Observing the Northern Michigan Outdoors

As Northern Michigan kids are getting ready to head back to school, outdoor educator and mom Molly Ames Baker reminds parents and kids to slow down and take a moment to remember the importance of the Northern Michigan outdoors.


The back-to-school routine is underway—lunch boxes, Trapper Keepers (yes, they’re making a comeback!), reading logs and spelling lists. You’d think after eight years, I’d have it down pat. But no—every Thursday morning, my daughter hollers: “It’s vocab day!” A harried scramble ensues—“Remember, you ‘hear’ with your ‘ear,’” I say, as I try to multi-task PB&Js with a half-crumpled practice test. A glop of jelly plops on the sheet. Maybe it’s a reminder that rote memorization isn’t the stickiest kind of learning.

We know that kids need mastery of reading, ’riting and ’rithmetic to be traditionally literate. Our students also need computer literacy, and according to recent research, financial literacy too (go figure). But, something vitally important is missing from this life-ready list—an essential nature literacy.

Call me old school, but like the naturalists of the early 1900s, I believe learning how the landscape works—observing, wondering and inquiring—is vitally important. A hundred years ago, being nature literate was in vogue. Botany walks were all the rage, and even our president, Teddy Roosevelt, had a lively curiosity in native plants and animals.

Speaking of plants, it’s time for a pop quiz, so grab your #2 pencil. Question 1: Name 10 trees that grow nearby. Question 2: Name 10 wildflowers (5 native and 5 invasive) that grow nearby. Extra credit: List a common or medicinal use for each.

Time’s up! If you were sweating bullets, you’re not alone: “That an average adult can recognize 1,000 brand names and logos but fewer than 10 local plants is not a good sign.” Paul Hawken noted this over two decades ago in his essay A Declaration of Sustainability. Today these stats are worse—one indicator being downloads of the wildly popular app Guess the Brand!, a logo quiz with 475 levels.

I’ll wager that most of us spend more time exploring the internet than we do our own backyard. In our fast-paced, plugged-in society, it’s easy to go about our daily lives just passing through Any Town, Any Woods, Any Lake, USA. We can see just another generic city block, forest trail or stretch of shoreline, or we can instead think “this is my home,” and our perspective begins to change.

We need to reconnect with where we live, both on a personal level and national scale. Being nature literate is one way to do this, but I’ll argue for taking it a step further—what we really need is an essential local literacy. Every one of us, no matter our age, needs a talking knowledge of place—to acknowledge where we’re planted and to know what makes it unique. Being rooted where we live brings a sense of belonging that makes life better.

Pop quiz! Question 1: Who were the first settlers in your town, and why did they stay? Question 2: Explain how three streets got their names. Extra credit: What spot in your town has the most significance to you and why?

It’s not rote memorization that leads to local literacy but rather firsthand experience and direct interaction. So remembering the Latin names of 20 trees is less important than observing a single leaf from your window in autumn, and wondering, “How does it turn colors?!” Talking knowledge is knowing a bird by its flight, a skyline by each building and a storeowner by sight—making meaning of the everyday places in our everyday lives. We need not be geologists, historians, or sociologists to do this. As Annie Dillard reminds us in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: “I am no scientist, I explore the neighborhood.”

Getting to know a place is consciously creating your own connections so they stick. Like those spelling words—“hear” with your “ear.” Same is true for people and places, animals and plants. Take Arctium minus, for example. Who can remember (let alone pronounce) those fancy Latin names? Instead, find a story: Articum minus becomes the “Velcro plant” of the Swiss engineer who came back from a hunting trip, wondered how those cockle-burs stuck so well to his pants and dog, and invented Velcro.

So here’s your homework: the next time you’re just passing through town, turn off autopilot and actively engage. I challenge you to get to know where you live like the back of your hand and figure out why it’s the place you call home.

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