My parents’ influence as well as their support always made nature an acceptable pursuit. Dad, a country boy, regaled us with stories based on taking baby birds and squirrels to school in shoeboxes and catching a fish in the creek by his house which he put in his classroom’s fish tank. His fish ate the other fish already in the tank, but to everyone at school how that occurred always remained a mystery. He planted tomatoes in our military base backyard. A Tobacco hornworm caterpillar’s ravenous appetite changed my life. Watching the amount of leaves that small animal consumed plus the time that it took to do so boggled my young mind.

From my earliest years of recollection, my mother took me, my sister, and my brother to the library. We participated in storytime in addition to checking out books. The library occasionally offered movies for children like “Born Free” and “Charlotte’s Web”. At home on television, Dad and I made time for “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” and “Nature”. National Geographic World, a children’s magazine, arrived by mail.

Avid readers find print in many places. Our mall visits were not complete without time spent at a bookstore. Horizons broadened as knowledge heightened. My father bought The Golden Guide to Insects for me. Worn to a frazzle years ago, that book fell apart. The Practical Entomologist and Handbook for Butterfly Watchers took its place. At the beauty shop, Terry and the Caterpillars, a Science I Can Read book, was on the table with assorted magazines of interest to ladies back then. Guess what I chose.

Other people and information have nothing on first-hand experience though. In elementary school, before the bell rang for classes to start, students played on the playground. Why not fashion a bird’s nest out of mud and grass? Willing friends, Carrie and Angela, agreed to go on a caterpillar hunt. A white 15-passenger van took us to school. Once a praying mantis swayed on the ceiling inside it. It was fascinating. A Viceroy caterpillar got to go to middle school in a glass jar with willow leaves.

When I was eight, we moved to a suburb where Dad took three-quarters of an acre and added mulberries, barberries, cedars, fruit trees, and more. My backyard was a great place to start collecting leaves for a school project compared to most in our neighborhood. Dad taught us the names of common birds on sight. Visitors to a bird feeder and a birdbath near the kitchen window became teachable moments. Mom, a former Girl Scout, was not opposed to camping in screened-in cabins and hiking. When it was time for a tent or more primitive camping and spelunking, she made sure that I had what I needed. From horseback riding to canoeing to white-water rafting, numerous possibilities for outdoor adventures were always available.

One of my favorite memories is the story of the brown paper lunch bag, stapled shut, that my mother discovered jumping around my bedroom floor when I was away from home babysitting. My mother was well aware of my interests, but she had no previous knowledge of this. Two mating Virginian Tiger Moths on our mailbox led to my experiment. If you put a gravid female moth in a paper bag, she should lay eggs on it. Then they will hatch, and you can rear the caterpillars. This was my goal, and it worked!

The Carolina Biological Supply Company sells live organisms through mail order. Raising an animal without a steady food supply would be irresponsible, and many caterpillars are particular about what they will eat. Silkworms just happen to like mulberry leaves. Because we had two trees of that type, I placed my order for 100 eggs.

In my Oral Communication class, the professor gave me an ‘A’ for my informative speech on praying mantids. Taking a contained live specimen to class may have been a risky endeavor, but my instructor said that she could see my enthusiasm for the subject. When I displayed it on a stick while delivering my speech, thankfully it did not fly off towards the front row.

Mantids seem to prefer to eat flying insects, and treehoppers were easy to find. One female mantis stayed in a glass fish tank with a wire screen on top in our garage through the summer. Watching her make an ootheca (egg mass) in the fall was my reward. Somewhere along the way, I possessed a Painted Lady butterfly kit and raised them too. The pop-up container was handy for other insect rearing attempts.

Nature is something that everyone can enjoy. Ample opportunities for exploring surround us. The world outside is a classroom full of discoveries. No matter what your age, slow down and make note of sights easily overlooked. Nature is as much a part of who you are as anything else that defines you. The earlier you start, the more you will see, but it is never too late to begin. Teaching a child to identify a bird or a butterfly is easy. An older person may know the basics but certainly still has room to grow. Learning about the natural world is a lifelong adventure available right here in Pike County every day.

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Email at jbillings@newswatchman.com; follow on Twitter @ Julie_Billings

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