My daughter and I saw a bear in the woods last weekend. We hadn’t expected to see a bear; it was actually wolves we had come to see. We had driven five hours north from our coastal North Carolina home to the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, which, along with the surrounding counties, is the only place left in the world where red wolves roam wild. My daughter is eight and wolf-obsessed and is planning her coming birthday party with a wolf theme, though we have tried to dissuade her from her plan to tell the partygoers that she will be the alpha wolf for the day, and that they are all betas and subs who must obey all her commands.
The point is: she knows her animals, and so I should have reacted more quickly when she yelled “bear” as we drove down the bumpy dirt road into the refuge.
“Dad, bear,” she repeated.
I stopped that time, and there, on the edge of the woods, on the other side of a creek that ran along the road, was a black bear staring at us. We rolled down the windows, but that wasn’t enough of course, so we both, without a word, got out of the car. It was only about 40 feet away, but the water was between us, and the bear looked at us for a moment, curious, before ambling back into the woods.
The words We saw a bear were repeated, in one form or other, about a thousand times over the next two days of our trip. That night we went on the scheduled wolf howl walk with the rangers and a bunch of other kids, and, sure enough, when the rangers howled, the wolves howled back, their song more higher-pitched than you would think, like horror movie screams. The wolf howling was great, but it was a planned part of the trip. The bear, on the other hand, was unexpected. The bear was wild.
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My daughter is not Mowgli. She isn’t a wild child, and she doesn’t roam the woods in a pelt with spear in hand. She spent a good deal of the trip staring down at the screen of her computer game and has already developed the sort of screen addiction that is swallowing up childhoods everywhere. But -- and I thank the great pagan entity for this "but" -- she has her moments. She has kayaked our creek in search of river otters and been swimming (illegally I’m proud to say) in the Cape Fear River and roamed nearby Masonboro Island. These moments may not be enough to stave off her eventual slavery to the great computer, but my hope is that they are settling somewhere inside her and will be remembered and returned to later in her life.
Let me add that this is not some conscious experiment on my part: let’s show the child NATURE because this book says it will make her more well-rounded. It’s simpler than that: she just comes along with me when I go places. For instance, when I walk the trails at Carolina Beach State Park, she walks with me and before long, inevitably, starts pretending she is a wolf. If she brings a friend along they make dens, one of these a particularly lovely little hollow under the roots of a live oak. This, as they say, is natural.
And I should add one more thing that is natural and has sprung naturally from this wolf obsession. My daughter writes books and draws picture about wolves, and though, like any good art, they are not overtly or obviously moral, they do tend to carry little addendums at the end with a clear message: Save the Wolves. (Kind of like this magazine.) Which is to say that my daughter, much more than I was as a kid or even am now, is an activist, not just a wolf-lover.
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When we are young we naturally seek out secret places: we build forts, find shortcuts through the woods, climb trees. This is not environmentalism, but instinct. As it turns out, trying to teach kids a strictly “environmental” curriculum may backfire. As the writer and educator David Sobel points out in “Beyond Ecophobia,” children who are taught that the natural world is being destroyed, that the rain forests are being mown down, and that a boogeyman called global warming is coming, often tend to withdraw and distance themselves from nature. In fact, there’s no surer way to send them running for the TV or computer screen. “The natural world is being abused and they don’t want to have to deal with it,” Sobel writes, equating this with other types of abuse. As it turns out, a better way to involve young children, at least kids from the age of seven to 11, is exactly the way they used to involve themselves, before play became more structured and the woods off limits. Sobel writes of those formative years: “This is the time to immerse children in the stuff of the physical and natural worlds. Constructing forts, creating small imaginary words, hunting and gathering, searching for treasures, following streams and pathways, making maps, taking care of animals, gardening and shaping the earth are perfect activities during this stage.” Eventually, of course, they will learn about the death of the rain forests, but first comes a more direct, and playful, connection with the so-called environment.
In other words, it doesn’t start with prescriptions; it doesn’t start with shoulds; it doesn’t start with finger wagging. It starts with fun, it starts with building forts in our backyards, it starts with animal explorations. And, it goes without saying, it starts with pretending you are a wolf.
P.S. If you would like to read about the re-introduction of the red wolves at Alligator River, take a look at Jan DeBlieu’s book Meant to be Wild. DeBlieu is a winner of the John Burroughs award for best nature book of the year for her book Wind.
P.P.S. And for a good anthology of writing about children in nature, including my piece “Learning to Surf,” try Wild with Child.
Parts of the last two paragraphs are adapted from my recent book My Green Manifesto.