A Childhood in Nature
Recollections on a Childhood in Nature
Wetlands are essential for our survival. They stabilize the climate, sustain underground aquifers, absorb carbon dioxide, filter human waste, screen out harmful chemicals, and remove pollutants and material from rotting carcasses. They are vital for a plethora of species, including our own.
Wetlands come in four common forms: fens, bogs, swamps, and marshes. Marshes typically have reeds and rushes; fens have grasses. Bogs characteristically accumulate peat from dead mosses and therefore look more barren. Swamps are filled with trees and shrubs.
Every summer, my dad, a biological oceanographer at Johns Hopkins University, taught marine ecology in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. I was therefore gifted with summers filled with wonder. Behind our rented cottage was a large cedar swamp. I can still conjure the smell of the towering cedars clustered densely – each an island in its own right.
A boy of 10, I would hop from island to island, grasping the tree trunks for stability, while occasionally sliding into the muck. It was a nature-loving boy’s paradise filled with reptiles, amphibians, birds, insects, and plants. I loved going deep within, exploring, discovering, always knowing that no matter how far in I went, I could eventually find my way out. Other kids explore there too. Bullies threatened to throw me in. Hopping from tree to tree, I was adept at running away. In nature, I was safe.
A local man crafted a sailboat with hand tools in his garage. Many afternoons he too explored the swamp. When the hull was nearly complete, its final coat of paint drying, he again entered the swamp to fell the perfectly straight cedar tree he had selected for his mast. A few weeks later he was sailing.
When I wasn’t in the cedar swamp, you might have found me in a salt marsh, bare feet less muddy but just as wet. Laterigrade fiddler crabs, hermit crabs lugging their houses about, tank-like horseshoe crabs ploughing furrows, an occasional ray scurrying, egrets and herons fishing on delicate stilts, multicolored seaweeds, tiny fish, a starfish prying open a mussel, periwinkles and drill snails gliding over small rocks.
There were not as many ducks in those Cape Cod salt marshes as there were in the brackish Maryland eastern shore marshes that feed into the Chesapeake Bay. There, we identified shore birds, migrating warblers, and water fowl of all sorts. Led by ornithologists, in dead of winter, in spring, and in autumn, I trailed along with the adults, my head filled with curiosity and astonishment.
In my room on the top floor of our Baltimore row home, I spent long hours staring through the old microscope my parents gave me. Slides no longer needed by the Anatomy Department in the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions where my mother was America’s first electronmicroscope technician revealed liver and skin cells and microörganisms whose names I’ve forgotten. Tromping through nearby urban wetlands, long since become shopping centers and parking lots, I collected frogs, toads, and snakes. The snakes and toads I kept for considerable seasons in terraria. Most of the frogs sacrificed their lives in my anesthetizing jars so that I could dissect them and be astonished at their complex interiors.
Back in Woods Hole, it was science school. The tiny village of Woods Hole is a marine science mecca. The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, the Marine Biological Laboratory, and the Fisheries division of the US Fish and Wildlife Service all have a significant presence. Each summer, the sleepy burg fills with scientists and their families. Some of the scientists got together and established a science school for us kids. If I remember correctly, the courses were six weeks long each and covered every topic you can think of – botany, geology, ichthyology, astronomy, ecology, herpetology, ornithology, zoology, marine biology, entomology, mammal biology …. They were all hands-on. We went on field trips almost every day. I took a bunch of them and loved them all. The instructors were enthusiastic, loved to teach, were passionate about their subjects, encouraged us, and were clearly having fun.
Native Americans believe that all things in the natural world are living; that all things have a spirit, and that, therefore, all things in nature can teach us if we learn to listen. As a boy in the swamps, marshes, fens, bogs, woods, tidepools, beaches, mountains, streams, rivers, lakes, trails, kelp beds and reefs, I instinctively knew that was true.
After I came to faith in Christ I was quite quickly pulled into fundamentalist circles and biblical literalism. I continued to like nature, but I didn’t listen to her because I thought all I needed to know about God and life was in the Bible. Now that I know the Bible isn’t a flat book and must be read in the context of when and why (and by whom) it was written. Now I know that the words of Jesus trump the rest of the New Testament, and the New Testament trumps the Old Testament, and that all of scripture must be read through a cruciform lens. As a result, I love scripture more than ever.
And, I am free to listen to the spiritual lessons of terns, vireos, elm trees, spotted fawns, and ocean currents. Now, I can stop and hear from the spider. The humpback whale and the greater shearwaters speak to me.
“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.”
– Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Posted on July 2, 2022, in Christianity. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.
What a great childhood, Pastor Larry! I went to college but learned only a fraction of what you enjoyed as a 10-year-old!