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In This Place

How Did I Connect with Nature, Part Two

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Liz Lerner
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CAI

When I was twelve, our family moved to Parkersburg, West Virginia, a small city that was less intensely urban than my New Jersey birthplace, but still more urban than rural. Here, too, I lived on a river – the Ohio – which was not as polluted as the Passaic, but which was essentially cut off from view and access by a tall concrete floodwall built after the great floods of 1938. For all intents and purposes, I was hardly aware a river was there.

Still, I must have had a seed of a naturalist’s curiosity, because I remember one summer when I was thirteen I began collecting black-widow spiders from under rocks I found in our neighbor’s yard across the street. Black widows are unmistakable with their shiny black bodies and characteristic red hourglass figures on their abdomens. I had heard a lot about black widows, and found it exciting to think that something venomous lived on the same street that I did. (Its bite, I read, can create`` a very powerful and painful reaction, but is rarely, if ever, fatal.” I coaxed one of the spiders into a glass jar containing some toothpicks that it could use to fashion a web, and pierced holes in the jar lid so that it could breathe.

Sure enough, she almost immediately began weaving her messy, chaotic web. After several days, I noticed a small, silvery ball attached to the web –the spider had produced an egg sac! I felt proprietary, and protective. Then several days later, I noticed that several dozen tiny spiderlings were crawling around inside the jar.

My satisfaction and pride in having created such a scene, however, turned to mild panic as, looking more closely, I saw lines of tiny spiderlings crawling up through the air holes in the jar lid, then disappearing down the legs of my desk onto the carpet floor.

My panic however, lasted only a few seconds as I remembered that my mother, like so many housewives of that era was a compulsive cleaner. Not only did she wipe down every surface in the house with disinfectant several times a week, she would even clean the kitchen walls (who cleans kitchen walls?) My panic quickly turned to relief as I realized that no spiderling stood a chance against my mother’s cleaning juggernauts

My only other so-called “natural experience’ of note in my adolescence came in high school, where I entered a science fair with a project on Planaria, or flatworms. Flatworms are freshwater annelids with the curious capacity for regenerating amputated or mutilated body parts. If you cut a flatworm across the middle, the head-part will regrow a tail, and the tail-part a head. If you slice a flatworm longitudinally –half-way down through the middle, each half of the head will regrow the other half, leaving you with a two-headed flatworm. And so on. I’m afraid my interest in flatworms and the exhibit I set up revealed a freak-show voyeurism more than a budding naturalist’s curiosity, but nonetheless it won a prize.

Well, I’m afraid that’s about the extent of my contact with and curiosity about the natural world as a child. Not exactly a model for environmental education, but the fact that somehow these random experiences were an integral part of a still-mysterious process that eventually led me to a career as a “nature writer” suggests to me that nature doesn’t care what reasons you have for interacting with her – admirable or, in my case – not so admirable. Once the contact is made, she will draw you in and use you for purposes you could never have imagined.