Speaking of Nature: Telling stories about nature

Published: 10/24/2021 4:00:13 PM

When I look back upon my childhood I have many wonderful memories. Camping trips that I took with my family, adventures had while hiking up the mountain across the road from my house, canoe trips and ice hockey in the backyard. It was truly a wonderful life that I had as a child.

We didn’t have a lot of money, but my parents did a spectacular job of shielding their children from that fact. We accepted whatever we had as normal and I cannot remember a time when I was particularly aware of the status of other families, nor did I particularly care. I was swimming in that great pool of obliviousness that allows children to be happy no matter what else may be going on.

Visits to my grandmother’s house were particularly wonderful. My grandmother was an employee of the Hudson Valley Girl Scout Council and she was in charge of the Nature Center at a Girl Scout camp located just outside of Albany. A trip to Camp Is-Sho-Da was a magical experience because Granny had the keys and we could go inside the Nature Center and see all of the wonderful items in her collection of natural curiosities. Paper wasp nests hung from the rafters, plaster casts of raccoon tracks were set out in a line to show the path a raccoon took and all sorts of pressed flowers and ferns were sealed between sheets of wax paper to make “stained glass” ornaments.

And of course, there were the stories. Granny always had a story about something and these stories were all designed to engage the hearts and imaginations of young children. They really worked their magic on me and my imagination was full of all sorts of wonderful ideas about animals. But Granny’s stories were not the only ones in my head.

In the 1970s the Wonderful World of Disney was still a staple of Sunday night television. Winnie-the-Pooh stories were brought to life by Disney’s animators and the stories were so popular that recordings of the movie soundtracks were made available on records (does anyone remember the little record player case they may have had as a child?). My brother, sister and I would listen to these records for hours and imagine what Pooh, Piglet, Owl, Eeyore and Tigger were up to. I am smiling just thinking about it.

And, of course, stories about animals were not limited to the imagination of the author A. A. Milne. Beatrix Potter gave us “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” Kenneth Grahame gave us “The Wind in the Willows,” Richard Adams gave us “Watership Down” and the amazing Thornton Burgess gave us an entire collection of stories about the many animals that lived in the area known as Laughing Brook. All of these stories lived in my imagination and I fell in love with the animals featured in them. I think that may be one reason I wanted to study wildlife in college.

Somehow the experience of learning the science of nature was a very easy transition for me. The 18-year-old version of me was able to compartmentalize his brain so he could keep the childhood stories intact while also learning how things really worked. The two sets of ideas were separate and never in conflict and I genuinely believe that the childhood memories provided fertile ground in which the science could grow.

In forestry classes I learned that leaves change color in the fall because the fading intensity of the sunlight signals the trees to start removing chloroplasts from their leaves. This removes the green pigment chlorophyll and exposes other pigments called carotenoids, which happen to be red, orange and yellow in color. Eventually, when there is no longer enough physiological benefit to keeping their leaves, the trees form abscission layers that seal off the xylem and phloem tubes and the leaves fall to the ground. And I didn’t even have to look any of that up!

It is scientific, it makes sense and I am glad that I know it, but the child in me also delights in telling other sorts of stories, like this one: Autumn is here and she is singing a lullaby to help the world drift off to sleep before her sister Winter arrives. Autumn has long auburn hair and she wears a gown of glittering gold with a long train made of colorful leaves. Wherever Autumn walks the leaves of the forest trees begin to turn colors. Autumn speaks to the trees and with her encouragement the trees put on the brightest show that they can.

Then, once everyone is ready, Autumn will release her fairies into the forest and they will bring the leaves down to the ground. The fairies climb onto each leaf the way Harry Potter might climb onto a broomstick and then they tap the stem of the leaves with their wands to make them come loose. Once this happens, the fairies ride the leaves like little gliders down to the ground to form a colorful quilt that will keep the wildflowers warm until Spring arrives. All the while, Autumn is watching, singing her lullaby and gently laughing and encouraging the fairies to keep at it.

So, the next time you see a leaf fall from a tree I wonder if you might look a little more carefully to see if you can actually see a fairy riding on the leaf’s stem. I bet you might, even though you know it is just a silly little story. Perhaps you might even draw a little picture of this, or encourage a child to draw a picture. All of this is good because it keeps nature alive in our hearts and minds.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 24 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more in formation visit his website at www.speakingofnature.com, or head over to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.


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