Four-year-old Eva came to us last spring for a five week visit after almost a year in Honduras.
“She’s forgotten most of her English,” her father Mark warned. He had continued to speak English to her, but her mother Luz and grandmother Clara, who were also visiting, conversed with her in rapid-fire Spanish.
How could I possibly communicate with this beloved only granddaughter? No problem, it turned out. We both love nature and the outdoors. And because of a then undiagnosed painful condition, my slow pace easily fit hers.
Every nice day, I hoisted my pack on my back, filled with animal crackers and juice for her and a granola bar and tea for me, and set off for a short walk. First she renewed her acquaintanceship with “moss,” a word she remembered from her last visit, fifteen months previously, stooping frequently to stroke our moss-covered trails. Then she extended her interest to the acorns that still littered our trail, filling her pockets with them. Garlic mustard had sprung up in waste places so I crumbled the shiny, green leaves and let her sniff the garlicky odor.
From “moss” to “acorn” to “garlic mustard”, she progressed to “ants.” Like a small bear, she turned over every rock along the trails and we both squatted down to watch dozens of ants scurrying to protect their eggs. She never tired of this pastime, especially since so many other creatures also live under rocks–small, black beetles, insect larvae, earthworms, millipedes, and others I couldn’t identify. No creature was too repulsive for her to pick up and examine. One day she even spent an hour playing happily with a wriggly, worm-like larva she found in rotting bark on the ground.
Our slow, careful examination of the minute led to other discoveries. On April 6 we spotted a female white-breasted nuthatch making her nest in a red maple tree hole. For nearly an hour we sat in the woods and watched her zip from tree hole to nearby trees, where she stripped off bark to line her cavity nest.
The following day we walked down to our small, planked, woodland bridge where she tirelessly threw sticks in the stream and excitedly watched how each one rode the current. She climbed up steep road banks and slid down on her bottom. She balanced her way along fallen logs, only sometimes holding my hand. Fearless and adventuresome, she didn’t complain even when she ended up with wet feet. As she played, she composed songs about what she was doing, which she sang in Spanish at first. But within a few days, forced to communicate about what she loved best–the outdoors–she was speaking broken English to me.
A long spell of bad weather kept us close to home until Easter, a blustery day with intermittent sunshine. That afternoon Eva accompanied me outside in her ankle-length Easter dress, topped by her red winter jacket. Almost immediately we spotted a male American kestrel on the electric wire, resplendently clad in rufous and silver, his tail dipping slowly as he peered alertly around.
Eva chased the first cabbage white butterflies fluttering over the field and picked the first dandelions. To her, what I considered alien, intrusive species, were wondrous.
But everyone was entranced by our resident female bear, accompanied by her three, year-old cubs, playing in the corner of First Field. We rushed out on the veranda to watch. Eva and her grandmother Clara were especially thrilled, but Eva’s excited cries sent the bears up into the woods. Still, I was pleased to learn that mama bear and her cubs had made it through the winter. Instead of the Easter bunny, we had Easter bears.
Late in April I introduced Eva to salamanders. As usual, she was turning over rocks, this time along the edge of our road. One particularly enormous rock which she heaved up yielded a sluggish, lead-colored variant of the redback salamander. It sat obligingly in her hand and she wanted to keep it or at least play with it, but I explained that it needed to stay damp or it would die. Reluctantly, she returned it to its home beneath the rock after we examined it under the hand lens. The second salamander, a northern dusky, moved much faster and disappeared into the ground before she could grab it. But “salamander” also entered her vocabulary and looking for salamanders became another popular pastime.
On a spectacular first of May, I packed more snack food than usual and headed for the Norway spruce grove with her. Uphill through First Field for nearly half a mile, it was the longest walk we had taken. But, as I suspected, the dark grove, with its child-sized passages beneath the overhanging limbs, fascinated her. So too did the dozens of owl pellets we found. She carefully pulled several apart, sorting out the tiny bones and skulls of the owl’s prey. Then she stuffed the pack with them because, like most children, she has a strong collecting instinct.
I also took her to see the Allegheny mound-building ants at work. The two-foot-high mound had been erected out in the open between two Norway spruces. The ants (Formica exsectoides) build in an open, sunny spot to protect the mound from moss which would gradually engulf the mound and smother the ants beneath. The colony of as many as 50,000 red and black ants is headed by a fertile queen and consists mostly of sterile workers and some males. As we watched, dozens of workers scurried up and down the mound, carrying still more debris to pile on top of the mound. Then several banded together to haul a dead caterpillar up the mound and into an entrance hole.
The constant activity kept Eva entertained for a long time, but I finally pried her away to sit in the grove and listen to the American crows. They had built their large, coarse nest in a spruce tree above our heads, but the branches were so thick that we couldn’t see it. We could, however, hear the squalling cries and calls of the nestlings, the answering calls from their parents, and even watch the parents fly in and out. Or perhaps the adults were also siblings of the nestlings helping out since as many as five years of offspring may stay near the parental nest to help out during breeding season, according to Dr. Kevin J. McGowan, a Cornell University ecologist who spends most spring days up in trees that contain crows’ nests. Crows mate for life and have strong family ties, he says. Beneath the nest tree we ate our picnic in silence, not wanting to scare the nestlings or the adults. And Eva learned still another word–“crow.”
Around the home grounds she had a daily routine that consisted of checking out the eastern phoebe nest in the garage, picking bouquets of daffodils and then lilacs, and looking for deer tracks in the spring mud, all of which reminded me of Whitman’s poem,
There was a child went forth every day,
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became,
And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day,
Or for many years or stretching cycles of years.
Together we saw the first ruby-throated hummingbird of the year and a scarlet tanager in the lilac bush. With my husband Bruce she saw her first box turtle and a hen turkey on her nest.
But looking for salamanders in our small, child-sized stream, remained her favorite occupation. Clad in rubber boots, she easily walked down the rock-strewn streambed with me one brilliant day. We caught three mountain dusky salamanders, including one with a gold stripe down its back.
Mostly, though, she exulted in the beauty of the stream environment, once spreading her arms wide and crying exuberantly, “This is beautiful. This must be Africa!”
Why Africa? I wondered, until I remembered all the books I’d read to her about wildlife. The most glamorous animals–elephants and lions–lived in Africa. Somehow, in her mind, Africa had become a wondrous place. Often, like a small opera star, she expressed her happiness in a singing dialogue about what she was doing, though by now she sang exclusively in English.
On the seventh of May, the last day of her visit, it was unseasonably hot. This time we went down to the stream to cool off. Eva sat in the water, playing in the mud, looking under rocks, and building pools while I sat on the bank and soaked my feet in the cold water. Both of us got deliciously wet and muddy. My pain receded and I felt young again.
The following day I helped her fill her wheeled backpack with her favorite books and toys. At the train station she bumped her backpack down the steps behind her father. Then she turned to say goodbye.
“What will you do without your girl?” she asked.
But that parting was not as difficult as others had been. I knew she would be returning in four months to live nearby for a year while her father finished writing his dissertation. And so she did, this time in a car in which she had ridden with her parents all the way from Honduras.
They arrived late in the evening, but the following morning Eva was up and eager to search for salamanders and walk in the field that had turned from green to gold during her absence. We spent hours looking at the insects on the goldenrod, the mating, pink-legged locust borers, ladybug beetles, big, fat bumblebees, and an unusually high population of praying mantises. And, as soon as she could, she dragged me up to the spruce grove in search of the Allegheny mound-building ants.
She insisted on collecting several of the insects, putting them in jars with food and air and taking them to her preschool to show the other students. The praying mantis was a big hit. So were the locust borers and ladybug beetles. I marveled at how far she had come in only a few months, not only improving her English in leaps and bounds, but eager to teach others about the natural world.