Zig and Wikki in Something Ate My Homework by Nadja Spiegelman, illustrated by Trade Loeffler, perfectly captures the sense of wonder that a close encounter with the natural world can inspire in us—and especially in children. Every morning I take my dog, Molly, for a long walk (unless there’s a downpour or a blizzard). Part of the week we spend in the city, and part of the week in New Jersey, where my husband and I share a cabin in the foothills of the Appalachian Trail. One spring morning last year, Molly and I came upon a bear cub, not 10 yards away. My first thought was, “This creature is magnificent!” The bear was on all fours, and we were slightly behind it (thankfully) so I couldn’t see how large it was, tip to toe, but I thought, “Wow!” It was the first time I’d ever seen a bear in the wild, and there really are no words to describe being in the presence of such a powerful, beautiful beast.
My next thought was, “Where is its mother?” Because of course I’d read many times, in both fact and fiction (Jean Craighead George’s novels leap to mind), how protective mother bears are of their cubs. Molly had not yet spied the bear (whew!), and did not bark. There was a small stone wall on the left side of the street, where the bear was, and I began to steer us to that side, so we’d be obscured from the bear’s view. He (or she) continued across the street seemingly oblivious to our presence and went on through the trees and onto a neighbor’s property. I began singing—as a camper in my Girl Scout days, I was told to make noise in bear territory so the animals wouldn’t be startled. We made it home with no further bear spotting.
A few days later, I was in the post office, and bumped into a neighbor couple (not the ones whose property the bear had entered). The husband asked me if I’d seen a bear recently, and I told him about my encounter while walking Molly. “Oh, that’s not a cub,” said the wife. “He’s at least a year old and looking for territory to claim for his own.” That explained why there was no mother.
Clearly that experience has stayed with me, and I will likely never forget it. Bears are much larger than the fly, dragonfly, toad and raccoon that Zig and Wikki encounter, but every time we get an opportunity to observe another living thing up close, we get a chance to stop and reflect on what an amazing thing life is. To watch a dragonfly dip its lovely wings close to a pond’s surface or observe the concentration of a raccoon when it’s stalking its prey (or trying to get into a garbage can, as I witnessed many times growing up in Michigan) is to be reminded of the majesty in life’s small moments.
I can think of no better way to engender in children a sense of wonder and an appreciation of nature than through direct experience and careful observation. Children are quick to realize the commonalities between us and all living things, and to feel a sense of duty in preserving the world around them.