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Wild About Utah: Going In With a Child’s Naturalist Eye

Shannon Rhodes

In Kathryn Lasky’s picture book “One Beetle Too Many,” we read, “Charles [Darwin] learned the names of everything he collected, for to know the names of these things was important, and it might be the one time when adults would actually listen to a child speak.” As an elementary school teacher, I ponder its message, reflecting on my wilderness experiences enriched by children. In fact, some of my best discovery days have been when I was led by a curious child. 

As a Stokes Nature Center camp leader one summer, my focus for the day was on alpine forest plants as we set out on a northern Utah trail. I carried plant presses and field guides, ready to teach how to identify a Douglas fir from a Lodgepole pine and to have them hug quaking aspens blindfolded to discover distinguishing characteristics of each trunk. These youngsters were going to learn every forest fact I could share, I thought, but they quickly taught me the meaning of naturalist John Muir’s quote: “I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”

 

Not thirty steps from the trailhead, I witnessed natural inquiry at its best, and it was facilitated by these seven- and eight-year-olds. Few things are as fascinating and magnetizing as running water, and they’d found some. The day before, we’d hiked along the Temple Sawmill beaver ponds, scooping up stonefly and midge larvae and designing our own dams, so I was gearing up for another muddy adventure. Instead of sloshing, though, Franny instantly noticed some wiggly black things stuck to the rocks, and the children huddled together around the smooth rocks in the trickle, peering at them with their hand lenses in this impromptu sit spot. “Hey, do you still have that water bug chart?” one asked me. We veered from the day’s alpine plant plan and made friends with what the kids decided, using a macroinvertebrate key, were black fly larvae. They noted the mouth brush filters and abdominal features allowing these critters to anchor to the stones. I would have led them right by, never noticing the rich possibilities of exploring the natural world through a child’s eyes. I am sometimes guilty of tunnel vision without a young companion, only noticing what I know or am expecting to find.

 

That same June I was hiking in the Manti-LaSals with my nephew when he reminded me of the message in another of Muir’s statements, “One day's exposure to mountains is better than cartloads of books.” We sat down when he heard the sounds of a woodpecker busy in the treetops, making wisecracks about how it can peck like that and not get a headache. Our sit spot observation led me later to find answers: did you know that woodpeckers have special muscles and extra inner eyelids? I admit that it was Nathan, the hiker without the Utah Master Naturalist certifications, who spotted what looked like macaroni and cheese on the branch as we moved on and proceeded to tell me that he thought it was a fungus, much like a young Darwin who said, “I am a complete millionaire in odd and curious facts.” Next time you go out, take along a child. You’ll be a millionaire, too.