Study Nature, Not Books

Brilliant sapphire blue sky. Yellow leaves drift to the forest floor and crunch underfoot. Fluffy seeds float through the air. Birds and insects are silent. Cool crisp mornings precede hot, dry afternoons. Fall is the season for change; not only preparing for winter, but preparing for life.

Unfortunately, glorious memories of nature’s autumn display mingle with great angst and panic of the coming school year. Nearly a half century later I can reflect back on those gut wrenching emotions and understand why I was so troubled by September.

As a kid I lived outdoors. I was immersed in nature more than books. My youth was spent on the back of a horse exploring the Elbow River valley. Lunging through coolies bareback. Picnics in the dark, emerald mossy forest. Galloping down zig zagging trails at breakneck speed.

Life was carefree. I watched great-horned owls raise downy owlets, was startled by a snarling bobcat in a cottonwood, tracked and stalked deer pretending to be a native hunter.

September meant it was time to get ready for a new school year. Ten months of what was, in my opinion, routine boredom and forced, constricted thinking. Buying school supplies and a new, first day outfit was small consolation for what I felt was ‘being lock up’. To this day I remember feeling sentenced to a chair, inside sterile concrete walls, stale air and so many rules. School seemed a place of conformity and monotony.

I was not a great student and spent far too much time looking out the window at any glimpse of nature. I clearly remember my first day of school in 9th grade. When the bell rang I ran outside to the waiting school buses that looked remarkably similar to a wooly bear caterpillar (without the black stripes). My new crisp blouse stuck against my back as I rode the hot, dry and dusty bus home. Stepping off the bus I felt instant relief, sun shining warmly on my cheeks. I ran to the house.

“How was your first day of school?” my mother asked. “Fine, I guess. Mr. Milton is my new math teacher”. This statement held great hope that this might be the year I finally ‘get it’. I would never master the complexity and abstract thinking required in mathematics.

I unpack the stacks of books from my backpack. Higher learning is a weighty experience. I wolf down a homemade cinnamon bun and glass of ice cold milk. In the garage dust off my bicycle and pedal down to the barn.

A red-tailed hawk screeches a hungry cry, in audible protest of fat Richardson ground squirrels nestled in their subterranean tunnels to sleep away two-thirds of their life. Along the road remaining adult grasshoppers trill and jump between the dry withering grass.

Bridle over my shoulder, bucket in hand I walk out to the pasture to catch Stormy, my red roan Arab pony cross. On his back I was free to explore. Hours of observation and connection honed my naturalist intelligence. I learned to see patterns and relationships before I ever knew descriptive names.

These formative years of youth would shape a lifetime of learning to appreciate nature’s delicate balance. Later I would go to university to study communication processes designed to reveal meaning and relationships between us and our natural world in hopes that from appreciation and understanding, we will care more for it.

Nature has been my inspiration. I am humbled by what I still don’t know. Today I try to take learners out into the field to experience nature first hand and learn by doing.


This fall look for two upcoming opportunities for people to connect with nature. October 1-3 Wetlandkeepers course includes learning about the form and function of wetlands, planting to enhance a constructed wetland, barefoot mapping and conducting wetland inventories. Register at the Sparwood Leisure Centre 250-425-0552.

Continuing to build our community water literacy, October 16-18 is a Streamkeepers course to train a pool of citizen scientists interested in participating in the Lizard Creek Community-based Water Monitoring Pilot. To register call Lee-Anne at 250-423-4306.