Influences

 

(This 1241st Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on January 4, 2015.)

 

Most readers of this column will agree with me that too few children spend time in natural settings. With the exception of their participation in organized sports, they simply do not venture outside beyond their school bus stop.

 

This was, of course, the subject of Richard Louv's 2008 book, Last Child in the Woods. In my least favorite episode in that book Louv records a young boy's statement that he liked inside better than outside. When asked why, he answers that outside there aren't enough electrical outlets.

 

As my own response to this situation, I am currently preparing some materials about nature for children and I want to include stories about how people first became interested in the outdoors and wildlife. For this reason I urge you readers who are energized by your interactions with the natural world to think back to when your own interest was generated, to record the experiences your memory turns up, and to forward this record to me. Or, if you prefer, contact me to make an appointment for me to interview you about those experiences. I promise to summarize what I learn from what you tell me in a later column and to assign you full credit for your help.

 

Here is my own answer to this inquiry.

 

I was fortunate to grow up in a family that spent much time out of doors. My parents were both avid gardeners and even I was assigned a small plot in which I recall my very first crop was radishes. I was so excited that first year that I harvested and ate most of the little bulbs long before they matured.

 

There were downsides to that gardening as well. We had to clear a previously unused part of our yard and the sharp spines of the thistles drew blood. And lawn weeding was my least favorite activity. This was before herbicides did the job. I retain a hatred for broad-leafed and narrow-leafed plantains but curiously I have come to appreciate dandelions.

 

The person who most influenced me was without a doubt my older brother. Five years older than me, he was without question my dad's favorite. And he seemed to pay little attention to me except to tease me. But he was making his way through scouting to gain eagle rank and his work on various merit badges involved many nature activities.

 

He took me along on some of the long cross-country treks required for his hiking merit badge and I watched him and my dad building a bridge for his pioneering project. He made his own insect-killing jar and accumulated a large collection of beetles, bugs and butterflies. Perhaps most influential were the bird hikes on which he took me along. I found that I could then identify many of the species he first pointed out. The only useful reference we had to work from was my mother's pocket-sized Reed Bird Guide and I memorized much of it. When Peterson's first field guide came out a few years later, I was prepared to make good use of it.

 

Most important, each August my dad had a two week vacation and that holiday meant a camping trip to the Adirondacks where we rented a site for our tents at Fish Creek Ponds and later Meacham Lake.

 

Although my favorite activity was swimming, we did other things as well. I fished for sunfish during the day and set out worm-baited lines for bullheads at night. My mother pan fried the resulting catch for breakfast. We joined other families for evening campfires at which we toasted marshmallows.

 

But the most interesting activities were mountain climbing. My first was Mount Ampersand. I must have been no more than four or five years old and I still recall on the way up running back and forth among the adults suggesting that they might enjoy carrying me. Then on the way down I raced until my legs wobbled.

 

The most exciting climb was a few years later when my brother took me along to camp overnight next to the ranger's cabin on DeBar Mountain. The ranger regaled us with stories including one about the tip of a porcupine quill that worked its way up from his foot, finally coming out above his knee. He showed us the quarter-inch barbed quill. I made up my mind on the spot that I would become a ranger.

 

Of course, my career path differed but those experiences had a profound effect on my life.-- Gerry Rising