“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
— Annie Dillard
(from my upcoming book about using the whole (and natural world) to teach your children)
All along the Conchetopa Creek in the Colorado Rockies are miles and miles of beaver dams in all stages of construction and deterioration. Behind dry, deserted dams, the silt is built up to dam level, making it clear that it was time for the beavers to move on. Further along the stream we come across an active dam and the difference is visually obvious. If we crouch down to eye level with the dam breast, even my one-year old son, Bryce can see how it raises the water level a few feet. Entrance holes are clearly visible in their homes. On land, the children run their fingertips over the tooth marks on pointed stubs of trees that the beavers have gnawed down and hauled away, some so recently that wood chips are scattered around.
The beavers personally impact us when it comes to fording the creek for they built a dam right where the Colorado Trail crosses, making our ford thigh deep instead of a hop across. It is obvious, the beavers are in charge, and they can radically change a manmade trail in a matter of days.
Tonight, my eagle eye daughter is the first to spot the beaver, silently gliding in the pond by our camp. She runs wildly back to our tent, so excited she can hardly speak. Our family is camping by Peru Creek in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. I’ve spent enough time in the backcountry to know that when a beaver chooses to emerge, it’s a rare gift, so I grab the binoculars and cameras and troop back to the pond.
Creeping toward the stick dam, we watch as the beaver chews a willow branch in two with its sharp teeth. Then, sprig clenched in his mouth, it swims to the dam breast and disappears. We wait, scan the pond trying to guess where the beaver will resurface. The kids gasp, when the slick round head parts the water and the dark, beady eyes reappear. Sierra isn’t happy until she sneaks barefoot through the mud to stand closer to the dam, where she watches the beaver swim back and forth for an hour. Not until darkness falls and her beaver friend retires for the night does Sierra skip back to our campsite, saying, “Mama, today was one of the happiest days of my life.”
While we are watching the beavers, a small summer shower moistens the land, bringing a brilliant double rainbow that stretches right over the beaver pond. A golden eagle soars over our heads, its mighty head glowing from the setting sun. I look at Todd, and we exchange a look that clearly says, “These are the times of their lives. This is what we leave home to find.”
Months later, we are visiting friends in southern New Jersey. We had just spent a few hours in the car and the kids were anxious to run around outdoors. Our friends live on a quiet, rural road, and a large field behind their house leads to an expansive scrub pine forest full of winding deer trails and hiding rabbits. A child could look at it as the gates to adventure, like C.S. Lewis’s cupboard doors that lead to the land of Narnia, or they could stay mostly indoors and explore nature on the CD Rom.
My friend is anxious to show my children their new program, “Acorn Pond.” Her daughter skillfully clicks on areas around the pond and the animals come out and tell us what they were doing. When she clicks on “beaver,” the computer simply says, “Beavers build dams on streams.” I watch Sierra as a look of slight confusion covers her face. It brings her right back to our Colorado beaver friend… hearing the slap of his tail, seeing the light glisten on his wet fur, smelling the pond water, feeling the warmth of the lowering sun. The computer image didn’t have any of this.
This is when it hits me. How much we are already teaching our children just by placing the world in their path. Experiential learning is better than a book, better than a school building, better than a computer program. This kind of learning will stay with them for the rest of their lives, because they have lived it.