July 2010, Nature of Place, NCW Greenways
by Nancy Warner
“He undertook what small children do when stripped of mechanical toys and playmates and placed in a natural environment. They explore. They become hunter-gatherers. If they are fearless … they discover a multitude of creatures of kinds they have never seen in a zoo or picture book or on television, and for which there is no name. Each kind of plant and animal, because of the immediacy and its novelty and strangeness, is for a small child an entity of boundless possibility.” — “Anthill: A Novel,” by E. O. Wilson
Such is the world biologist and writer E.O. Wilson describes for Raff, the main character in his new novel placed in the longleaf-pine forests of Alabama’s Gulf Coast. Wilson grants his character the same gifts many of us enjoyed as kids — unstructured time and freedom to explore the outdoors, get dirty and imagine possibilities.
While these might sound like good outcomes for a fun and relaxing adult vacation, access to outdoor adventures in nature is increasingly recognized as critical for healthy childhood development. We need to be able to connect with nature at an early age to develop our full potential, Richard Louv argues in his book, “Last Child in the Woods.”
Poking around in our backyards, parks and neighboring natural areas cultivates our sense of wonder and curiosity. Exploring open spaces on foot or bicycle strengthens both our muscles and our critical thinking skills. Those connections, in turn, shape our minds, bodies and spirits us as we grow and move down our respective paths in life.
One of eight children, personal banker Eddie Velazquez began his solitary explorations of the Lake Chelan area when he was only 8 years old. “My parents seemed to always be working just to provide and toys were limited, so I did a lot of hiking,” he said. “I’d usually take my two dogs with me and so I always felt safe.”
Eddie stayed close to home at first, keeping his house in sight, and then pushing his limits as the summers passed. “I remember going out on hikes and it would start getting dark. I remember the feel of the forest, being by myself and getting a little bit braver every time. And then I found a place where somebody had already built a treehouse. So that became my treehouse — that was the place I went to hang out,” he said.
Judy De La Vergne
Wenatchee-based wildlife biologist Judy De La Vergne grew up in Western Washington, where she was often charged with keeping track of her younger brother. She recalls building forts in the woods together, collecting frogs and slugs, and walking down to Lake Washington where they hung over the docks to fish for sculpins and rainbow trout. They’d also walk to school and baseball games exploring along the way.“We’d turn logs over and look for salamanders and centipedes, spiders and bugs,” she said. “I always thought it was cool if I found something new. But you didn’t quite know what it was going to do. So if they looked really scary, you didn’t mess around with them. You might mess around with other things a little if you thought it was interesting. I think we developed a range of tolerance there.”
It was the Columbia River that captured the imagination of tree fruit broker Skip Johnson as he grew up on his family’s orchard in East Wenatchee. “I walked the riverbank and the mile or so of orchard that we farmed on a fairly regular basis thinking about the steamers that used to come up and what the river might have been like thousands of years ago,” he said.
Skip saw all kinds of wildlife, including ducks and geese. He also tried, more than once, to catch one of the 15-foot sturgeon that live in the deepest parts of the river. “Sturgeon are out there,” he notes, “and those were always things that we were trying to catch. We formulated many different methods of trying to attract a sturgeon to a hook. Many times my mom would come to the freezer looking for a hamhock and there wouldn’t be one because I used it to try to catch a sturgeon earlier in the week.”
While Skip was trying to land a sturgeon with steel cable and a hamhock, biologist and Wenatchee educator Susan Ballinger was catching frogs with her grandmother’s tea strainer at the family’s cabin on Lindbergh Lake in Montana. “Every weekend, we would go up there,” she says, remembering many happy days playing in the lake and woods.
“There was a lot of work to be done too,” she added, noting that she and her siblings helped gather flat rocks for the pathways around the cabin as well as huckleberries for the freezer.
They also spent time making up their own games. “We would go down to the wetland,” she recalls, “and scrape up clay and make mudpie plates and dishes out of it in our playhouse.” As with any good fort or treehouse, Susan’s grandfather built the playhouse with materials at hand — scrap wood and cardboard. “We had endless hours of play in that house … I look back and know that it was a very formative time,” she said.
Nancy Warner is coordinator for the Initiative for Rural Innovation & Stewardship (IRIS) based in Wenatchee. She thanks her parents often for all of the opportunities they gave her to connect with nature while she was growing up.
This website is dedicated to stories of people in North Central Washington (people like you) connecting with nature. Do you have an early experience connecting with nature you can share on this website? Submit your story online.