Although our family has chosen to live in the suburbs of one of the busiest cities in America, we are trying to raise Widget in a less hectic environment, with play, with chores, with creativity, and most of all with an appreciation for and interest in the natural world.
A big part of this for us is spending time in our own back yard and in our garden.
We took Widget outside and introduced him to the world of nature when he was 10 days old. For the first few months, we contented ourselves with briefly taking him out and showing him the trees, the leaves, the sun, and the moon. We walked together in the falling leaves and marveled together at their colors. We brushed his tiny little hands against the smooth leaves of the maple, the rough branches of the forsythia, and we took him outside in the early evening to hear the cicadas sing. We held him in our arms as we walked, and climbed up steps, and visited a greenhouse when it got too cold to spend much time outside.
In the spring, we spread a thick blanket on the ground and sprawled across it together to enjoy the day. We spent hours looking up at the trees and watching the leaves move when a slight breeze passed. We listened to the birds and talked about what they might be singing to each other. I dug for worms and showed them to my tiny boy, who gurgled as they crawled across the grass in front of him. We encouraged him to reach out, off the blanket, to feel the fresh dew on the grass, and we talked about how different it was from the fluffy comforter that kept us dry.
As summer came, we spent even more time outside, tending our first tomato plants, and reading (me) or taking a nap (him) in the drowsy sun. We held twigs in our hands and felt again the difference between smooth leaves and rough branches. We marveled at every new flower that appeared and kept watch as the seasons changed.
Fall arrived, and my one year old child and I took long walks in the stroller, feeling the slight rush of air that moved as we strode toward the playground. We sang to the birds and looked at the trees and picked up leaves to hold in our hands. The leaves were endlessly fascinating, and I introduced him to the maple, the oak, the birch, and the cherry trees that line our neighborhood. He held the wide leaves in his tiny hands and seemed to study each, so I was encouraged and dug out my old field guides to relearn what I could as I taught my young son. This was it, I thought. This was the chance to begin real teaching. So we talked about sugar maples, and red oaks, and flowering birch, and eventually identified five different kinds of maple on our walks. It felt good to share these things with my son, and I made time for this every day.
Soon, though, the leaves all turned brown and fell off our friends, the trees. Where once we strode through rainbows of greens and yellows and reds as they fluttered to the ground, we now crunched through layers of brown as the walk to the park became more difficult and more dismal. We tried to keep talking about the leaves that Widget loved, but as they turned brown, they shriveled and became dead things to shake off our hands as we walked to the park.
The geese left the pond for the winter, and the birdsongs became less frequent, and the wind began to blow in earnest.
All winter long, we talked about the seasons, and how there would come a time again when we would spend each fresh morning together in the yard, and each long lovely afternoon together walking to and playing at the park. We went outside every day, if only for five or ten minutes, until his little hands got red underneath his mittens and I began to worry, and we both hated to come back in to another day with the artificial lights and the artificial toys. We read “I Am a Bunny” before bed every night, and daydreamed of chasing butterflies, sniffing daylilies and lilac, and listening to the birds and the frogs singing their songs. Winter was very quiet. Too cold for walks, too warm for snow, it dragged on forever.
Spring with a toddler was idylic. We watched the tree outside his window for signs of buds, then flowers, then the beginnings of leaves, and we knew that our time was on its way. We held a gardening playdate for our toddler friends and everyone planted tomato seeds in potting soil in little paper cups, and took them home to live or die on the windowsill until the sun warmed the earth enough to plant them. Some lived, some died, but we kept planting on our own, until we had dozens of tomato, pepper, sweet pea, and flowering plants to put out in the garden.
We planted together, and we weeded together, and we laughed together about how nice our garden would be when summer came. We bought 18-month-old Widget his own little rake and shovel and hoe, so that mom and dad would have a turn at the big ones and we could all prepare the garden together. Widget was a big help as he shoveled and turned the soil in the garden, and under the swings, and just about everywhere else, but he was a big help, and we were proud of him. Widget helped put the baby plants in the ground, and he felt the moist earth with his fingers, and he squealed when he saw a worm. Then he squatted down to take a better look at it as it squirmed away, back into the ground. We dug up more worms to watch them, and then we moved them carefully into our freshly dug garden plot to provide nutrients for both the worms and the garden.
This would be a wonderful year for the garden.