What are we learning? I don't know. Something. But it's fun.

I know nothing about nature.

An odd thing for an eco-geek and professional environmentalist to confess, I grant you, but it’s true. I know nothing about nature. Oh sure, I have an undergrad degree in Environmental Studies complete with courses on ecology, biology, complex systems, remediation, and the history of environmental thought. And yes, I do have a bookshelf full of field guides, albums and hard disks crammed with nature photos, pictures on the walls, and a deep and abiding love and appreciation for the life cycle of the trout lily and the trillium. But that’s just it. Once you’ve learned that much, you know that you could spend the rest of your life doing nothing but learning about non-human nature, and at the end of your alloted threescore-and-ten, you would still know so very little that it would amount to nothing at all. Nothing of any significance. A mere fingernail scratch on the surface of our vast and collective ignorance.

I think it’s a cheat, personally, and am very bitter that I only get that threescore-and-ten to figure it all out. If it’s going to take me a millenium, then dammit, why don’t I get one? Anyway, that’s not the point. The point is, I know nothing about nature.

Which makes you wonder–and well you might, since it makes me wonder–what special form of hubris I must suffer under to think that I am qualified to teach Frances anything whatsoever about nature?

Good question. Umm … I don’t know.

Biologists used to think that there might be as many as three million different species on the planet, until an enterprising entomologist (Terry Irwin from the National Museum of Natural History) went and fumigated a single tree of a single species in the Panamanian rainforest. Just one. Underneath it, before the fumigation, he’d placed several overlapping metre-wide funnels, so that anything that fell out of the tree could be collected and classified. And from just this one tree–just one!–he found 1200 species of beetles, 163 of them specific to this one species of tree. Extrapolating from this study, Erwin estimated that there may be 30,000,000 species of arthropods in the world, let alone mammals and worms and birds and all the rest. It was a controversial estimate, but even naysayers now assume that there are at least 2.5 million and possibly over 10 million species of arthropods. Arthropods!  And here I am, teaching Frances about pine trees. Biologists now estimate that the earth may host as many as 100,000,000 species, and likely between five and twenty million. Of which we have classified 1.5 million (and many of those assumed to be duplicates).

That’s a lot. By the time we catalogue them all so many more will have evolved that we’d be starting from scratch again. As a species, collectively, we’ll never know anything more than the most basic information about nature. This doesn’t stop us from obliterating 100 species every day … but that’s another post.

I don’t know anything about non-human nature. YOU, dear reader, know nothing about non-human nature. Our most emminent biological experts know NOTHING about non-human nature. This is an insoluble ignorance. We might as well get comfortable with it.

So who do I think I am, taking Frances outside to teach her about nature?

Well. I do teach her a couple things, like acorns turn into oak trees, chipmunks are fiercer than squirrels, maple syrup comes from maple trees but not the kind growing out back, chickadees stay here all winter, that trillium is at least seven years old, this Queen Anne’s Lace is actually a wild carrot and not native to Southern Ontario, and other unrelated bits of trivia that I’ve collected over the years. It all adds up to … nothing, probably. Not even as much as she’d need to pass a highschool ecology test.

She’s not learning about math outside, when she’s with me, though we often count things we see. She’s not learning about art or aesthetics, though we often comment on the beauty of what we find. She’s not learning about biology in any practical way when I teach her about tadpoles and frogs, and she’s too young to be terrified of the natural world so I don’t tell her about the endocrine disruptors we’ve dumped so much of into the environment that many frogs are going extinct because they can no longer reproduce. Maybe she’ll pick up enough to be useful to her in her future academic or professional careers, and maybe not.

I don’t care.

So long as she learns to love it.

She won’t love it in the same way or for the same reasons I do. That’s ok. There are at least 5,000,000 good reasons to love the world (though falling fast); we don’t need to share them.

It’s so easy with kids. They have a natural affinity for animals and growing things. All you need to do is give them an opportunity and get out of the way. Just don’t tell them it’s gross or dirty or going to give them the plague.

But in another way, it’s so much harder than memorizing and reciting cool facts. I am teaching my daughter to love a dying world.

No one ever fought to save something they didn’t love first. She won’t fight to save our world–neither will you, neither will your kids–if she doesn’t love it first. So I’ll take her outside to teach her to love it, and let her figure out the rest for herself.

There are compensations.

Wood Song

Sarah Teasdale

I heard a wood thrush in the dusk
Twirl three notes and make a star.
My heart that walked with bitterness
Came back from very far.

Three shining notes were all he had,
And yet they made a starry call–
I caught life back against my breast
And kissed it, scars and all.

What if a bird’s song could do that for you, or your child?

The world is a big, beautiful place, even broken and hobbled as it is, filled with amazing and gorgeous things, most of which have nothing to do with us. One thousand two hundred species of beetle in a single tree in the Panamanian rainforest. And we think our cities are diverse.

It’s not hard to love it, and love’s not hard to teach. Kids can fall in love with a mud puddle, if you let them get dirty. Just take them outside and get out of their way, and everything else will fall into place.


This post is part of Backyard Mama’s children & nature carnival.  Looks like there’s a bunch of good stuff there already, so head over and check it out.

11 thoughts on “Ignorance

  1. Awesome! I love the line “All you need to do is give them an opportunity and get out of the way.” To me this is the essence of sharing nature with children- let them be in charge and creative and actively engaged in their own learning.

    Thank you so much for participating in this carnival. I am so excited to share this with you and incredibly grateful to have met you.

    come back next week! Shannon

  2. I love, love, love this post.
    Your line” I am teaching my daughter to love a dying world”. That’s exactly what I am trying to do with the help from my book characters “The Little Humbugs”.

    I can’t wait to read more of your blog-thank you for sharing and thanks to Shannon for starting the carnival!

  3. I wish I had written that! It’s so very very true and apt, given that I consort with a six year old who loves every bug and frog she encounters.
    All we can really give them is the tools to live in the natural world with the fewest footprints possible.

    Not that any of this prevents me from relocating chipmunks who tunnel into the septic system tile bed. They get a long drive away from the house and a swift good-bye.

  4. Stumbled here via your comment on Thordora’s post. Loved it! Loved this too. I work at a nature centre and it’s incredible to see young kids throw themselves into the natural world found in urban Toronto. But I’m reminded of the own changes I saw in my natural world – in the mid 80s I couldn’t wander down my street (just north of TO) w/o caterpillars dropping on me. These days you have to look long and hard to find caterpillar nests in the summer.
    Conservation can only come from appreciation. And, for the record, you can absolutely tap Norway maples for sap to turn into syrup. Not Far from the Tree did it this winter!

    1. Thank you. 🙂

      You’re right. Waht we consider normal in nature changes so quickly, and what our kids will grow up believing is normal is not what we had.

  5. I remember skating on the Humber River in Woodbridge – ice at least six inches thick. I miss the kind of winters with at least 10 snow days. This year we had one decent day of snow to break out the snowshoes.

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