I generally consider myself a nature enthusiast. This enthusiasm occasionally borders on obsession, as I am truly fascinated by the natural world and all its complexity. I tend to watch plants and insects the way people used to watch television. Sometimes I go outside just to see what’s “on”. I consider myself enthusiastic, that is, until I stand next to a certain fourth grade boy who has discovered that our garden is nearly overrun with millipedes. In that context I am nothing more than an indifferent casual observer. Millipedes tend to have a strong effect on most kids. Squeals of delight and disgust (they sound suspiciously similar) are often elicited by these lowly creatures. Occasionally however, you come across a kid who responds to finding a millipede under a piece of mulch the way that you or I would respond if we stumbled upon a unicorn in the middle of the Black Forest. Standing next to that kid I am a boring, jaded, old man who is bent on planting beets when clearly there are more interesting things going on out here. “BEETS?” This boy tries to express his complete exasperation but his eyes don’t roll that far. How can he be expected to fumble with beet transplants when there are dozens of millipedes right where he’s standing who obviously are without decent housing. “MILLIPEDES!” – as if they were rare and precious jewels scattered among the Kale. The intensity of this kind of passion is nearly palpable.
I know children have breaking points. Forcing this student to stay with the group and participate begins to look sketchy and honestly, a little heartless, so I bargain. “You plant one beet seedling and you get to build millipede houses for the rest of the time.” One seedling is recklessly thrown into a hole and the boy bolts to the millipede convention. I honestly don’t have much time to think about it. It’s only later when I check out the tiny homes that I’m happy I caved. At first they didn’t look like much, until I realized what they really meant. One boy, along with a couple of his buddies that he pulled along, spent quality time outside on a beautiful fall day, imagining a city out of a handful of little bugs. Crawling around in the mulch, these kids were able to enjoy nature the way that every kid should be encouraged to enjoy nature: eye to eye. Developing an understanding and appreciation for the natural world requires moments like this, preferably during childhood. I doubt this specific activity is required in the fourth grade curriculum standards. It certainly wasn’t on my agenda (maybe next time it will be). There are times, however, when it’s good to let go of a good plan when a better one comes along. Planting beets is a good idea. Falling in love with nature… that is THE idea.