One fall day, members of our little homeowners association gathered to clean up the brush along the sides of our narrow road. Some young alders growing in our drainage ditch were threatening to disrupt the flow of excess rainwater into a nearby inlet.
One fellow was about to start up his chain saw when a boy from down the road came by on his bicycle and stopped, his eyes wide with astonishment. “You can’t take those trees away!” he said. “Didn’t you know? Trees are the lungs of the earth!”
We all stopped in our tracks. There was this long awkward silence. Finally I spoke, curious to know whether our young lecturer was simply repeating a phrase heard in the classroom, or if he really understood the concept. “How do you mean, Kenny?” I asked.
“Well, see, trees breathe, sort of … and they live on the carbon dioxide that’s in the air. Then they breathe OUT the oxygen, which they don’t need. Hey, all the animals, us too, need oxygen!” he replied with an air of satisfaction in having given six attentive adults a mini-lesson about our planet’s life processes. I was impressed.
Although I’ve long believed in early education as one answer to the earth’s environmental woes, here were the results, elegantly emanating from the mouth of a 12-year-old. Since then, I’ve witnessed the enlightening of future generations in many other forms.
At a Northwest aquarium a group of third-graders stare into an artificial tide pool that percolates with life in psychedelic colors. Some watch in wonder as a huge 20-armed sunflower sea star crawls quickly across the pool on thousands of “tube feet,” a veritable Jesse Owens of the intertidal zone.
Nearby, a small group of fifth graders stands before a huge octopus tank, a little suspicious of the docent’s claim that this hefty animal, stretching nearly five feet from head to tentacle tip, can pass through a hole the size of your fist.
In another room, kids gently handle live clams, hermit crabs, sea cucumbers, spiky urchins, and marine snails, each perfectly adapted to its ecological niche. These children might never see such critters in the wild, but they’re learning that these living things need a cool, healthy ocean in which to survive.
Scenery change: 12 fourth-graders walk excitedly down a forest trail, led by a tree-wise volunteer. They pause by a crumbling tree stump, some six feet in diameter.
The leader asks: “What good is this old rotting chunk of wood?”
When no one responds, he fills them in.
“The wood is decaying and adding nutrients back into the soil. And see this hollow place at the bottom? Some small animal calls this home. Nothing in this forest is wasted.”
Nearby is a massive fallen trunk. The leader points at a young tree growing right out of the prone one, its skinny roots gripping the old trunk.
“Toppled trunks provide a fertile place for new trees to sprout and grow; that’s why the dead one is called a nurse log.” It’s another example of Nature’s relentless recycling.
Soon, the group arrives at the edge of a large, placid pond to view its tiny occupants through magnifiers; the pond fairly percolates with life in and around it, from little bugs, to small fish, to birds, deer, bear, and countless small mammals. Eventually, each child departs with an appreciation for our remaining county forest lands and the need to protect them.
In November, old and young flock to our county’s salmon streams, led by local experts, to watch the magic of fish returning from a four-year residence in the Pacific, having successfully avoided being gobbled by seals and orcas. Back home now in their birth stream, it’s life in the fast lane as they struggle against rushing waters to lay their eggs before they die.
If enough children observe this time-honored ritual, perhaps we’ll guide development so that our streams are clean and healthy.
On Bainbridge Island, a wonderful institution called Islandwood gives big-city youngsters from around Puget Sound a magical experience: total immersion in nature. For a few days, kids receive hands-on learning while living in a first-class compound surrounded by forest trails and the attendant wildlife.
There’s an old saying: “We won’t appreciate what we don’t understand.” Hopefully we’ll continue, and increase, our efforts to show youngsters what stands to be lost if we don’t save it.
— Nancy Sefton is a writer, photographer and artist who is active in the Great Peninsula Conservancy. She writes about the natural wonders of Kitsap County monthly for Kitsap Weekly. You can reach her by emailing email@example.com.