On a shelf near my desk, I have a few pots with some Calycanthus floridus seedlings. Otherwise known as Carolina Allspice or Sweet Shrub, these little seedlings will eventually grow into fairly large shrubs with brownish purple flowers that smell precisely like strawberries. Grandmother first introduced me to Sweet Shrubs as a kid, when she’d take me hiking in the woods across from her house. Although I love the smell of Sweet Shrub, it brings with it a certain sense of melancholy; it no longer simply reminds me of strawberries, but it conjures up a deep-seeded longing for Georgia heat, humidity, grass-stained wet socks, kick ball, bloody knees, jars filled with Lightning Bugs, grasshopper spittle.
These hikes with my grandparents were instrumental in kindling my passion for nature and natural places. As I listened to them talk about their childhoods in those very same woods, I imagined them having epic adventures under trees too big to hold on to; I longed to have been born 50 years earlier. I learned to make whirly birds out of corn cobs and crow feathers, helped search for the jug-like blooms of Hexastylis arifolia (Southern Wild Ginger) to float in a kitchen jar, and was haunted by tales of weird glowing lights called Foxfire, which I now know is simply the bioluminescent fungi Armillaria mellea that decays rotting wood. I didn’t need science fiction movies to stir my imagination – I had the woods around me to do that. All these years later, here I am, still giddy to go on a hike, still excited to teach other people about what I have seen.
Although I don’t have children yet, I worry about what early experiences my children will take with them throughout their lives. Will I be as patient as my grandparents? Will I answer as many questions? Will I be as willing to drop everything and get very, very dirty just to teach my children the proper way to search for arrow heads? As an adult, it’s somewhat frightening to think that children are watching us and taking notes. We’re a social species, one that learns by observing and mimicking. Our values become their values, and I’m humbled when I hear my nieces talk about hikes they’ve taken with me, or impromptu science projects I’ve started right there on the kitchen table. They’re watching us, you know.
I write all this not to terrify you, but genuinely because I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandparents lately, and how they took on the responsibility of teaching me, in a fun way, about the natural world I lived in. Here at the Zoo, we educators think about little else – how do we teach young guests about nature and natural places while also encouraging them to have fun while they learn?
If you have children and are reading this, chances are you already think about this very thing. It’s likely that you already bring your children to the Zoo and help them learn about the diversity of life that surrounds them. As an environmentally-focused institution, we are pretty darn lucky to have so many parents who feel passionately about our shared world and want to spread this love to their children. Sooner than any of us will expect, they will be the ones making the big decisions.
The next time you’re at the Zoo, stop by the education center – we’re the big glass building across from the elephants – and see if there are any classes you think you or your children would like to take. We have some for every age group, and they happen all the time. Just know that when it’s too cold to go on a nature hike, we’ve got your back, parents. Bring in the family and have some fun. If you see a tall, mop-headed character walking around like a gibbon, that’s probably me. Feel free to ask me questions, but be prepared for an answer. As my grandmother would tell you, I’m an excitable, talkative thing.