

As I hike this trail, I keep my eyes a few steps ahead, looking for the best place to plant my feet. I search out the easy path. My feet inevitably find the worn spot where hikers before me have smoothed this rock. This solid rock, concrete and unyielding in a way that my psyche and heart may try to imitate, has been worn down, cut into by the years of life it has witnessed. Even this rock is not immune to scarring, or softening. Maybe I have a choice as to how to let Louisa’s life and death into my heart. I have to allow myself to be both scarred and softened, too.

I, too, am marking this place.  My footprints wear down the dirt and the rocks, keep the vegetation at bay. I am marking these people—my husband, my kids. I’m leaving traces on everything I touch, on my landscape, on the environment of my life. And it is marking me. Insignificant in the scope of the universe, nonetheless entirely significant in the scope of a single life.

The history of this terrain is deeper and longer than I can imagine, with many, many generations having lived in this land. And among them, mothers who have lost babies.  We are not unique in our loss and suffering. These trees have witnessed this grief. At home in my suburban community, it is easy to pretend that we have tamed the wild. I see our gardens, made neatly in square-foot blocks, perhaps arranged by height or color. I see our lawn, sprouting with grasses that are probably not even native to our area.  Being in that space, I am lulled into the false notion that I am in control of these wild things.  Louisa’s death has given any sense of control I have a blow to the gut. I wonder now if we have pushed away the wild in order to bolster our sense of security, to seek immunity from this loss.

At the top of the mountain we sit with other hikers watching the raptors dancing on the wind. I look out at the crest line of the mountain as it curves off to the left and back up again, almost a mirror image of where we sit. There is a trail that follows that line, eventually connecting to the Appalachian Trail. Our trail feels like a tributary to a greater river of trails, stories coming together in a vast history of adventure. A gust of strong wind blows up at us, a brief respite from the unexpected warmth of the sun. The hawks balance in it, tipping their wings slightly to catch the stream. They remind me of the kids, in their wildness and grace, and I want to know: how can we each tip our wings, to catch the wind and balance magnificently in the gusts?

Together, we sit and watch wordlessly. After a while, I catch Mark’s eye, and nod. He steps back from the ledge and together we usher kids back towards the trees.

We choose a different path back down the mountain, this trail a bit more meandering, less steep. Finishing one descent, I turn a corner and stand in front of the flat face of a giant rock, looming twenty feet into the air. This rock is so unique, unmistakable. I call out to Mark and the kids and tell the story, again, of the time on this very trail, more than a dozen years ago, when Mark and I tried, unsuccessfully, to outrun a torrential thunderstorm. It’s one of our favorite family stories, a tale of being young and in love, but in telling it this time I see that it’s also about innocence The kids have heard this story before but here, at this very rock, the past and the present collide and our story becomes part of our children’s history. This is the stability that I have been seeking. I can come back to this place, retell our adventures, consider the change in landscape and mark the growth in time.

With the final steps of the trail in front of me, I let myself, for a moment, imagine that Beth and I have swapped places—that instead of being the one to answer the phone that morning, I was the one making the call. What if her grief was mine? In any moment there is nothing to say that it won’t be. Without the awareness of the absolute fragility of it all, I risk not receiving this moment for what it is: a gift. Can I see the miracle in peanut butter sandwiches eaten at the crest of the mountain? Sometimes it’s easy to see, when my heart feels like it’s floating above my body, and I’m buoyed by my blessings. Other times, it’s harder to sustain. I am being softened, harsh edges of frustration and impatience filed down by the wild gifts of time and life.

Sweaty and dirty, we make it back to the car. The kids climb in the way-back, kicking off shoes and digging around for water bottles.  Soon, the highway hums under our tires, and I turn up the music. We are on our way home.

Campbell C. Hoffman can be found with her carpenter-husband on a trail in Southeast Pennsylvania, encouraging (read: begging) her three kids to keep hiking. When she is not hiking, she is on another adventure not altogether different: motherhood. She writes about it at and can be found on Twitter @tumbledweeds.



WO FIssures ArtBy Adrian J.S. Hale

The Columbia River Gorge opened up before us. We were in a car—his car—driving 70 miles an hour through the rough-hewn Columbia River Valley surrounded by massive rock formations that took as long as 17 million years to form. We’d last seen each other the week before, just two families meeting for pizza. We decided on this plan when we discovered that both of our spouses would be out of town. We’d pile into one car and take the kids hiking in the damp, mossy forests beneath towering Oregon fir trees.

He secured the car seats and I filled water bottles. We left after lunch. His daughter was on the passenger side, and I buckled her in, as he reached to the middle seat, across my son to buckle my daughter in. I glanced over and he smiled in a peculiar way. All of this felt too familiar, yet still uncharted, like we both knew some dialect of a language that we had never practiced with each other.

Twenty miles outside of Portland, his grip was tight on the steering wheel and my window was open, salty gusts of warm air wafting through, hitting my face in gentle rhythms. His daughter had fallen asleep and he kept fiddling with soft crooning songs, one after another. I wanted to stop the moment and close my eyes to listen to each lyric, but my kids kept asking questions, wanting snacks and stories and other diversions. “How long?” they kept asking. “An hour.” “45 minutes.” “15 more.” I answered in succession.

“How much longer?” my son asked again.

“Three hundred years,” I said. Next to me, looking straight ahead, he laughed.

As we passed mile markers on either side of the road, the vast blue skies and craggy mountains lined the valley, and we forged our way through. I put my hand out the window to feel the air pushing against me. I wanted to feel the struggle of keeping my hand open and resisting the force of what was coming at me. I was restless with him sitting there, silently smiling, the wind and mountains opposing each other in their stubborn, old ways. I wanted to crack the day open and see what was really inside. I searched for things to say but remained silent, resisting the desire to ask him questions about his inner world. The kids kept stirring or asking for this or that, and my attentions were folded into origami-shaped figures that only came together when each crease was in place for the next. I wanted to unfold it all, crumple it up and see what else it could make.
Truth be told, watching his hands on the steering wheel roused me. His hands were nicked and bruised from hard work but they rested there gracefully. I blushed thinking about where his fingertips had been—what thoughts they’d scrawled out for him, what juicy foods they’d lapped up in a fit of ecstatic satisfaction, what kinds of lovers they’d pleasured. I thought about these acts like I thought about the acts that made our surroundings: they were a flood that thundered through the valley of my mind.

And then—a tap on the glass, the moment broken.

“Oh, look,” he said, his finger lifted. “Look what just happened.”

For a second, I thought he’d caught me watching his hands and was deliberately moving them out of the way of my gaze, but I followed his fingertip to the windshield. I thought he was pointing at the valley itself, the beauty of the gorge, its stands of trees and miles of open sky crowded with cumulous clouds and I was confused.

“Just happened?”

“Look,” he said again with conviction.

His finger, strong and exact, pointed to the windshield, to the plate of glass separating us from the gorge. I felt a sensation travel up my spine as I followed his fingertip to a round, even pinprick in the glass. From somewhere out there in that vast open world, an infinitesimal fragment of rock had hit us with enough force to make a hole in the glass. I didn’t get it at first. I had driven in this gorge hundreds of times and had never been hit with a rock that put a hole in my windshield. He leaned over and touched the hole, and I looked again, sliding my gaze over the glass, groping for the reality of its existence. All that filled my world for a moment was that tiny hole covered by his finger. He brought his hands back to the steering wheel and with my eye suddenly focusing through the small aperture, I saw the world passing by in wild, messy brushstrokes, a swirl of unrecognizable shapes and twists of color. Everything looked abstract until I refocused, my gaze leaving the hole and once again allowing the prodigious valley beyond to come back into view. We were traveling at our maximum speed through this place that was once carved out by a massive flood, an act of destruction that is hard to fathom. Today, it is peaceful here. Then I saw the tiny radiating cracks growing like webs from the hole.

“Will it shatter?” I asked. He shook his head.

I reached out, running my fingertip over the hole. I longed to feel it, but it was only broken on the outside. Inside it was still smooth and untouched. I shrugged. As I pulled my fingertip back, my own hand came into focus. My long fingertips, marked with scratches and knife cuts from long days of cooking, my strong, hard nails. I didn’t have to guess; I knew where my own intrepid fingertips had been. In that moment, they were there reaching out against the ancient topography, having this chaste adventure with a man I hardly knew. My fingertips extended as far as they could for a pinprick of a hole, one limited window to the great big world, yearning desperately for more than one lifetime could give them.

Adrian J.S. Hale has been writing professionally for over a decade. She has worked for various food and lifestyle publications, including Country Living and Saveur. She and her family travel extensively, but their home base is Portland, Oregon.

When the Raspberries Come

When the Raspberries Come

Rasberries growing on the bushBy Rebecca Altman

Seven years ago, when I was pregnant with my first child but didn’t know it, my husband and I planted three raspberry bushes.

They bore fruit the summer my firstborn was one. He toddled into the brambles and ate straight from the canes. One at a time, he stuck each berry on his pointer finger and let the juice run down his arms.

The following winter I was expecting again, and explained to my son that he would be a brother soon. Like many parents I struggled with how to make something as inscrutable as gestation tangible to a two-year-old.

I couldn’t tell him: in August. Nor did the concept of summer resonate. The regularity of seasons passing one to the next hadn’t been established yet.

The explanation that satisfied him, by which I mean the one that stopped the incessant question—when can I see him?—was this: when the raspberries come. I told him to watch the bushes in our backyard and when the fruit was ready, his brother would be born.

He ran to the window, but there was nothing to see. I had shorn the canes to the ground after their leaves dropped. Snow covered the dormant roots.

Eighteen weeks into the pregnancy, a fetal ultrasound found a swelling of the right kidney. It hadn’t formed correctly and would never work. I was moved into a high-risk obstetric practice for regular fetal monitoring. Each week, in the darkened exam room, I’d wait for the reassuring cadence of his heartbeat, more rapid and erratic than the steady rhythm of mine.

I would read the technician’s face, like she read the screen, the two of us searching for slight deviations from the norm.

*   *   *

Spring arrived, the first canes sprouted. My son and I wandered out to the raspberry bushes to check their progress. We watched as they grew taller than him during the long days of June and July. As the days shortened again and my belly swelled, they flowered and set fruit.

When the precariousness of my pregnancy felt unbearable, I found comfort in the raspberries growing as they should.

And then, as expected, they arrived at the end of August. And so did my second son, whose birth—and health—we celebrated with berries. We decorated his first birthday cake with them. And then his second. My boys sat underneath the bushes, the canes arched over their heads. They stripped them clean and then, grinning, emerged with berry-stained chins and t-shirts.

*   *   *

Until I had children, I had been out of touch with cycles and seasons, disconnected from the ecological system of which I am a part. But since I’d become a mother, I’d grown into the habit of juxtaposing our lives with the lifecycle of our raspberries. They had become timekeepers, steady and sure during the disordered days of early motherhood.

I began to wonder about other ways to ground us in our place and time:

When the trees bud.

When the acorns drop.

When the snow flies.

But the more I read about the ecology of eastern Massachusetts where I live, the more I discovered that the timing of seasonal events is shifting with a complexity as intangible to adults as a mother’s pregnancy is to a small child.

As we alter the Earth’s chemistry, some seasonal changes no longer sync with the expectations we formed as children about the order of things. Muddied, too, is our sense of seasonal weather patterns, of storms and when to expect them gathering on the horizon. And the very same industrial practices that disrupt ecological systems, scientists tell us may also be interfering with the basic functions of the human bodies—how our children think and grow, and even with our capacity to bear children at all. Uncertainty, it seems, is the new certainty from which we must build our lives.

I learned from ecologist Amy Seidl, author of Early Spring, that lilacs now bloom eight to sixteen days earlier than when I was a child. And when my children are grown, scientists predict they may bloom as much as a month in advance. Someday when the lilacs bloom, when the raspberries come could mean something altogether different. It’s a small shift in comparison to the catastrophic changes other communities face, but this giving way of accustomed seasonal rites signals larger changes that make me question the future. What will the world be like for my children, or their children, or their children’s children? The more I learned about, and witnessed, the changes already underway, the more I worried whether it was selfish to want another child.

But the summer my youngest turned three I was—to my surprise—pregnant again. The raspberries ripened early, small and pale. We ate them in July instead of August. It seemed strange at the time, and in retrospect, foreboding.

*   *   *

On the last night of August, my 36th birthday— when the raspberries should have been in full fruit—the pregnancy went dormant, just shy of the second trimester. It began as a cramp, a few stupefying spots. We had been out to dinner, about to take an evening stroll, when we rerouted ourselves to the hospital. There, the radiologist couldn’t sense life, only its absence. They sent us home. They told me: expect bleeding.

In what few stories other women shared with me, miscarriage was a noun, as in: I had a miscarriage. But no one described it as a verb or, for that matter, in a way that would have helped me understand what to anticipate. I sensed there would be an emotional component—how to let go of the expectations that accompany a pregnancy—and a biological one, and I knew little about either, most especially the latter. How does an expectant body reverse states? What should I expect now that I wasn’t expecting? I arrived at the wrong assumption that a miscarriage would be a withering, slow and solemn. Instead, I found it to be a violent uprooting.

For hours, my body heaved like labor. Each convulsion released fist-sized clots. I retreated to the shower. Blood splattered onto the glass doors against which my husband pressed his hands. This is natural, I told him, I told myself.

But bodies contain a finite quantity of fluid.

It was the unexpected taste of metal on my tongue that made me relent, that convinced me the miscarriage had gone off-course. We raced back to the hospital on vacant, after-midnight roads. Hours later, after another ultrasound, after fainting twice, after hours of waiting in my own blood, I was strapped to a table so the OB could harvest from me what my womb wouldn’t surrender. I left the next afternoon barren, barely conscious, in a body that had betrayed itself.

In the fallow weeks that followed, in the absence of cultural rituals around pregnancy loss, I read how other women have marked miscarriages and coped with the cross of guilt-grief that can accompany the unraveling of a pregnancy and other taken-for-granted certainties. With miscarriage, there is rarely a body to bury. But a friend told me to plant something, as she had done. I hadn’t even known she’d lost a pregnancy.

*   *   *

And so a month later, still white-lipped and disoriented with anemia, my mother and I went to a nursery. By then it was autumn. The sedum had turned burgundy. The nursery was emptier now that the growing season had passed and what plants remained had overgrown their pots and were discounted. She bought me a hydrangea and helped me drive it home. My father and now six-year-old son dug the hole to set it near the raspberries. In the act, I realized burial and planting felt like analogous transactions with the Earth, which receives what we put into it, and in turn, offers the solace that comes with the possibility that life can begin again, enriched by what has gone before.

After they placed the hydrangea in the ground, after I knelt down to pack soil around its roots, I looked up and saw the raspberries had borne a second batch of fruit. In the six years since we planted them, they had never fruited twice.

Maybe everything that happened that summer was the product of erratic fluctuations in fertility, perhaps it was a fluke, or happenstance, or a harbinger of disturbances in complex systems. I would never know, but I needed to find a way to live with the multiple, sometimes subtle, sometimes engulfing uncertainties that have become the hallmark of this era in which I raise children.

On that long-shadowed late September afternoon, after we finished planting, we filled our muddy hands with berries and went inside, thankful the raspberries had come back.

Rebecca Altman is an environmental sociologist. She serves on the Board of Directors of the Science and Environmental Health Network and sometimes teaches seminars on environmental health for Tufts University. Her recent creative non-fiction has appeared in Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment and the Journal of Compressed Creative Arts.  She blogs at


Guilt Trip Into the Woods

Guilt Trip Into the Woods

By Martha Nichols

spring2010_nicholsLast summer, my husband and I wrestled with where to take our seven-year-old son for vacation: Someplace wild and natural? Or a few days in New York City? Part of me longed to spend a week at the beach; we could turn off the computers, we could spend all day outside, we could commune with nature like poets or saints, or at least wiggle free of the media snake for a few hours. It would be good for our son, Nick, I told myself dutifully, even if I knew he’d rather listen to my iPod.

The Big Apple won out. We arrived in New York on a warm July day and headed straight to Times Square after dinner. Staring up at the ten-story movie ads, scrolling numbers, and cartoon characters, Nick danced as if the sidewalk were on fire. He gazed in wonder, like all the other tourists, many sitting in lawn chairs on one closed section of Broadway. He begged to go back to Times Square every night, and we did. My husband and I loved it, too, and more surprisingly, we loved our son’s response.

Maybe I was wrong to choose the asphalt jungle over the forest primeval. I’d always assumed that nature was better for my child than anything else. Oceans: beautiful, good. Giant M&M’s leaping on flat-panel displays: ugly, evil. But after witnessing Nick’s delight in Times Square, I began to feel not so much wrong as barraged by a dire message at every turn: Your child is being damaged by a lack of contact with nature. If you don’t fix it now, he will turn fat and fearful; he’ll be rudderless, adrift in a sea of enervating boredom.

My son is not a glassy-eyed blob tethered to a screen. He’s an enthusiastic dynamo, and his love of manga and anime and digital cameras and computer games and PowerPoint to create his own stories has made me question if nature has become his generation’s version of castor oil. Is it really true that Nick and all other children are in a state of natural crisis? Or is this just another round of Oldsters versus Youngsters, with boomer oldsters re-claiming a familiar refrain? These kids today are going to hell in a hand basket.

*   *   * 

Front and center in the movement to call kids back to nature is a book by journalist Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods. Published in 2005, it was followed by an expanded paperback edition in 2008. That same year Louv received the Audubon Medal for, in the words of the National Audubon Society’s website, “sounding the alarm about the health and societal costs of children’s isolation from the natural world.” Louv is now the chairman of the Children & Nature Network, an organization that he co-founded in 2006 and which was sparked by his book. The nonprofit based in Santa Fe, with its “news service and portal” website, is devoted to promoting nature programs around the country and kicky slogans like “No Child Left Inside.”

Louv’s manifesto is deceptively calm in its early sections, almost sad, as if he knows he needs to reel in skeptics like me. In it, he argues that children are rapidly losing the free-roaming experience of outdoor play. Kids now know a lot about global warming, but few can name what birds they see in their own backyards. They’d rather stay inside, watching nature on TV, and for Louv, that’s a disaster.

His crusade is far from a lonely one. Since the publication of Last Child in the Woods, a mini-boomlet of nature activity books has appeared, including I Love Dirt!, Nature’s Playground, and The Green Hour: A Daily Dose of Nature for Happier, Healthier, Smarter Kids. The Children & Nature Network promotes everything from the Children in Nature Action Plan created by the National Park Service to learning gardens in Buffalo schools. (According to the website, “C&NN has identified over sixty regions that have either launched or are assembling grassroots campaigns to connect children with nature.”) Each book and campaign and after-school program urges parents to expose their kids to the great outdoors; each tap-taps away, creating yet another anxious drumbeat, hectoring us about what we’re doing wrong.

No parent believes kids should sit in front of a computer 24/7.  But I can’t help but feel irked by the hyperbole in statements like, “To take nature and natural play away from children may be tantamount to withholding oxygen.” And I object strongly to the assumptions behind Louv’s message. As a feminist and white adoptive mom of an Asian son, I’m disturbed by the belief that what’s “natural” is always best for kids. This feels like ’60s nostalgia—the kind that wishes women’s liberation and the Internet hadn’t ever come along to mess things up.

In addition, the back-to-nature movement demonizes its perceived enemy—the siren song of high-tech leisure options—to an unrealistic degree. A number of studies funded since 2006 by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation have found that children’s involvement with digital media is not just passive and addictive. Whether they’re creating photo collages and videos, hip-hop mixes, blogging their own stories, or modifying the rules of video games, kids can become empowered creators online. They’re not only sexting and aping celebrities.

The more I examine the work of Louv and his brethren, the less I’m persuaded that when boomers share stories of magical childhood times in a tree, “their cultural, political, and religious walls come tumbling down” as he claims. I just don’t believe that wonder can be reduced to one essential experience any more than motherhood can. And perhaps most disturbing for environmentalist moms and dads, I’m discovering that the nature movement—green and forward-thinking as it appears at first blush—looks an awful lot like a conservative message cloaked with some liberal fig leaves.

*   *   *

Last Child in the Woods isn’t telling a new story, but at the beat-me-whip-me level it’s an undeniably compelling one. Louv covers plenty of well-documented bad news, including the rise in childhood obesity, ADHD diagnoses, and electronic addiction.

Like most of my parent peers, I feel guilty—a lot. Every morning, when there’s barely enough caffeine in my system to cope, NPR seems to pummel me with stories about why our multi-tasking, Internet-chained pace isn’t good for kids.

“Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds,” a study released by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation in January, presents an impressive array of data to demonstrate just how media-immersed children have become. Most shocking finding: Kids consume media an average of seven hours and thirty-eight minutes a day, “almost the amount of time most adults spend at work each day,” writes Victoria Rideout and her co-authors, “except that young people use media seven days a week instead of five.”

Whether nature is the only solution is the question.

I’m certainly on board when Louv says we need to teach children to be responsible stewards of the Earth because of the daunting environmental issues before us. He takes some of his best shots at gray-haired groups like the Sierra Club that until recently have done little to reach out to children, assuming kids are “extraneous to the serious adult work of saving the world.” He’s sharply critical of condo associations and other planned communities that don’t allow kids to stray from manicured paths or playgrounds, let alone construct tree houses in “off-limits” areas. Louv charts how suburban open space has both shrunk and become overly protected—what he calls “The Criminalization of Natural Play.” A 2002 U.S. Department of Agriculture report predicts that from 1982 to 2022, for example, forest acreage will decline by fifty percent.

Louv, a former columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune, presents reams of research. He throws in caveats, too. “Like many parents,” he admits on page one, “I do tend to romanticize my own childhood.” Then comes the hook: “Americans around my age, baby boomers or older, enjoyed a kind of free, natural play that seems, in the era of kid pagers, instant messaging, and Nintendo, like a quaint artifact.”

His simplest arguments for how to address this “radical change” in nature awareness are the most profound. Kids don’t need to explore pristine wilderness; big cities include plenty of living things, too. He says children are often more captivated by “the mysteries of the ravine at the end of the cul de sac” than by a trip to the Grand Canyon. Louv’s “special place” as a child “was a ditch,” he writes, “dark with mystery, lined with grapevine swings, elms, and tangled bramble.”

It’s an appealing vision, one that doesn’t require adult direction or expensive programs. Louv’s personal stories are evocative, and I’m convinced his two sons benefited from fishing with their dad or scrabbling up desert canyons. But his tone can quickly shift to the annoyingly proscriptive. He’s got a mountain range of advice for parents:

Encourage your child to get to know a ten-square-yard area at the edge of a field, pond, or pesticide-free garden…. Together, keep a journal; encourage your child to describe, in words and pictures, that tattered bumblebee staggering across autumn leaves…. Later, at home, she can color the drawings and press a flower between the pages….

It sounds so orderly, so PC (don’t forget that “pesticide-free garden” for bringing the bugs to your kids rather than one of those dubious ditches from the 1950s). It’s like a lavishly illustrated picture book marketed to parents rather than kids: Mom and toddler study leaves together or share a hot chocolate after exploring the woods.

The thing is, I’m his audience. I, too, climbed the big pine tree in our backyard when I was a kid; my favorite book for years was The Golden Treasury of Natural History. I loved our late-night family trips across the Mojave Desert, Dad still worried our clunker Dodge would overheat, me in my undies, whipped by hot wind through the open windows. Initially I was drawn to Louv’s call for immersion in the natural world. Yet long before I finished Last Child in the Woods, I wanted to chuck it across the room.

*   *   *

When I think about what my son would do with such nature activities, I have to laugh. He’s never been one to draw daisies in a journal if I suggest it. Instead he’d sketch a jousting tournament or a new comic strip, no matter how much I burble about the veins of a leaf. Or he’d rip the leaf apart—which for Louv might be just the ticket for a young naturalist—except that what fascinates Nick is the landscape inside his own head.

Of course some children enjoy pressing flowers. My son’s idiosyncrasies only illustrate that kids are passionate about a variety of things. But as with so many journalistic trend stories, Louv employs a largely anecdotal approach to make a bigger claim: that all children need nature—and if they don’t get the version he prescribes, they will be less joyful and alive.

Louv and fellow believers like Todd Christopher, author of The Green Hour, present themselves as valiant nature warriors facing a horde of technology Visigoths. What’s needed is nothing less than a new movement “to heal the separation of childhood and nature,” as Christopher writes in his preface. His idea is that families should spend at least one hour a day outside. On his own website, Christopher describes himself as co-founder of the National Wildlife Federation’s Green Hour campaign and its former director of online media (The Green Hour got its start as a website). The National Wildlife Federation is also home to magazines like Ranger Rick and Your Big Backyard.

The Green Hour is an attractively designed activity book stocked with nature facts. The activities themselves—make your own bird feeder, observe the clouds—are nothing new. What is new is the polemical introduction. The intended audience seems to be hypothetical moms who’ve only seen trees on TV. The activity instructions are written for both parents and children, the assumption being that adults should participate and shepherd things along. Yet the language has a grade-school science rah-rah tone. Lines like “Did You Know? Green leaves get their color from a pigment called chlorophyll” feel patronizing to me.

The Green Hour, like Last Child in the Woods, manages to up the anxiety level for parents while exhorting us to get over our fears of poison ivy and ticks. In “the world that flashes by on the screen of a television, computer, or video game,” Christopher writes, “the real danger … lies in how quickly children can be seduced into passivity and inactivity, their senses bombarded, overwhelmed, and ultimately diminished. Most sadly, it is the sense of wonder that seems to be first to go.”

Based on the Kaiser studies, it’s clear that children are immersed in media at record rates. But the fear this engenders in baby boomer breasts and the impassioned attacks it inspires go unexamined by Christopher or Louv. It’s just as easy to become a worried, hovering parent who nags kids to enjoy nature as it is to be the stereotypical achievement-oriented “indoor” helicopter. The only difference is the focus.

Parents must communicate their own joy and enthusiasm about nature to children, Louv maintains. To calm us competitive types, he argues against perfectionism in teaching nature to kids. A fellow parent, he’s even sympathetic: “Parents already feel besieged by the difficulty of balancing work and family life. Understandably, they may resist the idea of adding any to-dos to their long list of chores.”

Yet some parents simply may not enjoy camping or mucking in the garden or a “green hour.” Maybe we’re into updating our status lines with five hundred digital friends. Bookworms like me can read nature books to our kids (another Louv-approved activity), but the message here is that if you don’t like such nature-centric activities, you’d better ask yourself why and get religion.

“[T]he generations do not go to nature to find safety or justice,” Louv writes breathlessly at one point. “They go to find beauty.” I read this as an aesthetic choice, not an intrinsic truth. Many early religions were undoubtedly inspired by the natural elements at their wildest, and pulpits and temples around the world link nature with spiritual transcendence. But while awe of nature may go back to our ancestors in caves, “nature” can mean a lot of different things to different people, especially in the twenty-first century. Sure, nature is basic to all humans—and yet cities are basic to humans, too, along with our linguistic abilities and works of art.

*   *   *

The underlying conservatism of nature believers means they’re so set against technology they often can’t see how to use it to promote their cause. This inevitably pits the generations against each other. Rideout of the Kaiser Family Foundation, who directs its program on media and health, emphasizes that Kaiser is “simply documenting” media use by children, not pronouncing against it. On the positive side, she told me in a recent interview, “Kids just love media. It’s entertaining; it’s fun; it’s relaxing; it’s soothing. It can expose kids to parts of the world and society that they wouldn’t otherwise see.”

Rideout’s tone is cautious rather than apocalyptic. “Media use can just kind of add up without you really noticing it,” she notes, just like a parent who has been there. The Kaiser study indicates that when parents put a few rules in place, media consumption by kids goes way down. Children with no televisions in their bedrooms watch much less TV, for instance. Media is also defined very broadly by the Kaiser researchers as everything from music and books to video games and TV, which puts the findings in a less grim light.

The point is that parents can influence their children’s choices without rejecting all the media goodies. But nature believers make almost no concessions to technology. They employ the abstinence language of other conservative parenting movements, assuming that saying no is the way to go, and if you don’t say no, your children will be lost forever in the virtual storm. They end up conjuring the same old bogey people: Those kids are out of control! Do you know where your child is tonight? Father knows best.

In some ways, it’s ironic that The Green Hour began on the Web. The book includes only the briefest mentions of using media devices to record nature sounds or a GPS system to play a tracking game. Christopher relegates nature-related websites to supplemental source boxes, separate from his activity text. Even Louv is more enthusiastic about kids using a digital camera to record their experiences outside.

Yet there are positive ways to frame the impact of media on contemporary family life. “In con­trast to the generational tensions that are so often emphasized in the popular media, families do come together around new media to share media and knowledge, play together, and stay involved in each other’s lives,” writes cultural anthropologist Mizuko Ito and her co-authors in the white paper “Living and Learning with New Media.” The paper summarizes the findings of the MacArthur-funded Digital Youth Project based on interviews, questionnaires, and observations of hundreds of children and teens. The project findings also appear in their 2009 MIT Press book Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out.

Nature evangelists tend to pooh-pooh such alternate interpretations. Rather than acknowledging that there are multiple answers to problems like childhood obesity and boredom, Louv and others view nature as the best solution to a vast array of social ills. Their alarmist language is a signal that the real message is about parental control instead of engaging children on their own terms. A nature journal, for example, might be more enticing if kids could collage pictures and distribute their writing online. Of course that may not sound like the unstructured, free-roaming play Louv holds so dear. But neither do the nature activities in books like The Green Hour. Kids should roam freely, these writers seem to say, but only in parent-approved natural landscapes.

Back-to-nature claims are most suspect when they promote fear of where children go in their heads—or what they’re learning—while immersed in new media. That’s not to say parents should shrug their shoulders at Internet porn. But many digitally inclined educators claim we’ve reached a “profound moment” in the use of media by both children and adults, given that almost anyone can go to a public-library computer to self-publish and distribute content online. Though only a “teeny fraction” of kids are actually doing creative work with media, Rideout notes, “When kids take capabilities into their own hands, it’s thrilling to see the potential.”

Ito’s youthful hangers, messers, and geeks often create their own virtual worlds, be they landscapes with kid-oriented cartoons or new music that few parents can tolerate. Yet such virtual worlds don’t necessarily cause glazed eyeballs, passivity, and an inability to connect with others. Ito describes a case study of anime “fansubbers” who insert English and other subtitles into Japanese cartoons and distribute them online, working solely for the satisfaction it brings to millions of anime fans around the world.

Learning by trial and error is another skill touted as a special benefit of kids playing in the great outdoors. It’s not a stretch, however, to think such tinkering can involve building a backyard fort or fiddling with HTML code. According to Amanda Lenhart, senior research specialist at the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, gaming and technological expertise in general often give children a sense that “I can solve problems my parents can’t solve—I’m teaching adults how to do things.” Such “self-direction” threatens adult authority; parents back off for the wrong reasons, freaked by the technology. But as Lenhart points out, kids get to fail constructively with video games in ways they aren’t allowed to do in school.

As far back as 1993, David Sobel, a nature advocate and education researcher, had his finger on why kids need retreats away from prying adult eyes. In Children’s Special Places: Exploring the Role of Forts, Dens, and Bush Houses in Middle Childhood, Sobel writes that the children in his study “expressed a need for privacy, independence, and self-sufficiency. Through making their own places, children start to carve out a place for themselves in the world.”

It’s possible these special places today are online tree houses, with far more room for messing around than a physical nook. I’d even venture that children may roam through virtual landscapes for the same reasons we used to spend all day outside away from mom and dad, taking bikes down a hill we called “Dead Man’s Curve.”

*   *   *

Nature believers go beyond saying that immersion in nature will add richness to children’s lives; they also argue that it can be uniquely therapeutic. While it may seem intuitively obvious that kids who play outside are less obese, there’s little hard data to back up claims that nature in itself melts off pounds. Certainly playing outside can raise a child’s physical activity level, give kids more free time, and cut down on TV watching. But whether you need nature to get more exercise or free time is not at all clear.

One especially suspect pseudo-scientific explanation pops up in The Green Hour. In a “Did You Know?” box, Christopher writes, “The negatively charged hydrogen ions in sea spray may be to thank for the happy, relaxed feeling we get at the seashore. Those ions neutralize harmful free radicals in our bodies and help to stabilize our levels of serotonin—a brain chemical associated with sleep and mood.” His source? An article in the Daily Telegraph, a conservative English newspaper, which doesn’t attribute any research for this nugget. Flinging around words like “serotonin” makes it sound valid. Maybe it’s true; maybe it’s snake oil. Some people also believe the thundering waters of Niagara Falls increase one’s libido—so should we keep our underage children out of earshot?

Louv, a more critical synthesizer of research, acknowledges that to date there’s not much empirical evidence for the benefits of nature to children. (To be fair, there isn’t much evidence for technology’s impact on children’s lives, either.) When it comes to nature’s therapeutic effect on kids with ADHD, for example, he notes that the research “is in its infancy, and easily challenged.” Yet that doesn’t stop him from talking about “Nature’s Ritalin” or coining the phrase “nature-deficit disorder.”

The most suggestive studies of nature’s impact on attention in children that Louv cites come from the University of Illinois’s Human-Environment Research Laboratory. In a 2001 study, Andrea Faber Taylor, Frances Kuo, and William Sullivan turned up definite correlations between the time ADD kids spend doing “green activities” and more focused attention afterwards. Yet this study was based on 96 questionnaires filled out by parents, not direct observations of kids by researchers.

In another study, Taylor and her colleagues found that the amount of greenery inner-city Chicago girls can see from their windows makes them more self-disciplined and able to delay gratification longer. (They didn’t find a similar link between green views and self-discipline in boys.) After a two-sentence gloss of the findings, Louv leaps to a more sweeping claim, stating that even such minimal exposure to nature will help a girl “do better in school, handle peer pressure, and avoid dangerous, unhealthy, or problem behaviors.”

Pundits do this all the time, of course, highlighting whatever fits the story. That doesn’t mean Louv’s advocacy is necessarily a cynical manipulation. He clearly cares about his subject. But the problem in political terms is that scarce dollars for enrichment programs flow to topics that get the most hype.

“[T]his ‘get them out to the woods’ movement is at least a century old,” writes Patrick Boyle, editor of Youth Today, in recent e-mail correspondence with me. “[O]rganizations … have been trying to get urban kids out of cities for their physical and mental health for ages. It was the premise of the Boy Scouts of America. It was also a main idea behind the National Youth Administration started by FDR. … There has always been an assumption that this is a good thing, and lots of anecdotes from adults about how much they valued such time as kids. You’d have a hard time measuring the impact of such a thing.”

As Youth Today, a national trade paper about youth services, has been documenting for years, assessing the long-term benefits of any program is dicey. And when Louv praises recent projects like IslandWood in Washington state’s Puget Sound, he doesn’t seem to recognize that a glitzy “outdoor learning center,” underwritten by software magnates, competes for dollars with other youth agencies.

Many would make a case that what kids today need—particularly at-risk kids—is caring adults, whether they’re looking at lizards together, acting in a play, taping videos of their neighborhood, or playing basketball. In fact, there is a growing body of research to support the importance of mentorship through organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters. Martial arts schools also claim some of the same benefits for children as Louv ascribes to nature: self-confidence, self-discipline, a quiet mind. For Louv, however, nature supports all things good, be it finger-painting or meditation.

*   *   *

There’s no question that modern children have been affected by the lack of open space for play, notes Steven Mintz in Huck’s Raft (2004), a history of childhood in America from colonial times to the present. But Mintz also makes clear that the days of yore weren’t always golden. He opens by contrasting nostalgic notions of Huckleberry Finn dawdling down the Mississippi with author Mark Twain’s “real-life mid-nineteenth-century Hannibal,” which “was anything but a haven of stability and security. It was a place where a quarter of the children died before their first birthday, half before their twenty-first.” Subversive Huck, arguably an icon for natural living with dirty hands, isn’t soothed by nature. As Mintz notes, this fictional boy has been likened by critics to an abused child or at-risk youth; he’s even been called an ADHD sufferer.

Over the course of our country’s history, Mintz says, the biggest shift for children has been “a marked increase in diversity.” That includes an unmatched level of affluence for some, yet a dramatic increase in childhood poverty for others. One of the main myths Mintz debunks “is that childhood is the same for all children, a status transcending class, ethnicity, and gender. In fact, every aspect of childhood is shaped by class,” he writes. This is a far more nuanced interpretation of what’s happening to kids, and the changes may not be all bad.

Today’s nature evangelists like Louv make token nods to economic and cultural differences but mainly in service of helping the underprivileged get the nature faith. Louv knocks the trend toward including “race-relations and other cultural/political programs at camps.” He writes, “These are important discussions in a democracy, but childhood is short.”

Not that short.

Nowhere does the nature faith reveal its retro foundations more than in its avoidance of debates about social change. You could say this is just a matter of values or funding priorities. Nature versus Multiculturalism. But what I find insidious about eco-child talk is its liberal, inclusive guise. Extolling Nature with a capital N reinforces a largely white, privileged value system that doesn’t emphasize kids’ connecting with other people. It effectively turns a whole lot of social and political inequalities invisible.

To believe that nature is an elemental truth is to deny that love can jump across biological or tribal boundaries—that adoptive families, for example, form bonds that are just as natural as those made by sperm and egg. It’s to ignore how mutable identity is for an Asian adoptee like my son or for teens creating MySpace profiles or for immigrant children who exist in different worlds at home and at school. If you follow this thread under the rational-sounding surface of Last Child in the Woods, we’re right back to real women birthin’ babies and the rest of us female workaholics being the reason for “the end of natural experience,” as Louv puts it.

When it comes to gender, there are glaring omissions in Last Child in the Woods. Mintz and countless other social commentators have remarked on the march of women into the work force since the 1970s. Yet in Last Child in the Woods, there’s not one mention of the women’s movement. Louv always refers to “parents.” At times, he mentions two working parents or single parents, but rarely does “mother” appear except in “Mother Nature.”

In a book that’s all about children, this is a telling gap. The particular challenges facing working moms have been excised. It may seem politically correct not to blame women for the loss of those relaxed and playful days of old. But in not naming this social trend and its legacy, Louv skirts a forthright discussion of why family lifestyles have changed. He would never say that working mothers should ditch feminist goals and return home for the sake of their kids. But as with every so-called contemporary parenting crisis, the usual suspects are left holding the bag.

Take stranger danger. “Fear is the most potent force that prevents parents from allowing their children the freedom they themselves enjoyed when they were young,” Louv exhorts. “Fear is the emotion that separates a developing child from the full, essential benefits of nature.”

Fear, worry, hovering—when these labels are leveled at “parents,” they’re not very subtle code for female. Leaving aside the question of whether little girls and boys felt the same degree of freedom in the ’50s and ’60s, how we’re supposed to stop feeling anxious when young children are out on their own is never really explained.

For parents who need more time with children to spur them towards nature, Louv offers this bromide: “Sympathetic employers can help.” Right. Then he adds, in an almost offhand way, that some parents opt to stay at home to help their kids, “either with home businesses or in the traditional stay-at-home role.” Again, just who those parents are, and whether they have the economic means to live by a canyon or near the woods or even want a suburban existence that implies a long commute, remains unexplored.

Any form of intensive-parenting advice—and Last Child in the Woods is as intensive as it gets—comes down to a lot of work on the part of adults. These days, both moms and dads are putting in the hours. But ignoring the fact that women do the majority of childcare, and by extension much of the staring at stars and nature journaling, doesn’t make the inequity go away. And praising the benefits of kids’ roaming outside on their own yet shaking a fearful finger at the virtual worlds those kids might also want to explore strikes me as one whopping contradiction.

*   *   *

“Girls have really taken to opportunities to being creative online,” says Amanda Lenhart of the Pew Research Center. She and other observers note that teens are energized by finding an audience online without adult gatekeepers. “It’s a really powerful incentive to create,” Lenhart says, “to have their words heard in a public space.”

“I don’t think that the Internet is such an evil it needs to be doled out in tiny bites,” she adds. “We need to be careful about expecting children to be just like we were. Different doesn’t necessarily mean bad.”

For Louv, though, childhood is broken and needs to be fixed. Nature is bedrock reality, our “biophilia” is hard-wired, and “the child in nature is an endangered species.” The societies we construct are chump change compared to Mother Earth. Louv quotes one oceanographer as saying, “Reality is the final authority; reality is what’s going on out there, not what’s in your mind or on your computer screen.”

For me, a ’70s girl who fantasized about Paris and London, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, and gender-bending, reality in this reductive sense was never the final authority. As a kid, I spent plenty of time wandering the California hills above my suburban tract. But my brother and I also holed up at home on many summer afternoons, taping our own science-fiction radio show. The script included immortal lines like “We are the Phabians from the Planet Phabia! Third planet from our star!”

Louv would nod his head in earnest approbation; we were indulging in unstructured play. But I think he’d also say the hills got our creative juices flowing, when in reality we were more influenced by Star Trek re-runs and David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

In my case, reading The Lord of the Rings was a signal event, too, one I remember far more vividly than camping trips. Louv also extols J.R.R. Tolkien’s Rings saga; he rightly notes that Tolkien’s vision was driven by the devastation of two world wars and the Oxford don’s mourning for the disappearing English countryside. Yet for Louv, the trilogy’s main value is in its nature descriptions.

Personally, I never cared much about the Hobbits or their simple way of life. It was the epic battle between good and evil, that very small hero walking right up the slopes of Mount Doom. It was the immortal Elves I loved; yes, they lived in magical trees or other super-saturated natural landscapes, but these were the imaginary realms of Maxfield Parrish and the Pre-Raphaelites, not of John Muir or Foxfire Book hippies.

*   *   *

There’s nothing like an actual living, breathing child to bring a parent up short, to turn what seems to be the best advice in the world into mush. Standing in Times Square that warm July night, I knew my city mouse was thrilled by life.

I see many good reasons for worrying about pollution, shrinking wilderness areas, and corporate control of media. But the back-to-nature movement, like all parenting movements, has political and social ramifications. Whether conservatives are wearing pinstripes or all-natural fabrics, the bottom line is that they don’t want the world to change. The proof is in the way they dismiss anyone with a different take, especially the next generation of storytellers, those darn kids who aren’t interested in describing their parents’ world.

I don’t believe children need nature more than all the other things we’re supposed to be giving them. It’s not that I think we should start trashing the nearest national park with our SUVs. I remain an ardent environmentalist, hiker, and birder. Yet my own romance with nature does not mean my son needs to feel the same attachment—or that a different attitude will doom him and his entire postmodern generation.

It’s not an either-or proposition: nature versus technology; country versus city. You can have both landscapes in your life and go everywhere your imagination leads. Nature is certainly one road to transcendence, and it can be a powerful tonic. Take, for instance, the opening lines of an essay, “The Sense of Wonder,” by pioneer environmentalist Rachel Carson:

One stormy autumn night when my nephew Roger was about twenty months old I wrapped him in a blanket and carried him down to the beach in the rainy darkness. Out there, just at the edge of where-we-couldn’t-see, big waves were thundering in, dimly seen white shapes that boomed and shouted and threw great handfuls of froth at us. Together we laughed for pure joy—he a baby meeting for the first time the wild tumult of Oceanus, I with the salt of half a lifetime of sea love in me.

Her lovely essay, which first appeared in a women’s magazine in 1956, underscores in a few paragraphs what Louv takes almost four hundred pages to argue. Carson’s main point is that adults can renew their own joy by observing a child in action. “If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children,” she writes, “I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life….”

Stoking this wonder, whether inspired by bright city lights or the pounding surf, really does seem the greatest gift we give our children. Nature isn’t the only source of wonder: We could talk about the connections children make with other people, whether by blood or the mysterious meshing of shared passions. We could talk about why exploring great cities can induce a sense of wonder, too.

In Times Square, what attracted Nick most were the street artists who drew caricatures. All those we saw were Asian, and he ran from one to the next, watching carefully when one formed a whole face by starting with the nose. He sat for a drawing of himself, amazed that anybody could capture him in just a few lines.

Although I haven’t learned more about nature since the arrival of Nick, his wonder at the most unexpected things has sparked me. We are both talkers. We love our own ideas; we like to flail at the conventional wisdom. Here is my Asian child, not born of my body, his dark eyes taking in ninja cartoons and clouds scudding across the Halloween moon with equal awe. With my blue eyes, there’s nothing natural about how we came together. But I’m awed by what he’s found.

*   *   *

Author’s Note: Nick has just turned eight, and I confess I sometimes worry about him being swallowed by the media maw. I’m worried about my own digital immersion, too. I blog away, he itches to get on the computer, my husband succumbs, and we all try to find some screen-time balance. Last night Nick asked if I knew what a Webkinz was. “Yes,” I answered cautiously. “I’m designing a website,” he said next. I knew this was a fantasy, but I played along. It would have “games and stuff,” he added when Annoying Mom pushed. But more than that, Nick and a friend had been inspired by the stuffed animals they’d sewn in their after-school program. “We decided to call them Stichkinz,” my son said.

Am I wrong for finding this clever? A handmade toy facsimile of a tiger (without a tail) rethought as a web creation? I’ve never been very literal-minded. Before dinner, sometimes we hurl blankets at each other like the anime characters who “bend” water and earth in The Last Airbender. It’s our family version of a green hour.

Martha Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of Talking Writing, an online literary magazine and nonprofit organization based in Boston. She also teaches in the journalism program at the Harvard University Extension School. Her son is now twelve and obsessed with Magic: The Gathering and first-person shooters, although he consents to mountain climbing on occasion.

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Cracks in the Sidewalk: Urban Children and Nature

Cracks in the Sidewalk: Urban Children and Nature

0-8She can’t help it, she’s addicted. Her pockets are full of pebbles, petals and pinecones. She fingers them, inspects them closely and returns them to her pockets for safekeeping. They remain hidden for a minute or two before the ritual repeats. She reminds me of the teenagers I see on the bus compulsively checking for messages on their phones. But, the messages she’s reading have the power to transform.

She’s reading about beauty in imperfection when she inspects the rent edges of trampled flower petals. The lesson will serve her well as she grows up in an airbrushed world. She’s reading about endurance when she thumbs the jagged edge of a pebble worn but not yet weary of holding its shape against the forces of wind, water and tires. I pray she keeps her sharp edges and refuses to be smoothed into sameness by her peers. She’s reading the mystery of Mother Nature in the spiraling symmetry of pinecones precisely crafted by an unseen hand. I hope she remains captivated by the mystery until the last exhale from her lungs.

Nature is my daughter’s teacher, even in the middle of our urban neighborhood. The lessons she learns along the sidewalks are deep, even where the tree roots are shallow. In fact, the lessons may be deepest there. For it is there she sees nature prevail over human intrusion. Every time her bike bumps over the broken sidewalk, she is absorbing humanity’s drive to conquer and nature’s drive to endure.

When we escape the city to stand at the base of a waterfall, canyon or sequoia tree, my daughter’s face is full of wonder. Endless landscapes filled with the pebbles and petals and pinecones she loves so dearly. She’s awed by the sheer gluttony of it all.

Someday, I will break it to her that the landscapes aren’t endless. That beaches full of pebbles in various stages of the stubborn struggle for rough edges are inundated with trash. That the bees that pollinate imperfectly beautiful flowers are dying in alarming numbers. That the fire cycle of the forests and ability of her beloved pinecones to fulfill their destiny is being altered by humanity’s need to protect vacation homes.

Someday I’ll tell her that.  But, for now, I’ll embrace her wonder.

It might just be the key to saving the world.

The world is becoming more urban. Though the definition of “urban” varies, in 2008 the scales tipped and more than half of the world’s population was living in cities and towns. Some see this as a deficit, evidence that we are losing touch with nature. But, I embrace the shift.

I predict urban children like mine who grow up with an inexplicable pull toward the small bits of nature they find scattered about man-made metropolises will be outspoken advocates of protecting the wild places their parents and grandparents have not yet desecrated in the name of commerce, productivity or ownership. Urban children grow up knowing in small ways—libraries with more books than a personal bookshelf could ever hold; a corner park with a zip-line and merry-go-round instead of a backyard swing set—that it is better to share a pie than own a crumb.

And, a world where more than half the children understand that basic truth may just be the radical change we so desperately need.

Kristina Cerise is a Seattle mom trying to find a little meaning in the madness.  She blogs at, tweets as @DefineMother, and talks to anyone who will listen at the local coffee shop.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

The Elegant Undoing

The Elegant Undoing

By Amber Scott

SU 13 Art Elegant Undoing 3-1The praying mantis turns its head. No, wait. The story doesn’t start there. The story starts with a black sky and distant stars and the orange glow of the light over our patio. The light envelops a small gecko on the outside of a window, its body rendered nearly translucent as it darts within the circle of light, gobbling up tiny bugs. I should be shepherding my daughters off to bed by now, but Madeleine, my 6-year-old reptile enthusiast, has had a rough day and the sight of the gecko has revived her spirit. “Can I try to catch the gecko?” she asks, and she might as well have been asking for permission to be happy. “Five minutes,” I tell her.

She bounds outside and I lurk near the back door, carefully, trying to remain hidden so she doesn’t know I’m watching her. And there. There is the smile I was waiting for. It comes as she tilts her head up, that particular determination shining in her brown eyes as she zeroes in on the now-still gecko. The line of her upturned mouth curls into her cheeks and it is the loveliest line I’ve ever seen because I know that it mirrors a certain peace within her, a contentment. That’s a rare smile these days now that school has started and we have found ourselves in the deep, unfathomable waters of first grade. Where Madeleine, with her isolating shyness and inability to pick up basic social cues, is having a hard time. It seems like every day brings a new story, something to puzzle over, to worry half to death, and today’s was buried deep into the lining of her pockets, so reluctant was she to pull it out. “I pushed and punched a boy. I had to defeat him,” she explains. Why, we ask, and all she can do is sigh. “I don’t know,” she says, and she truly doesn’t. It’s an itch, a nervous tic; it’s rain. She has no control. She gets a feeling and turns it into action, absent of thought. These things happen.

The only time I don’t worry about this kid is when she’s in her element, which is literally in the elements. When she is less Madeleine and more Other, or maybe exactly Madeleine, a wandering spirit among towering maples, the swirl of a river eddy, a little girl rustling through thick underbrush, scaling tall hills and flying down them on the other side. Every day is a new discovery: geckos, snakes, beetles, anoles, skinks, butterflies, moths, shiny rocks, leaves made remarkable by virtue of her simply noticing them. Her room is filled with mementos of a world she only visits but wishes she could live in forever. Containers filled with dirt and pebbles, bits of bone, long casings of shed snake- skin, shells, dry brown magnolia leaves, tangles of dried grass.

I watch her as she climbs up on the windowsill, movements so slow and measured that the gecko doesn’t seem to notice she’s there. Until it does. She darts up, hand outstretched, and the gecko scurries higher, just out of reach. Madeleine is disappointed, but still smiling.

And then, as she comes around to the back door to re-enter the house, I hear her exclaim. “Mom! Come see!”

I open the door and Madeleine is standing right near the porch mat, pointing to the side of the house. There, clinging to the weather-stripped paint, is a brown praying mantis. I step closer, and the praying mantis turns its head.

I’m stuck there because watching a praying mantis turn its head is an experience. Because they turn their heads and suddenly you feel unsettled. This bug knows more than I do, I thought. Bug. What a funny thing to call this creature. This is not a bug. It is a being. A sentient thing.

The praying mantis is still, and it is staring at us while we stare at it. I’ve seen green praying mantises before, but never brown like this one. It’s such a dull brown it looks like the husk of a healthier mantis now sleeping under a leaf or building an egg case. Half of one of its forelegs appears to be missing. This is concerning because a praying mantis needs its forelegs to hunt and eat its prey. “I think it’s hurt,” I tell Madeleine, pointing out the leg, and steel myself because I know what’s coming.

“We have to help it,” Madeleine says.

I knew she’d insist on it, and the words I’d prepared—we have to let nature take its course—fizzle on my tongue. We have to help it, she says, because of course we do. This is a truth I feel deep in my bones because if Madeleine has taught me anything at all, it’s that we are no better or worse than these weird little beings. To Madeleine, all things exist on an equal plane. To Madeleine, a cockroach is precious. So we’ll help the praying mantis if we can. Of course we will.

Once inside, though, it becomes clear that the praying mantis is not actually missing half of its leg. Instead, the bottom half of its leg is stuck folded and twisted in the “prayer” position. It doesn’t look like anything we can help. Google tells me that the praying mantis probably had a bad molt. I imagine the molting process, when the mantis starts to know, in the curious way that insects and animals know things, that it has grown out of its exoskeleton. Some ancient synapse fired and the mantis set about the arduous process of sup- porting its own growth. It seems like this should be easy, a no-brainer, but for this guy, something went wrong.

And now, plainly, it can’t hunt or eat, so it will die. That’s it! Its life is over prematurely because it was just going about what nature called for, following a script encoded in its DNA. And it just seems so achingly unfair, so unfailingly horrible, what nature can do to a thing. An entire being. It or me or you or any one thing in the universe.

But Google also tells me it’s possible to hand-feed a crippled praying mantis if one is so inclined. There is even a video demonstrating the process, and I show it to Madeleine. “So that’s an option,” I say to her. I wonder if I can convince my husband to do the feeding, but he is horrified when I try to explain it to him over the phone. “No way,” he says. I can practically see his shudder. “That’s disgusting!”

It is disgusting. I won’t do it either, I decide. But then I find myself watching this strange, mysterious insect inch its way up the habitat we’ve housed it in, reaching up for the overhead light. The habitat, a glass terrarium carefully landscaped with dirt, pebbles, plastic greenery, and even an underground tunnel, has been home to all kinds of wildlife. Two anoles, caught outside and returned to the yard after a few weeks; various house geckos, snared from around drainpipes and windows framing our home; click beetles captured after a trip to the park; and even two emperor hackberry caterpillars found during a walk—they cycled into chrysalises and butterflies in the duration of a week and were released the day they were hatched.

I wonder if the habitat feels even a little like home to the mantis, or if it can sense the various lives that have passed through the glass confines. The mantis hangs from the screen below the UVA light bulb casting white light into the tank. Its deformed leg wavers once in the air, as though to grasp at something, and stills. Again it turns its head to watch us watching it, and I think: maybe.

A day passes as I consider what to do with the mantis. I check on it, concerned with its suffering. Was it suffering? Should we have left it outside to let nature take its course? The mantis doesn’t move much, but when it does, its crippled leg sometimes gets stuck around the other leg, behind its head, in the foliage.

Madeleine, meanwhile, is carrying the weight of school and all its bewildering social interactions heavy on her shoulders. She yells and rails, shakes branches and coils and clenches her muscles like a snake tightening on its prey. She shrugs off concerned hugs and glances. Sometimes it feels like she would tear down the walls in furious rips if she could. The only smiles come when she is considering the weight of living things in her hands: the gently clasped anole, the snared gecko. The grasshoppers and katydids plucked from the grass in our backyard. And the mantis. “I’m going to name it Adorable Face,” Madeleine says, pressing her nose to the glass of the habitat, watching the slow, careful way it climbs.

And there is what convinced me to try feeding the little guy. All of it: its name, her smile-lit cheeks, and even the wall-rattling frustration that she lurches around the house like a medieval weapon. Because it’s achingly unfair, so unfailingly horrible, the ancient synapses that sometimes misfire in my daughter’s brain. Faced with an emotion that skews even slightly into negative territory, her coping mechanisms are all wrong. She turns feral, tamping down tears and literally baring her teeth, hissing and clawing at anyone near. And in those moments, her deep brown eyes go impossibly dark and sad and sparking with fear. Like she’s observing from somewhere inside while her body goes haywire, while bad thoughts and feelings hijack her actions. Later, the helpless sobs as she struggles to explain.

Helping Madeleine is hard. Teaching words for feelings, guiding her away from being afraid of those feelings, into accepting them. Into communicating. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But helping the mantis is easy. Food, water, shelter. So I tell Madeleine, against the pressing certainty that the mantis is going to die anyway, that we can try to feed it if she wants to help.

Madeleine retrieves a squirming, writhing cricket and hands it to me. I hold its lower body between two fingers, and it flails and flails. Madeleine braces the mantis gently in her hands and holds it out, brushing its head against the cricket’s waving antennae. And the mantis gets to work, mandibles tearing off legs and slurping them down with little fanfare. Its jaws find the cricket’s abdomen and begin pulling at the flesh, bit by bit. For a brief moment, I make myself watch, to see what Madeleine is now staring at with an incomprehensible look on her face. The inside of the cricket looks soft and white, pillowy even. The mantis pulls up tufts as it eats, maw working steadily. As gross as it is, there is also a strange grace to its ruthless chewing, head moving just so, legs attempting to do what is basic nature, reaching out to hook into the prey.

I only watch for a brief moment, and it’s too much—too much for the both of us. We shriek and groan and yuck and look away and our hands shake, but the mantis manages to get a little meal out of it. He doesn’t finish the poor cricket, so we return both to the habitat. The mantis crawls for a green branch and the cricket hobbles across the dirt, twitching feebly. I feel a strange mix of horror and fascination. It was disgust- ing, sure, but we also got to hold the essence of nature in our hands. We got to see it up close, in great detail. Like prying open the back of a clock to see how the gears turn. Beyond observing the existence of something, we were seeing its true function. We were watching the way of the world. Ugly and hard, oddly elegant and true.

Even still, when Madeleine decides that we did the right thing, and that we should make sure to feed the mantis every day, I am not so sure. My stomach churns at the thought, but I tell her I will think about it.

Madeleine strings together a few good days at school, and while we slog through our daily routines, the presence of the mantis weighs on me. I am loathe to let it go, knowing that it will certainly die, likely without ever leaving our backyard. I imagine finding it dead on the ground, or worse, Madeleine finding it dead on the ground. She’d bring it to me with her arm outstretched, face sad, and I’d be hard-pressed to know what to say to her. That’s what happens in nature sometimes, is the patented response, but it doesn’t seem enough in cases like this, when you’ve invested so much in something.

On the fourth day of mantis ownership, I know we have to make a decision, but the point becomes moot when I find the mantis lying at the bottom of the habitat, its pale brown body nestled into the dirt and leaves. It is not moving, and I feel a strange grief well in my chest, a dawning sense of dismay. I reach in to take the mantis out, and it moves just a little. And this is even worse, holding this small, dying creature. “Aw, no, little mantis,” I say to it, and its body twitches. This is awful, awful. Madeleine wanders in and wants to know what is wrong with it. “It’s dying,” I tell her, and she wants to know why. I remind her that we had known it would happen, but it doesn’t seem right somehow. It wasn’t supposed to die on our watch. We were the ones who would do right by it. We would make its life better by virtue of being in it. We had hoped.

As Madeleine gets closer, I hold out my open palm. The mantis’s body flicks in small, twitchy movements. And then, horror of horrors, a tiny white larva comes squirming out of the mantis’ abdomen. Another follows. And another.

And another.

And so many more. I drop the mantis with a small shriek and the husk of its body flits to the floor. The larvae scatter. “Are those its babies?” Madeleine wants to know, a hopeful note coloring her words.

And no. No. I wish. “A parasitic wasp must have laid eggs in the praying mantis,” I tell her. “Those are the baby wasps.”

We watch for a second, with revulsion on my part and mute fascination on Madeleine’s. She leans in for a closer look and so do I. Tiny black dots, muted and fuzzy around the edges, are visible just under the milk-glass bodies of each larva. Their brains? The whole of their nervous systems? They’re just so small, so non-wasp, it’s strange to imagine that full-fledged winged creatures would come from these things. What complicated potential rests in those little black spots! Whole lives crawling from the desiccated shell of our mantis. Nature is good at that, finding growth from death. Birthing a peculiar new kind of hope from the decay of an old one.

Still, I am sad for the mantis and eager to put the whole episode behind us. And so there is really no elegant ending to the story of the mantis. I sweep up its carcass and the larvae and toss them together into the backyard with a quick, unceremonious sweep of my hand. They will crumble into the dirt the way that nature unravels all dead things, and we’ll move on.

On the way back into the house, Madeleine’s head is bowed and her steps are slow. I brace myself for her reaction. This is a girl who wept when classmates at school smashed ants into the sidewalk near the playground. The same girl who can shrug when her snake eats a mouse: “It’s sad for the mouse, but good for the snake. It’s just part of nature,” she tells me while I worriedly monitor her reaction.

She still doesn’t speak, so I ask her if she’s okay. She considers the question and finally answers. “I wish we would’ve kept the baby wasps,” she says, her brown eyes as deep as the richest soil, like wet bark after rain and all the best bits of autumn. “Wouldn’t it be neat to watch them grow?”

I think of those larvae and the creatures they will become. No, it certainly wouldn’t be neat, I want to say, but looking down at my unfathomable daughter, I feel a rush of tenderness. For this girl who some days is sweet and some days not, but is always breathtaking, the very living wonder of discovery. What a strange, biting joy it is to be her mother.

And the answer is easy, then. “Yes,” I tell her, and I mean it with my whole heart.

Author’s Note: Thanks to Madeleine I have learned all sorts of beautiful, harrowing, and fascinating things about nature. And while I am probably better off not knowing about the giant water bug’s hunting and reproductive habits (for example), I am forever grateful to her for connecting me in a very immediate way to the stuff of life, from disturbing to amazing and everything in between, both in the natural world and within the walls of our home.

Amber Scott lives in Arlington, Texas, with her husband and two daughters. As an undergraduate, she was nominated for a Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship. Since then, her poetry has been published in local literary magazines. She is a communications writer and editor for the University of Texas at Arlington.

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