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Nurturing Nature

By Tina Traster

May 24, 2012 -- My daughter clattered down the steps when she heard my blood-piercing scream.

“What’s the matter, Mommy?”

“Luna’s got another one,” I said, shielding my eyes with my hands.

“It’s OK, Mommy,” Julia said. “It’s the circle of life.”

Then Julia rounded up her father and they went outside to bury the lifeless chipmunk, which the roving Persian cat had dropped on the lawn after I startled her. Shovel in hand, my husband and daughter took the dead creature to our “chipmunk cemetery” at the far end of our property next to an outcropping overlooking our forest and gave it a final resting place.

“Are you OK, Mom?” Julia asked, when she returned.

Nature’s brutal chain — or the circle of life, as my daughter calls it — is hard stuff for a city girl to come to grips with. An urban upbringing hides the Darwinian world, as far as animals go. You don’t see what eats what when you grow up in a two-family house with a tidy lawn and a small backyard.

When I was in my mid-20s, my father mentioned he spent the first seven years of his life living on a farm in Colchester, Conn., before moving to Brooklyn. I’d always thought my father was a city kid, born and bred. Turns out he was a country boy. This was the most intriguing thing I’d ever learned about my dad.

Back in the day, he was the youngest child and there wasn’t enough money to feed the family. Dirt-poor, he and his mother, my Russian immigrant grandmother, Sophie, were migrant farmers. My grandmother snapped chickens’ necks, and my father learned early on about the circle of life.

My childhood was pretty antiseptic, as nature goes. My early exposure to the natural world was at sleepaway camps. There I saw cows and sheep grazing in summer fields and smelled skunk at night. My most exotic brush with wildlife was the rap-rap-rap of flapping bats in the rafters of our bunks at night, though I never actually saw the creatures.

In my 20s and 30, I craved the natural world. And in my 40s, when I traded New York City for suburbia, I specifically chose a house and a swath of land that was as countrified as it could be 40 minutes from the city. Living adjacent to hundreds of acres of woods on a rugged mountain would bring me to nature’s doorstep.

What I didn’t plan — but what has turned out to be a lovely surprise — is that my husband and I are raising a country girl. Our 10-year-old is as comfortable with nature’s cycles as Huck Finn was paddling on the Mississippi River.

On warm days, Julia entertains herself in our woods. She clambers up her favorite tree. Brings back rocks. Hands me bouquets of wildflowers. There’s a large flat rock over the crest where she likes to sit and bake, like a turtle. I remember our backyard in Brooklyn — flat, parched and hemmed in with a cross-thatched chain-link fence. Not exactly an adventure.

Living as we do has given Julia a vocabulary I never had. Grubs, roly polies, maple sap, opossum, coyotes, clover, kindle, mulch. A child learns what she sees. And smells. And fiddles with. She is always poking at something with a stick or bending down to take a closer look. She constantly forages for live worms so she can feed our hens from her little open hand.

Last weekend she ran onto the deck where I was reading.

“I saw the coolest thing,” she said. “Four ants were carrying a dead grub.”

“That is cool,” I said.

Sometimes at dusk she stands on the deck and mimics the titmouse at the feeder for the last time before dusk. Peter peter. Peter peter. The funny thing is, I don’t think she’s aware of what she’s doing. It’s become natural, like humming a tune.

The other day, when she was at school, I took a walk up to our chipmunk graveyard. It is close to our hens, who clucked softly as I approached. I sat down on the sun-warmed shale outcropping. Tears welled in my eyes. I felt sorry for the little creature, who never saw his end coming. But I also experienced a rush of joy knowing Julia is just on the threshold of a long and loving relationship with the natural world.

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