For most of my childhood I lived with my grandparents. Long before edible landscapes became fashionable, a large chunk of my grandmother’s suburban backyard was turned into a vegetable garden with an equally massive flower bed filled with traditional plants such as tulips she made into bouquets for me to bring to my teachers. There was a metal swing set and a few small areas of weedy grass that were infrequently mowed. My grandmother was old school superstitious and showed me how to make wishes on dandelions and shooting stars and find lucky four-leaf clovers. To this day I have an uncanny ability to look at a patch of clover and see a four-leaf clover.
My grandmother also told me ladybugs, crickets, and spiders were good luck and killing them would bring bad luck. She would gently put any house spiders outside and I remember a huge scary spider (maybe a yellow garden spider?) that was allowed to make a large, circular web on our porch. I’m sure she also knew but didn’t tell me that spiders kept other flying insects out of the house. I was afraid and fascinated by the spider and remain in awe of spider webs every time I see one. I also chased fireflies, saw praying mantises prey on other creatures, laughed at the way inchworms moved, played with pill bugs trying to get as many to roll up at the same time as possible, put click beetles on their back and watch them flip and click upright, and searched for sparkly gold flecked monarch caterpillar chrysalises like buried treasure hoping I would catch an emerging butterfly.
When my mother remarried and I moved away from my grandparents to a Victorian house in an idyllic country town, I spent my days off school exploring the nearby fields and creeks or playing in our big "messy" yard with a front, side, back and the more exciting and wild "way back" yard area. I found salamanders, tadpoles, frogs and snakes in the creek, sunbathed and skipped rocks with friends in favorite watering holes, helped catch nightcrawlers for fishing trips, sucked nectar out of (non-native) honeysuckle flowers, playfully put (possibly native) buttercups up to my friend's chins to see if they liked butter, rolled down grassy hills, turned blades of grass into whistles, and used wildflowers to make jewelry chains or pressed them between the pages of books.
I spent a childhood exploring and learning about nature. I was directly taught and learned in a thousand unspoken ways how important the natural world is. The connections made were deep and lasting. Once when we found two baby chipmunks with no mother around my parents nursed them to health and kept them in a cage on our large country kitchen counter until they were grown and could be set back outside. We found a baby robin that was injured who also lived in our kitchen because he couldn’t fly right. He sat on my stepfather’s shoulder when he shaved and kind of flew a bit and hopped around the kitchen. This all seemed perfectly normal.
I look around at the children in my neighborhood today who live in yards that might as well be plastic and in some cases are plastic. I wonder how they are internalizing the biophobic (fear of nature) and destructive assault on the natural world they see every day in their own yards
Monthly service people sweep spiderwebs off porches and windowsills with fluffy pesticide filled dusters
Pest control companies trap and remove “vermin” like squirrels because there’s a fear if a squirrel walks on your roof it means they will get inside your house
Chipmunks and moles are poisoned, gassed, or trapped and killed for the unspeakable act of digging unsightly holes or tunnelling in pristine grass
Medieval devices placed in the lawn plunge spikes into unsuspecting voles and moles
Inhumane and barbaric black rodenticide boxes have blood thinners inside to ensure rodents and any raptors that prey on them die a slow and painful death
Beneficial rat snakes and possums are removed and killed by wildlife removal services for trying to help solve the chipmunk, mole, vole, and rodent problem
Men with protective gas masks on their faces use powerful gas-powered leaf blowers designed for agricultural pesticide application in small yards to kill mosquitoes and all soft bodied insects
Goulish carpenter bee traps filled with dead native bees hang on porches to prevent a few holes in unpainted wood
Piles of dead fireflies, moths, flying nighttime pollinators, and a few mosquitoes need to be routinely emptied from the blue light lure traps that shine like a beacon of death every night in the yard
Lifeless pesticide laden annual flowers are removed and replaced in seasonal "gardens" by landscape services.
Trees are butchered by being limbed up or topped off as part of an outdated and harmful spring ritual,
Bushes are trimmed into unnatural shapes or pruned to the nubs (often during bird nesting season) to keep them neat and tidy and make sure no one brushes up against them
Trees are treated with plant hormone products to prevent them from producing “messy” fruit (i.e. nuts)
Trees are treated with systemic insecticides to make sure there are no insects (aka bird food) in them.
Leaves and any natural matter in the yard are bagged up and removed weekly with air and noise polluting gas-powered leaf blowers
The lawn is sprayed monthly by a chem lawn company to keep it weed and insect free
Pine straw under pine trees is routinely removed and bales of pine straw are trucked in and layered thickly around the same pine trees.
Plastic “grass” is placed under and around play sets and play areas.
Few of the yards in my increasingly upscale neighborhood offer a place to explore nature. In a yard void of insects there are no pill bugs, click beetles, inchworms or chrysalises to find and few if any fireflies to catch. There is no connection to wildlife when any critters found in the yard are considered pests and exterminated. In a chemically soaked yard, there are no dandelions to wish on or four-leaf clovers to bring good luck, and no bouquets of flowers (even the traditional non-native ones!) to bring to teachers. I sincerely pray no children in my neighborhood put blades of the toxic grass in their hands and up to their mouth to whistle or make any sort of flower jewelry with poison covered flowers from their yard!
Growing up in a yard as clean, neat, and sanitized as a living room creates lifelong nature blindness. Most of the young children in my neighborhood are oblivious to my rewilded wildlife sanctuary yard. They live nearby or routinely walk by it yet rarely visit my mini nature center or stop to see all the baby fledglings hopping around, birds darting in and out of plants looking for bugs and seeds, squirrels and chipmunks scampering about, anoles puffing their throats on top of a low fence, the hundreds of different pollinators covering my plants, or even tiny little hummingbirds flitting between flowers! I saw a neighbor’s young child bizarrely walk along his driveway and tenderly “smell” the circular red reflectors on their driveway markers as if they were flowers.
If nature is noticed, it is more often from a place of fear or detachment. I overheard a child worry about whether squirrels had teeth that could bite him and a parent tell their children they needed to cross the street to avoid the bumblebees on the flowers in my yard. (My yard is rewilded and often people passing by don't see me kneeling and gardening during the growing season so I hear them before they see me.) I witnessed a neighbor hack a rat snake to death and it's reasonable to assume his children will be taught to fear snakes. The saddest sight was watching two neighbor children take a large gulf fritillary butterfly caterpillar from along my fence where passionflower vine is growing and gleefully make a game of squishing it. They weren't afraid of caterpillars, but they haven't been exposed to the magic of a caterpillar going through metamorphosis, so also have no emotional connection to them.
There is little nature in these children’s yard to explore because their parents have made sure to “protect” them from it. Children learn what they see. The child living in lifeless yards cannot learn by example the importance of the nature or experience the casual wonder and excitement of exploring the natural world on their own.
There is hope though. A few months ago, when the young brother of the girl scout delivering my cookies realized mine was the next house to stop at, he gleefully jumped up and down shouting "it's the Big Garden House!" Even the eyes of children with lawn-centric yards can be opened to how exciting nature can be. We just need to figure out how to encourage children to have access to more Big Garden Houses like mine and the ones I grew up in.
*Some of the references used to make the points about a childhood exploring nature include memories that involve non-native plants. I'm not suggesting planting non-native plants for these exact experiences but to give children a place to explore nature where they live.
Note - there are no affiliate links in this blog. Click the highlighted text throughout the posts for links to references, explanations or examples that might be interesting or helpful.