Family legend says I took my first steps on a beach. It was well documented with photos as I was a first child and grandchild. In all the pictures I am smiling and laughing. Obviously walking in wet sand and water was the best thing ever. I still feel that way, these few years later. OK, maybe it’s a few more years than a few.
Even as a tiny tyke I collected pebbles and shells. I dug for mole crabs in the wet sand with my dad and let them tickle my hands. We watched them dig back into the sand and disappear in seconds. Hermit crabs were easy to catch and fun to watch. My mom tossed an empty snail shell into the bucket and we watched the hermit crab leave one shell to try on another. If that wasn’t cool, what was?
No beach trip was complete without a bucket and a net. I have no idea how many minnows or crabs we caught over the years but there were a lot. We dug for clams, followed the trails of moon snails and oohed and ahh-ed over the many eyes of blue-eyed scallops. Watching them “swim” off when we put them back in the water was pretty awesome, too.
We shared the beach with terns and gulls. The terns were noisy, protecting their nests and their babies. The gulls hunted for mollusks and crabs and bickered over who got to keep the latest catch. We loved watching the gulls drop their prey from up high, breaking open their prize for easier eating. Our parents were adamant about leaving baby birds alone, so we learned early to watch them from afar.
In the water we opened our eyes so we could explore the bottom. There were horseshoe crabs, minnows, starfish, and all sorts of seaweeds billowing and dancing slowly with the current. Sometimes we came face to face with bigger fish, not a monster fish, mind you, but big enough to make us swim for the surface again.
There was a boy that told us about sharks and how we never should go in the water because they were just waiting out there to eat us up. He told us the only swimming he’d do would be in a pool, not even a pond, because of snapping turtles. My dad laughed when we told him. “No shark is going to eat you two,” he’d say to my little sister and me. “You’re too little, not enough to eat. You’d just be an appetizer.” Somehow that was comforting and back into the water we went. This was long before “Jaws.” My dad has been gone for many years, but I often wonder what he’d think of the white sharks that are almost common here now.
I was a fortunate child. My parents fed the birds and taught me their names. More importantly, they taught me how to identify them using a guidebook. We went for long walks in the woods and around ponds and marshes. They would point out the things they knew about and tell us to look up the things they didn’t know. They fed our curiosity about the natural world and also taught us about kindness and stewardship.
My dad would remind us to put things back where they came from, to put back logs and rocks, gently of course. My mother would remind us not to litter or to put garbage in the ponds or ocean. In fact, on some walks we took along a big bag and picked up other people’s trash. Both my parents believed in conservation and saving land for future generations, not just of people, but of deer, raccoons and whip-or-wills.
Children that grow up with an appreciation of nature will carry that into their adult life. They will honor and protect the land and the water. They will be kind and thoughtful in their dealings with the natural world. They will not poison or destroy habitats or the animals and plants that depend on them. They will understand that coexistence is the best way to be on this planet.
I still walk on the beach many days of the year. I walk in the heat, the cold, the wind, and the rain. I have seen many changes, some good, some not so good. I worry about the future of nature and a generation of children that aren’t getting outside to play and explore. I’m afraid they won’t protect what they have no experience with.
Love and compassion for animals, birds and plants begins at home. Sometimes it happens later, through friends or teachers. It is something to encourage, a treasure we can give with no cost or strings attached. The results may not be immediate, but a child that has opened their eyes underwater has seen wonderful things they will never forget. There’s a whole world there that is hidden unless we look for it. It works for grownups, too.