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How Did I Connect with Nature?

Liz Lerner

Over the years I’ve lived on Cape Cod, I have probably given well over a hundred talks and readings at various libraries and other public venues around the Cape. I usually allow some time for a Q&A session at the end, and one question I can be almost certain I will be asked is, “When and how did you first connect with Nature?”

It’s a tricky question partly because I’m not exactly sure what “connect with nature” means, but also because some of our deepest connections seem to slip into our lives before we are even aware of it – and then we make up stories about how it happened.

For instance, I’d like to tell you a story about how a loving parent took his young son into the backyard at night and with a 14” telescope introduced him to the wonders of the cosmos. Or how an inspiring teacher became a mentor and took the young boy on river trips where he encountered the wonderful world of aquatic biology. But it didn’t happen that way.

Oh, there was a river in my youth all right, but it was the Passaic River in northern New Jersey, which at that time had the dubious distinction of being one of the ten most polluted rivers in the United States. It, in turn, was bordered by a vast tract of sterile Phragmites marsh, known today as the Meadowlands. My idea of a river, then, was something whose bottom was littered with broken glass and whose surface was covered with rainbow-colored oil slicks, and my idea of a marsh was something that was usually on fire.

Still, even in such unpromising settings nature instills herself into a child’s life, though usually for pragmatic reasons, rather than as a result of native curiosity. I had, for example, a rather intimate connection with trees as a kid. I remember how each spring my friends and I sought out the crooked-branched black-plated trees that seemed to grow in most every backyard playground or park. Climbing up the rough trunks we stripped the fruiting branches of their small hard green berries to use as ammunition for the then-legal peashooters that arrived at our corner Mom and Pop store each spring. It was decades before I learned these: “pea trees,” were actually Wild Black Cherries.

No less useful were the stunted thorny trees we found in vacant lots. Their sprouts, shooting up out of junk and trash made superb bows for our Cowboy and Indian games, and their weird fruit – large, warty, globular green spheres filled with acrid-smelling milky pulp – were perfect for summer snowball fights. We might have taken more pride in our childhood archery had we known that this tree was highly valued as bow wood by the Osage Indians of Arkansas and Missouri, after which it was named – the Osage Orange,

I could give you several more examples, but I guess you could say that my connection with nature as a young child was based in aggressive and bellicose play rather than any deep curiosity about nature itself.

When I was twelve, our family moved to Parkersburg, West Virginia a small city that was less intensely urban than my birthplace, but still more urban than rural. Here I continued to have infrequent encounters with the natural world, most of them happenstance rather than intentional. And I’ll tell you about some of these at this same time next week.

Robert Finch is a nature writer living in Wellfleet. 'A Cape Cod Notebook' won the 2006 New England Edward R. Murrow Award for Best Radio Writing.