From the Pen of Carter P. Smith
The center of attention for our family’s most recent Thanksgiving had little to do with the turkey, dressing, giblet gravy, monkey bread, pumpkin pie or any of the other delectable dishes and homemade desserts that blanketed the dinner table. Curiously, all of that was upstaged by a little baby field mouse hiding in one of the drawers of the ranch house. Yes, a mouse.
I can’t remember who actually found the little thing. It may have been cousin Lee’s husband, Joe. He has a knack for stumbling into those kinds of things. Or, maybe it was cousin Alex. Either way, once found, the baby mouse became the singular object of attention for a gaggle of young cousins, who quickly lost interest in any thing else going on around them, including the Thanksgiving feast.
Once the mouse was brought into the kitchen for “show and tell,” I thought it would be the end of either the mouse or the kids, or both. My mother, however, showed admirable restraint by gently, but firmly and unmistakably, instructing the kids to take the mouse to “its habitat” outside. From there, that mouse may have been the most scrutinized animal on the planet. Each of the kids took turns holding it and examining its every feature. Questions streamed from the little bevy of children like water from an artesian well: What does it eat? When will it grow up? How big will it get? Where does it live?
Putting aside the drama in the kitchen, I was rather intrigued by the whole affair — the kids’ insatiable curiosity, the intensity of their focus and the swiftness in which they became absorbed in questions big and small about an animal, albeit a mouse. I couldn’t help but chuckle and think that maybe one day one of those little cousins will manifest that interest in animals and become a biologist, birder, naturalist or simply a plain old outdoor enthusiast interested in Texas’ wild things and wild places.
In speaking with friends about such things, I realized that kids can find a spark of nature just about anywhere they look. A rancher buddy of mine reinforced that notion with me through a story he told about being left alone one weekend with his two little girls while his wife went out of town. He said that for two days straight, his little girls occupied themselves in a little portion of the front yard collecting and studying sticks, leaves, stones, grass blades, soil, insects, bones and other trappings of nature found right in the ranch yard. Mind you, these girls live on a sprawling West Texas ranch, and, as my friend commented, they found all the nature they needed right their in their front yard. Maybe, he mused, that’s all a kid in town needs, too: to be exposed to the bits of nature found in front and back yards, pocket parks, schoolyards, greenbelts and other undeveloped places around us.
How children in rural and urban areas alike become exposed to and, we hope, engaged in the natural world is a subject of great interest to those of us at your Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Quite frankly, it may be one of the most important questions we confront, as we work to develop today’s kids into tomorrow’s anglers, hunters, park enthusiasts, birders, hikers, kayakers, conservationists, naturalists and responsible users and stewards of the outdoors.
With support from a bipartisan group of legislators, we’ve launched the Texas Partnership for Children in Nature, an initiative designed to address two fundamental priorities: how to get more Texas kids and their families into the outdoors and how to arrest the burgeoning trend of natural resources illiteracy. With active participation from educators, health care professionals, businesses, faith-based organizations, conservation groups, agricultural interests, private landowners and others, we are making pretty good headway on a statewide plan.
To learn more about how we can all work collaboratively to connect children with Texas’ rich natural and outdoor heritage, I hope you’ll visit www.texaschildreninnature.org. If you don’t already have a New Year’s resolution, I can think of no better resolution than introducing a child to what all of us who read this magazine already know well … Life’s better outside!