Natural Literacy

A child camping overnight on a spoil island off the coast of Florida single-mindedly follows a long skinny slide in the sand. He ignores the mosquitoes and happily jumps over the roots of red mangrove. He loves reptiles and he knows the trail will lead him to a snake.

The cool sand in the track indicates the age of the print in the hot sun. He follows it further, nearly losing the track in a maze of blanket flowers, until he comes upon a slab of coquina rock near the beach. The very end of a scaled tail moves slowly into the shadow of the rock.

At a respectful distance of five feet, he crouches low to the ground and squints to see into the darkness. He might have reached in to grab it immediately a year ago, before a bite from a rat snake had taught him a lesson. He doesn’t hear hissing or rattling, but the shadowed body clearly displays ominous red, yellow, and black stripes.

Red on yellow, he considers for a moment. He smiles at the coral snake, takes a mental picture, and turns to leave the intensely venomous animal behind.

Scenes such as this are common throughout the woods and waysides of North America. When children are free to explore and experience the natural world outside of school, they learn without lesson plans through their observations. In summer, our young herpetologist will head to camp, where counselors encourage children to enjoy nature by reading signs and looking for the stories in the flight of a red tailed hawk or a splash in the lake. Each day spent outside with the birds and worms teaches them a different type of reading, a natural literacy, and the ability to interpret and comprehend natural messages.

Counselors never mention to students that they are reading when they spot gopher tortoise prints and troweled slides in the sand. To most children, reading involves boring passages from textbooks in school or the pleasurable escapes in a volume of Harry Potter. And yet, their literacy of the natural world increases with each track they recognize, each foxtail millet spray used to feed wild birds, each ripple of water made by sociable mosquito fish they proudly call Gambusia.

Children are not the only people skilled in observing and interpreting nature. Hikers, fishermen, hunters, and weekend warriors build their understanding of plants and animals through a lifetime of observation and attention to detail. Natural literacy for these people, and for their children, serves their needs and provides enjoyment. It gives them the knowledge to avoid the dangers of wild places and to fully explore and enjoy their hobbies and pursuits.

 This ability enables our young snake enthusiast to happily track an animal through a mangrove swamp, have the thrill of seeing a wild coral snake, and avoid a deadly bite. For children at summer camp, natural literacy makes them appreciate the defensive behaviors of Florida scrub jay just as much as it protects them from poison ivy growing alongside the trail. Their reading of the shape and glossy cuticle of the leaves indicates precisely which plants are poison ivy and which are harmless passionflower and grapevine.

Sailors from a time long past were consummately literate in the language of nature and movements of the ocean. Some of their predictions still exist, distilled down into short phrases of advice about the sea.

Red sea at night, sailor’s delight,” forecasts a calm night and a fine tomorrow.

Fish scales and horsetails mean tall ships have full sails,” predicts plenty of wind for the voyage from the scattered patterns of clouds.

Mariners charted courses by constellations of stars and predicted land from the presence of sea birds on the wing. Sailors were not always so lucid in their observations. They are the same people who envisioned beautiful, half-human mermaids from the upturned tails of manatees. And yet, natural literacy includes folklore of creatures and fantastic beasts. Such stories echo the importance of culture, history, and the human perspective in the process of interpreting nature’s hidden messages.

Natural literacy can enhance the education of children and adults in the formal classroom environment. Students of biology may be able to recite the Latin name for barracuda, but unless they have been deep-sea fishing, they don’t know what to use for bait to catch them. Unless those students have been diving, they may have no idea that the predatory fish like to hang out in the shadow of anchored boats, waiting for easy prey.

Natural literacy enables a graduate student to predict the next spawning of horseshoe crabs under a full moon and to recognize their covered nests as slightly rounded depressions in the sand. She knows that where the seagulls and terns pluck at the beach the green eggs of the crab-like sea creatures are sure to be found.

Unfortunately, our culture no longer values the skill of natural literacy as a necessity of survival in a modern world. Tracking animals for food might be a necessity if our modern day freezers were not full of farmed meat. The knowledge of edible plants could help foraging campers survive should bears attack the lockbox of food in their car. The ability to recognize the songs of birds might help us keep time if it were not for the clocks on our wrists.

Natural phenomena became a lost language in this century and reading them turned into a hobby instead of an armament for survival.

Despite the pleasure in reading nature few children today seem interested in the habits and movements of the natural world. In a childhood full of iPods, cell phones, video games, and organized play-dates, children frequently form relationships only to the cartoon versions of the natural world.

They live within a wired reality that leaves no room for the natural world of dirt, insects, earthworms, and scraped knees. Most are hard pressed to tie a slipknot, let alone employ it when raising flags over campsites or tying horses to the post for a morning groom.

These housebound children view dirt as a nuisance on the keyboard or something their mothers admonish them to leave on the doormat. They do not read the wind for flying kites, they cannot follow footprints on a riverbank to track otters, and they cannot predict which wave in a set will carry them the farthest up the beach on their kickboard.

Those people that still read the natural world fear the loss of this skill and the loss of children who are literate in the language of nature. They hope for the day that natural literacy, and this way of reading, becomes a part of every person’s education.

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One Comment to “Natural Literacy”

  1. Writing an article that will come out in March 2009 “Reading across a dozen literacies” which I will also present as a speech at the Wisconsin state reading association conference in February. I just finished writing a section on “natural literacy” and then went looking for supportive material and extended reading resources. Your page is wonderful, so I will encourage readers to enjoy it.

    Many thanks . . .
    Jamie