Life in Community

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Life in Community

Children: The World’s Best Naturalists

August 6, 2018 by

kids with a wheel barrow of fruit

The hemlocks, mercifully, filtered the still-brilliant afternoon sun as Johann and I left the swimming pond and headed up the hillside back to the school building with twelve children in tow. The kids were buoyant, their excitable six-year-old temperaments refreshed by a long afternoon swim. Before the ascent through the woods, I paused by a gully of cinnamon fern, purple loosestrife, rushes and sedge to make sure I still had twelve students.

I wasn’t done counting when I was accosted by, “Jordanna, what is this?” An impulsive naturalist had plowed off the path to point out a light green sedge. “Carexcarex…” I scrolled around in my head for the species, thankful that at least the genus had come to mind. A little girl with brown almond eyes looked up at me and effortlessly volunteered, “Lurida. Carex lurida.” I recalled that we had first identified that sedge over a month ago when it first began to fruit and was happy somebody remembered. Actually, I was very proud of her and wondered to myself if any of these kids would become the next Rachel Carson. After all, the woman who was the catalyst for the Clean Air Act, the Wilderness Act, the Clean Water Act, just to mention a few, spent her childhood wandering the woods of western Pennsylvania.

So how do I find myself identifying sedges with six-year-olds? Never ones to turn down an adventure, my husband, Johann, and I agreed to be the counselors for the first and second grade summer program. We’re halfway through, loving it and learning lots. Here’s one of my first observations: children are the world’s best naturalists.

We spend the better part of each day in a woodland valley full of streams, small tributaries, and swamps. Endless opportunity for discovery. I fill my knapsack with field identification guides for grasses, trees, wildflowers, insects and an Encyclopedia Britannica (“Brain” to “Casting,” copyright 1958) for pressing specimens. My bag has got to weigh over twelve pounds and my shoulders pay for it, but the children urgently need to know what kind of firefly they’ve caught, whether they’ve found an Umbrella Sedge (Cyperus strigosus) or Chufa (Cyperus esculentus), and if the bug on the bind weed is, in fact, a tortoiseshell beetle. This also means I spend most of my off-hours with books whose covers are due for a re-design and are either by Roger Tory Peterson or sponsored by the Roger Tory Peterson Institute. (It occurred to me – but only once – that I could avoid this cumbersome situation altogether if I just had a phone with a few handy apps. But it made me shudder when I stopped to think of the myriad ways it would rob my students of research, learning and discovery.)

Children are not only the best naturalists, they are also the fiercest conservationists.

Even so, the students got a bit impatient with me as I painstakingly paged through my guides, so they decided to do the identification themselves. They count the petals to determine flower type (regular parts, irregular or indistinguishable) they figure out plant type by the leaves (basal, opposite, alternate, whorled) and leaf type (entire, toothed, lobed or divided). Once they have completed these steps, identification is often quick and positive. Then, back in the classroom, the children will make a leaf rubbing, write a caption and add their discovery to our already-crowded bulletin board. If we’re really stumped, I just ask my next-door-neighbor, Granny Gretchen. When Granny was young, Euell Gibbons was her next-door-neighbor. She would go foraging with him, sample his May Apple Chiffon cakes, and after a lifetime of study has an extraordinary knowledge of wild plants.

Last week, the students started collecting rocks. When the first muddy hand held up a non-descript pebble to my face for identification, I gave up. Sorry, no clue. And, there’s no room in my knapsack for a Golden Guide to Rocks either. But our budding geologist would not be defeated. When we returned to the school, he raced down to the library, cornered the school librarian and had her sign out not one but four books about rocks. The classroom was abuzz: everybody had brought back a rock and was looking it up.

Children are not only the best naturalists, they are also the fiercest conservationists. There is a hidden stand of maiden hair fern in the valley that is their best-kept secret and now that they’ve watched Carex crinita bobbing in the wind like a string of lanterns, they’ll be darned if a weed whip even gets close.

“Every real child lives in and with nature,” Eberhard Arnold, the founder of our community movement, wrote. “It is not hard for the educator to show to the sensitive child the creative power at work everywhere, to point out the relationship of unity in nature.” Rachel Carson would have called this interconnectedness “ecology.” And heaven knows, with the current administration, we’d do well to have twelve more conservationists.


About the author


Jordanna Bazeley

Jordanna Bazeley lives at Danthonia Bruderhof in Australia with her husband, Johann, and their four children.

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