To the Woods

Charting a natural course for childhood, from skinks to cicadas, bugs to bogs, and birds to butterflies.

By T. Edward Nickens


On Saturdays I load the truck with dip nets and butterfly nets, spare socks and boots, hiking sticks, a day pack stuffed with magnifying glasses and bug specimen boxes, bug dope, snacks, canteens of apple juice, and headlamps, because you never know. Frequently there are fishing rods, a canoe, and an old pillowcase in case we catch a snake.

I load the truck and then glance toward the front yard: Markies 20 feet up the maple tree; Jack's jumping off the stone wall. Both are perfectly happy. This is crazy, I think. Is it really worth all this trouble? But I am determined.

"Okay, kids!" I holler. "Let's go to the woods!"

They yelp and squeal and shimmy down the tree and clamber over the wall, my reward paid in hugs and enthusiasm. Markie is six years old, a little girl with a grin full of tooth gaps like a jack-o'-lantern. Jack is a Dennis the Menace lookalike, almost four, with an equal fondness for pirate swords and his sister's plastic sparkly high heels. It's possible they would just as soon stay home and play. But I made my decision long ago.

We live in a wonderful old neighborhood in Raleigh, North Carolina, where we can walk to school, church, and three playgrounds. We're lucky to live there. But to find anything resembling unfettered nature, we have to drive. Not far—we're doubly blessed to live within a quick drive of huge swaths of game lands and state parks. Yet it's still a major effort to get us up and out when we've gotten up and out—to school and work—for five days running. But I am determined to give my children a childhood as full of bugs and bogs and canoe trips as it is of big city museums and gymnastics lessons and winter trips to indoor swimming pools.

Which means on Saturdays, I load the truck. To take my kids to a creek worth wading in requires a 15-minute drive to Umstead State Park, but we do it, and often. We go so we can build a fort in a patch of quiet woods and turn over logs in hopes of spotting a spotted salamander. We drive to nearby Falls Lake to canoe, and to private ponds to fish. There's a gully in Schenck Forest that's a favorite spot for hide-and-seek, a local pond where we dip-net crawfish.

Around the neighborhood we go out of our way to bump into the natural world. When Markie and Jack were small enough to fit into a stroller, I covered them with leaves and showed them the leathery bark of sycamores and the difference between the lobes of white-oak leaves and red-oak leaves. They would stare from behind their sippy cups, barely comprehending. For years we placed boards, rocks, and sticks throughout the neighborhood to turn over for bugs at various places on our family "strolly" walks. Now they hop off their bikes and skateboards to look for crickets and centipedes.

I know the neighbors think I'm nuts. Not infrequently they see my children and me lying in the middle of the sidewalk, Markie's brown curls atop my left shoulder, Jack's blond bangs on my right. On hot summer days we watch for shapes in the clouds. In the cool evening hours we count swallows overhead and thrill at the occasional nighthawk that slices across the sky. We're on the sidewalk at night, too, counting stars, talking about the moon's shapes, wishing for a wishing star or that an owl would hoot.

By Thursday, most weeks, I've already sketched out the weekend's possibilities. It might seem odd to plan for the often serendipitous unfolding of nature, but these days, in my neck of the neighborhood, that's what it takes. My wife, Julie, and I plan and plot nearly every other element of our children's lives: We pore over school applications, wring hands over birthday-party themes, and multitask by memorizing spelling words and Bible verses on the way to school. And we give equal thought and energy to making sure the kids learn it's perfectly okay to pick up a frog.

And I want my children's awe of a butterfly to be paired with an equal understanding that nature is not always pretty. Things eat other things. The squirrel's quirky quickness is its means to confound the hawk. Most baby birds die before they learn to fly. And humans are a part of it all, at one level or another.

So they wait for me when I've been hunting, and burst out the front door as I pull into the drive. I pass out the ducks between them so they can study them on their own. They pull feathers to take to show-and-tell, and giggle at the webbed feet and, of course, they ask: Daddy, why? I can feel the leaden eyes of disapproving neighbors, but I know what I'm doing, and what my kids are learning.

It's work, but it works. Today my kids love a "roly-poly"—a pill bug—as much as a new toy. They tenderly care for tent caterpillars like fussing mothers. They can identify eastern towhees, mourning doves, northern cardinals, and American robins by their songs. At night they've been known to read field guides before going to bed. And they keep hoping I'll bring home a turkey from the woods. Just like the Pilgrims, Markie says.

I didn't have to drive to woods where I grew up. My home was well inside the city limits of High Point, but my backyard abutted 40 acres of woods as wild as Alaska to me. I spent most of my childhood and teenage years in those woods, bowhunting squirrels and rabbits—illegally, I now understand—tracking animals, playing out a million Kit Carson and Jim Bowie fantasies. Right out my back door were two creeks where I collected banded water snakes and rough green snakes and bullfrog tadpoles. The snakes hibernated in double-knotted pillowcases in the vegetable crisper of our refrigerator—God bless my mama. And the tadpoles I sold door to door, two for a quarter, hauling them in pickle jars, clinking in an old red wagon, to family friends and grinning older couples who didn't have the heart to say no. Two for a quarter! I thought. Who could turn that deal down?

We're counting stars,
talking about the
moon's shapes, wishing
for a wishing star
that an owl would hoot.

I could stay in the woods till Mama rang a small dinner bell mounted on the wall outside the back door, and often the bell didn't ring until nearly black dark. Such freedoms I can't imagine extending to my children. Not where I live. Not anywhere in these times. So I load up the truck and drive.

Many parents, I suppose, can be rightfully accused (and instantly forgiven) for attempting to give their children the childhoods they enjoyed. "Don't force it," Julie cautions. And she's right. I never haul them kicking and screaming to the woods.

It's not that I disapprove of Barbie and her ilk. (Okay, I do, but I've learned to choose my battles.) I love my little girl in smocked dresses and pink hair bands, skipping to church. I get a kick out of Jack's attraction to any object with wheels and to the fact that he can spy a Carolina Hurricanes logo at extraordinary distances. But I also know that when they're given the choice between computer games and skateboards or dam building and rock throwing on Sycamore Creek, we're going to end up muddy.

There's still a gracious plenty of unnecessary plastic objects around the house: Rescue Heroes and Polly Pockets and a small universe of Tiggers, Scooby-Doos, and a Spiderman or three. But so far . . . so far they have bounded out to the truck, teddy bear and Barbie backpacks flapping against the backs of their knees. "Where are we going, Daddy?" "I want to build a fort!" "No, I want to look for five-lined skinks." Either way, I win.

One day, I know, such victories will be hard to come by. But I'll have planted the seed. I'll be happy with whatever takes root. So far I'm hopeful. Never will I forget the time that Markie screamed at the top of her voice from the backseat, "Cicada skin! Daddy, Daddy, a cicada skin!!" For weeks on our walks I'd pointed out the amber-colored skins of cicada nymphs, left behind on tree trunks after they crawled out of the ground to molt into the hot summer insects with the familiar treetop buzz. Each day she searched for one, but to no avail. Then, as we were driving down a neighborhood street, she spied her Holy Grail, clinging to a crape myrtle. She beamed with delight. "Yaaaay, Sissie!" Jack hooted. I wanted to put a bumper sticker on my truck that read: my child spots cicada skins at 30 mph!

But then last night I heard the two of them up in Markie's room assembling her extensive menagerie of stuffed animals. I walked by the room as they were adorning Pretty Pony, Snow Tiger, and the much-beloved, multigenerational family of Tiggers with several pounds' worth of play jewelry. They glittered and shone, each one meticulously made up like a doll. Cute as a button.

"What are ya'll doing?" I asked, and sat down on the floor nearby.

"Playing school," Markie replied, with an unmistakable pause reserved for her unspoken "Duh, Daddy."

They made quite a pair of pint-size pedagogues, she in her fluffy pink fleece bathrobe and Jack in a leather superhero mask, tightly gripping a pirate sword.

I recognized in that moment that it wouldn't last forever, that they would pursue their own interests in their own ways, and that their little lives would take on their own trajectories that may or may not reflect the places where they started. Maybe they would remember our walks and hikes—Sarah the box turtle, Lela the five-lined skink, the first bluegill on a Mickey Mouse fishing rod. Or maybe not. I smelled defeat.

Then Jack handed Markie a book. "Listen up!" he exhorted, with a mighty slash of his sword. And Markie addressed her class. "Today, children, we're reading my favorite book: Why I Like Snakes."


T. Edward Nickens wrote "Living on the Edges" in the September 2003 Audubon.


© 2004 National Audubon Society

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