Saturday, November 28, 2009

The inner savage

In The Creation, E. O. Wilson has a chapter called "How To Raise a Naturalist." It's full of good advice: buy the child a microscope; take the child to museums, zoos, aquaria; provide ample outdoor play time; and so on. All good advice, but I would guess pretty much irrelevant. Forty years ago when I did my one-mile walk to college through woods and meadows, along streams and pond, I never failed to encounter kids, mostly boys, building "forts," fishing, rafting, whacking each other with clubs made of goldenrod galls, and otherwise getting grass-stained and dirty. Today I meet no one along the Path except walking or jogging adults with ear buds. The kids, I would guess, are at home sitting in front of a computer. Nothing wrong with computers, but don't expect naturalists. "The child is a savage, "in the best meaning of that word," writes Wilson. "He needs to thrill to the excitement of personal discovery, to mess around a lot and learn as much as possible on his own."

I mentioned here once before the time I attended a gathering of nature writers on Martha's Vineyard, which included Ed Wilson, as always his soft-spoken, gentlemanly self. On the first morning, we took time to introduce ourselves and say a bit about how we came to be interested in the natural world. I was struck by how often the experience of a drainage ditch gave direction to our lives. I wrote later: "We were mostly children of the suburbs. More often than not it was while mucking about in a ditch that we discovered what would become the passion of our lives. Ditch water, in dribble or flood, is the stuff of creaturedom, the great animator that turns cracked suburban mud into Darwin's tangled bank. Loosestrifes soak their feet in it. Knotweeds slurp it up. Striders stride and whirligigs whirl on its slovenly surface. A seasonal zodiac of frogs, newts, salamanders, mudpuppies, crayfish, turtles and snakes. Even a trickle of ditch water is an invitation to play -- dams, canals, bridges, boats -- squishing barefoot in the mud among the cattails, shattering the gothic webs of argiope spiders. That was the story for so many of us: ankle-deep in ditches, struck unconsciously and unalterably with the prodigiousness of life, a burry, buggy, algae-slicked introduction to nature's inexhaustible capacity to surprise."

When we have paved over the woods and fields, when chemically-addicted suburban lawns stretch in unbroken continuity from sea to sea, when ATVs and snowmobiles have invaded the last vestiges of wildness, there will still be ditches. Down at the back of the subdivision, at the side of the road, behind the mall. Places where a curious, outdoorsy kid might discover her inner savage -- in the best messing-about, budding-naturalist sense of that word.