Our children no longer learn how to read the great Book of Nature from their own direct experience or how to interact creatively with the seasonal transformations of the planet. They seldom learn where their water comes from or where it goes. We no longer coordinate our human celebration with the great liturgy of the heavens.
How I Got Started
Early Memories of California
I can't remember a time when I wasn't interested in nature. Many of my early memories are about exploring and experiencing the outdoors, in my own back yard or in the neighborhood, in California in the 1960s. I remember feeding lettuce to a tortoise that lived in our backyard, collecting snails from the rose bushes in the garden, small birds that sometimes stunned themselves on the picture window, riding bikes with my younger brother, feeding ducks at the park (where my brother once fell into the pond), and catching tadpoles around Stanford University's seasonal Lake Lagunita in the spring. At my grandparents' house in the Napa hills I pretended fuchsia blossoms were ballerinas and learned to identify some common birds, and at the beach at Half Moon Bay I explored the seashore and learned to make dribble sandcastles.
At Home in the Eastern Woods...
When I was seven, we moved to New York state, to a house surrounded by woods that included some "Indian caves," the largest of which had been used in the 1800s by an intriguing figure of local history known simply as "The Leatherman." In our yard and the forest around it, there were blue jays, cardinals, catbirds, gray squirrels, bats, toads, salamanders, field mice, raccoons, deer, chipmunks, woodpeckers, and even a red fox, not to mention lots of insects and spiders. Familiar plants included poison ivy, Virginia creeper, lady's slipper, bloodroot, wild columbine, jack-in-the-pulpit, Christmas and cinnamon ferns, jewel weed, sumac, and oak, maple, birch, dogwood, hemlock, and tulip trees, as well as many plants which I now know are non-native, invasive species. My brothers and sisters and I used to roam the woods freely, venturing farther as we got older (the area was roughly a mile long and half a mile wide). We were never bored there, and never got lost.
...and on the Water
Beginning when I was nine, my family spent the summers in Maine, on Frenchman's Bay. We kids spent many hours on the rocky beaches, getting to know the common denizens of the intertidal zone—mussels, sea urchins, barnacles, hermit and green crabs, starfish, periwinkles, limpets. Herring gulls and cormorants were ubiquitous, ospreys nested on an island in the harbor, bald eagles on another island. Ruby-throated hummingbirds flitted around the fireweed that grew at the side of the road and behind the house. We learned where to find the best wild blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries, and that crab-apples float and make great ammunition. Sailing taught us the kinds of weather that each wind direction brings.
I was always interested in learning to identify what I saw. I just like to know what things are. I also loved reading animal stories, true or fictional, like the works of Jean George, who visited my elementary school, and Farley Mowat.
The Urban Experience, and Back to Nature
As I got older, my interests focused more on language and literature and I had some discouraging school experiences in science and math. I never stopped loving nature, but I found that I loved city living, too. In college I majored in English and I spent much of my career in book and magazine publishing. My nature was houseplants, my cat, walking in Central Park, inline skating along the East River, visiting friends with suburban gardens. If I sometimes felt wistful about not being outdoors and away from civilization more, I also enjoyed knowing that my car-free, small apartment lifestyle is in many ways environmentally friendly.
When I met my husband-to-be, we began to go camping and hiking together. As an Eagle Scout he had a lot of experience going "hike-in" camping in the Catskill and Adirondack Parks. Together we camped various places (mainly in upstate New York), biked around the city, in Maine, and on Cape Cod, and hiked a small part of the Appalachian Trail—my first experiences with backpacking. When we had children, we gave them nature-themed names (Forest and Summit) and took them camping from the start. I found myself advocating taking kids along by saying "give them a stick and a rock, and they're happy"—hence the title "Sticks, Rocks and Dirt." I'd always been concerned about environmental and conservation issues, but now that I have kids who love nature, I'm more concerned than ever that there won't be any nature left to enjoy when they're older. I'll do whatever I can to make sure that doesn't happen, as I become more aware of all the people and organizations who share that concern and of all the things we can do individually and together to live more sustainably.