Tag Archives: Nature

Fairy Houses – Tracy Kane

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There is a small island off the coast of Maine, or so the story goes, where the inhabitants protect a secret host of creatures who live in the woods. Fairy Houses, Tracy Kane’s lovely picture book about the magic that comes from believing, tells the tale of what happens when a summer visitor discovers the secret in the woods.

Kristen’s parents promise a surprise for their summer vacation but she can’t guess at what it is until she finds the sign in the woods beyond their cottage: You may build houses small and hidden for the fairies, but please do not use living or artificial materials. Kristen is charmed by the tiny houses she finds nestled in crevices in the rocks or in dark openings in the trunks of old trees. The woods are full of fairy houses made from sticks, pebbles, acorns, bird feathers, mushroom caps and fallen leaves. She begins right away to build her own.

Daily Kristen checks on her tiny house, hoping to spot a fairy. One chirpy day a cricket pops out of the door. Kristen adds some red berries for the fairies to eat and the next day she finds a pair of finches feasting on her berries. She makes a small pool from stones and water from a nearby stream–and a frog splashes in for a quick bath. Acorns and pine cones lure a hungry squirrel. A collection of salty seashells to decorate the house tempts a solitary deer.  And then, on the last day of her vacation, something shows up at the fairy house that Kristen can hardly believe.

I love the idea of fairy houses. As a kid I was sure a hive of fairies lived in the clefts of an old tree at the edge of our property. Sometimes I could hear their angry buzzing when people threatened their peace and quiet. I would have been enchanted to make a house for them–maybe less bitching from the fairies, too. A shame I didn’t have Tracy Kane’s delightful book as inspiration–although I do live near a park with a lot of old trees. Maybe it’s not too late.

Fairy Houses (The Fairy Houses Series)   Tracy Kane | Great White Dog Picture Company  2001

The Tiny Seed – Eric Carle

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I am a sucker for beautifully done cycle-of-life stories and Eric Carle’s The Tiny Seed is one of them. The art is typically exuberant and imaginative. The words are simple and evocative. It’s a book that would make perfect sense to a very small child and is so well written that even a grown-up can understand it.

The adventure begins in autumn when the wind blows a scatter of flower seeds high across the land. One seed is much tinier than the rest but it, too, is caught up in the air and sent flying. It barely keeps up with the others as they encounter the hazards of nature. A seed flies too high and is burnt up by the sun, another lands on an icy mountain. As the tiny seed slows and drops lower, one seed falls into the ocean and is eaten by a fish. Another lands on the parched desert and dies. When all of the remaining seeds finally fall to earth, hungry birds and mice compete with winter to threaten their survival and spring brings its own challenges.

Learn about the conditions for seed germination, what it means to pick a pretty wildflower, how a random patch of shade can stunt growth and how the tiniest bits of life can become the most fabulous and impressive. By summer, magical things are happening to flower seeds and the winged creatures that visit them. And then the days are shorter and a chill wind begins to blow–a wind that could shake loose a handful of tiny seeds and send them tumbling far and wide.

So thank you, Eric Carle, for yet another lovely glimpse of nature from the brush of a genius through the delighted, all-knowing eyes of a child. 

The Tiny Seed (World of Eric Carle)   Eric Carle | Simon & Schuster   1987

Last Child in the Woods — Richard Louv

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The blast of droning buzz saws woke me up. It took a few minutes to connect the noise with a dispiriting idea. When I opened the shutters, branches of the large tree in a courtyard two doors down were juddering under the assault. The workers took it down, branch by leafy branch, in a practiced system that prevented any errant limbs from falling on the neighboring concrete slabs, clusters of lawn furniture and massive barbecue machines. Urban tree removal. Doubtless, the owners of the rental brownstone were planning their own pave-over of a postage-stamp garden plot to simplify maintenance and create a recreational feature as a selling point for a former “garden apartment.”

Last Child in the Woods describes the shrinking of nature and of children’s encounters with it. Natural habitats are disappearing from our cities, suburbs and even rural areas. Kids sit in front of screens, getting fatter and stupider by the decade, completely oblivious to the natural world around them. Our children do not know much about animals, plants, eco-systems or seasons first-hand. And Richard Louv cites plenty of research to show they are poorer for it.

Time spent in nature has been shown to relieve symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), stress and depression, and increase student performance on tests. Nature is a cure for what ails us. Green architecture and urban/suburban planning not only preserve species but enhance the lives of the people who live in those forward-thinking places. It probably helps property values, too, but that’s not the point. “Nature-deficit disorder” is Louv’s point, a condition that impoverishes the soul, the imagination, the brain, the body and the planet.

We need nature, Louv argues, and we will not thrive or progress without it. Children are increasingly alienated from dirt, danger and discovery—and there are ways to expose them productively to all of those things so that they develop a delight in the natural world, the skills to protect themselves and the confidence to handle challenges. Kids who grow up isolated from nature have no affinity for the planet and its creatures and that is a profound deprivation.  

Louv was preaching to a choir of one in this reader. I was the homeschool mama who organized pond scum parties, horseshoe crab spawning surveys and nesting sea turtle tracking for small groups of excited city kids. We took our mini-sketchbooks and watercolor kits to parks as well as museums; we picnicked at sunset on the banks of the Hudson River. It wasn’t enough. Raising hermit crabs and swallowtail butterflies in the bedroom and caring for domestic pets isn’t enough either—but it’s something. A pale thing. Not all that intensely green but a little green. The electronic screens are going full-bore around here all the time–we need so much more.     

Swimming in a sea of cortisol is the encounter with the natural world most available to me these days. A walk down the unused bridal trail through the scarred old trees of the park is a calming antidote to that but it’s far too temporary. A vegetable garden, an old fruit tree, uninvited rabbits and deer, encouraged butterflies and birds might be a better life. A view through green or bare branches is surely an improvement over the stark vista of metal, plastic, concrete and the backs of buildings we have now.    

I used to wake to loud birdsong in the morning. Our apartment is next to Central Park, on an important East Coast flyover for migrating birds. We had butterflies along with the birds, visiting the courtyard gardens below and the plants on our wide window ledges. There was a pair of cardinals that made their nest every year in the lost tree or one of the other trees to fall victim to the passion for concrete and dollars. We saw orioles, blue jays, finches—and a sprinkling of more exotic birds all spring, summer and fall. No more.

The tree that was ripped into chunks, wood-chipped and carted away had a big nest in it, visible from our window. Its leafy branches provided us with shade and some privacy from the windows of apartments opposite. In the winter, it held glittering strands of snow. And now it’s gone. We are diminished. The ideas and examples of greening detailed in Last Child in the Woods are hopeful. They provide the rational excuse for what should need no explanation. If we don’t value nature and turn our children loose to encounter nature, they never experience what it is like to fully live.

Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder    Richard Louv  | Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill  2005

Related post: The Tree by John Fowles