When my son was nine months old, I would come home from work on summer afternoons, put him in our Kelty kid-carrying backpack, and take him on what I called Touch Missions. Kids at that age explore their world mostly by putting it into their mouths, but also through touch. I wanted to teach him the texture of the world. We touched tree bark, flower petals, dog fur, cat fur, leaves, rocks, berries, rain drops on smooth wood beams, earthworms, soil, and probably much more that I don’t remember.
Rachel Carson wrote, beautifully:
If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.
Carson was not a mother herself, but she took it upon herself to initiate her nephew, Roger, into the ways of wonder. The real fairies, Carson wrote, are the adults who have retained a sense of wonder themselves and pass it along to the children in their lives. By the time my son and I were touching the world together, I knew I wanted him to have a sense of connection with the natural world, but I was still only dimly aware of how much of my connection was forged during my own childhood.
My son won’t remember the Touch Missions, just as I have only the vaguest recollection of my father carrying me out at night to see the “pretty dark.” I do believe, though, that those first introductions that occur at the very edge of where conscious memory begins can serve as powerful invitations into the natural world. We may not be aware of them as adults, but I wonder whether these dormant experiences lead to encounters at successive ages and form the foundation for Carson’s treasured sense of wonder.
Tonight, Sean and I rekindled the Touch Mission tradition, retooling it from a nine month old’s experience to a nine-year old’s. By his own admission, my son spends a lot of time on electronics, and not as much outside. So recently, I’ve been trying to give him the opportunity to experience the outdoors in various ways I hope will make an impression on him. I took him to the freshwater springs in Florida over spring break, and tonight, I took him to the lakes we found this week.
I’m hoping that if I give him the tools — and the hook — to learn to appreciate the outdoors, that in a few years he’ll do what I did as a kid: surreptitiously wander and explore on his own initiative, without my involvement. The lakes, which we walked to at dusk, didn’t disappoint. Though we didn’t encounter the coyotes, we did see a rabbit, which arguably impressed him more. (After all, he has a dog at home.) We touched lamb’s ear and water plants, comparing the soft texture of the two plants. We squelched through mud. He found a walking stick immediately, which he later used to try to spear fish. (It didn’t work.) We picked apart an owl pellet with a stick, nudging aside the rodent bones, a claw, and grey fur the bird had been unable to digest. I pointed out the game trail where the coyotes and deer come and go from the forest.
So far, so good.