Raising a Young Naturalist in the Deep South

The Ashley was the playground of my father’s childhood, and the river’s smell was the smell my mother opened the window to inhale after her long labors, bearing my brother, and then me. A freshwater river let mankind drink and be refreshed, but a saltwater river let it return to first things, to moonstruck tides, the rush of spawning fish, the love language felt in the rhythm of wasp-waisted swells…

Pat Conroy, South of Broad

I was born in Northern California and spent my early childhood on an island in the Sacramento River delta, not far upstream from where the river empties into the San Francisco Bay.

To me, this was a place of magic. I remember going on long evening walks with our neighbors through seemingly endless vineyards and pear orchards. (Even now, in middle age, I find myself picking out delta wines while shopping. I understand what the French mean by terroir, or carrying a sense of the land.) On one walk, I found a patch of blackberries and shoved as many of them in the pockets of my jacket and blue jeans as I could. Much to my parents’ dismay, I had also managed to dye my new clothes purple.

We would swim and splash in the sloughs, with my mother standing on the bank reminding us that these channels still had the powerful undertow of the ocean. We were captivated for days by the plight of a humpback whale that had made its way up the river and refused to return to sea. I passed entire afternoons on a branch high up in some sprawling oak tree, reading.

Needless to say, we did not watch a lot of television.

Eventually, our family moved to Los Angeles and I spent many years thereafter longing to be somewhere where I could have that primal connection to nature again. To be re-enchanted. To return to Pat Conroy’s first things, both literally and figuratively.

True to form, I have not spent my time as an adult sitting in traffic. I have lived in some of the most breathtaking wild spaces that still remain in the United States, including the Rocky Mountains, the wide open heart of Texas, the lush bluegrass and Appalachians. And now, the wildest of all spaces … Florida.

Most folks would assume that we moved to the Florida coast to be on the beach. And they wouldn’t be wrong. Florida still has many miles of pristine beaches, and they belong to the public.

In Florida, there are still beaches where you can walk for
miles and have the whole thing to yourself.

But we also moved to a town with 130 miles of trails through the jungle and wetlands. I have learned that I love these spaces as much as the beach. The best part of living here is knowing that these wild spaces will be our daughter’s “first things” and that she will grow up with the appreciation of nature that I have carried with me across the decades.

There are two long trails in proximity to our house. The first trail leads through the jungle and beyond that into a freshwater swamp. (Freshwater swamps are rare, I have learned.)

They have constructed boardwalks through the wetlands
so people can observe nature without disturbing
these fragile and important ecosystems.

The first time I wandered through the jungle, I was expecting an alligator to pop out of nowhere at any moment. It is a perk of living here that the place is like Jurassic Park with the occasional dinosaur sighting. Our neighbors returned home one day to find a giant alligator sunning itself in their driveway. Another neighbor likes to tell a story about how an alligator ripped a weed eater from the arms of her gardener. We have a couple alligators that float around in a pond at nearby park, right next to the soccer fields. It would seem that alligators like to leave people alone, however (unless they are in the water, and then people can be confused for food).

One of our neighborhood alligators.

I spent most of my life thinking swamps were ugly, desolate places. Now they are one of my favorite places to stroll through. I had seriously underestimated the peacefulness and biodiversity of swamps. Though I would hate to make my way through one without the miles of boardwalks they have constructed here. The number of snakes is unreal. We spent about twenty minutes on a boardwalk one afternoon watching a cottonmouth fishing for minnows below. Best admired from a distance, to be sure.

The second path follows the Intracoastal Waterway, a passage for boats that traces the coast and provides safety from a sometimes ungenerous ocean.

Along the Intracoastal, you can regularly see dolphins, manatees, and sharks of all kinds. Dolphins are quite aware of the people walking along the water and will sometimes follow you. There is a pod of dolphins that like to taunt a couple of dogs that live on the barrier island. They get the dogs to chase them along the water. After they have had their fun, they lead the dogs back to their home. Dolphins are very kind and intelligent creatures.

The birds along the shore are fantastic. Bald eagles nest in our neighborhood and we see ospreys every day. For the first month we lived here, we were totally convinced there was a monkey living in the woods behind our house. I have since learned that the barred owl makes a sound exactly like a monkey. I could sit out on the lanai and listen to them call to each other all night. It is loud and exotic.

Kids aren’t the only ones who love to play in the surf.

Because we homeschool our daughter, we have made nature walks a permanent element of our school days. We collect laminated nature guides and identify birds, lizards, snakes, frogs, turtles, insects, wildflowers, trees… anything we come across. We have collections of rocks, seashells, feathers, nests. We take our art supplies to remote areas and sketch what we see. We listen for bird calls.

There are a couple books that have been indispensable to these projects. This book provides outstanding advice on maintaining collections of natural items. I would have loved to have it as a child.

This book is something of a guided nature journal for kids. It has a litany of activities arranged by month and season.

Nature Anatomy: The Curious Parts and Pieces of the Natural World by Julia Rothman is also excellent.

We also read books about great naturalists, including The Boy Who Drew Birds: A Story of John James Audubon by Jacqueline Davies; Counting Birds: The Idea That Helped Save Our Feathered Friends by Heidi Stemple; and The Plant Hunters: True Stories of Their Daring Adventures to the Far Corners of the Earth by Anita Silvey. (There are so many more….)

Exploring the woods.

One of the best things about being along the coast is the night sky. We have built a 16-inch Dobsonian telescope with a computerized mount. At over six feet tall, the scope was very difficult to move without separating it into segments. My father put wheels on a round table top he found at Lowe’s that we use as a cart for the beast of a telescope. Now we can roll it out of the house and watch the night sky whenever we want.

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