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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Bronx Nature Walk

Air Date: Week of

Reporter Neal Rauch spends a summer day with toddlers and their parents on a guided nature walk in pastoral Bronx, New York. Known more these days for its tough street crime image, the Bronx is still a place full of natural wonders even the youngest and most vulnerable and can sometimes get out and learn to enjoy.


CURWOOD: Some researchers say children need to explore wild places for good development, even if they can just poke around a weed-filled vacant lot. And as far as environmental educators at one public garden in New York City are concerned, no child is too young. Even before they can walk, they say babies can explore nature from backpacks, and they've designed a program to do just that. Neil Rauch went to one session and brought his family along.


EHRLICH: If I had the influence with the good fairy who's supposed to preside over all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength. So that's what we're going to do today: we're going to work on our sense of wonder.

RAUCH: Appropriately enough, our journey begins with that quote from a Rachel Carson book, The Sense of Wonder, read under a large tree.

EHRLICH: These trees are over 100 years old, and...

RAUCH: Stephanie Ehrlich, who leads the Babies and Backpacks Program, readily admits that introducing babies to nature is really more for the parents.

EHRLICH: What we're trying to do for the parents is show them that their sense of wonder is important to sort of nourish and cultivate and then they can share that with their children, and that's a wonderful thing, you know, for children to have forever. With the toddlers there is something that they would get out of it. There's more touching and listening and looking and stuff that the older babies can do, that the toddlers can do. Your 2-year-old would be very, very busy. (Laughs)

RAUCH: My 2-year-old, David, has come along with his mother, Nancy Consolazio.

DAVID: Look, mom! Look! (Splashes)

CONSOLAZIO: You can touch the water. Is it cold?

DAVID: Bbbhhh, it's cold!

RAUCH: David not only sticks his hand in, but his foot, too, with the shoe and sock. He's thrilled at the sight of a pool stocked with goldfish.

DAVID: There more fish there.

CONSOLAZIO: There's more fish, look at that!

DAVID: Gub, gub.

CONSOLAZIO: Glub, glub, right!

RAUCH: The Babies in Backpacks Program is hosted by Wave Hill, a 28-acre public garden in the north Bronx. Until 1965 it was a private estate where famous people like Mark Twain, Theodore Roosevelt, and Arturo Toscanini would stay. It overlooks the Hudson River and the Palisades, the majestic cliffs on the other side. It's a peaceful setting disrupted only by the near-constant buzz of planes, helicopters, and the equipment of the maintenance staff. Yet the kids didn't seem to mind one bit, and Stephanie Ehrlich says you don't need to have pristine wilderness to learn to love nature.

EHRLICH: I grew up in Brooklyn and we had, like, a little lot behind our building. And we'd go out and we thought we were on safari. And now looking back, I realize they were weeds, you know? So you can take what you're learning here and then you can take that love and that sense of wonder and that curiosity and apply it to, you know, a little patch of green that's growing out of the concrete on the ground, you know? In Brooklyn or Manhattan or wherever it is you are.

(A child babbles)

RAUCH: It's this kind of love of the outdoors that Leslie Doyle is hoping to instill in one-year-old Alexander, even though she herself is a city gal.

DOYLE: To be honest, it's not natural for someone growing up in the Bronx to be a nature lover. But we're trying. (Laughs)

(Alexander cries. Rauch: "He didn't want to leave the water?" Doyle: "No.")

RAUCH: Like my son David, Alexander also likes pond and gets quite upset when it's time to move on.

(Woman: "Wanna see some more fish?")

RAUCH: Another mom, Liz Pimentel, says that this program has helped her understand how her 2-year-old son Felix sees nature very differently from an adult.

PIMENTEL: He just went around, about 10 times around the trunk of that tree, you know, and all the roots. You know, I wouldn't think that that would be something that would be particularly interesting for him to do, but, you know, he said "Oh look at these big roots", and then he " it's more, you know, the fact that they structure it. It's a learning experience for us because then we can teach, you know, teach the kids how to appreciate certain things that we had never noticed before and knew about.

(Footfalls. Children babble.)

RAUCH: The kids watch in awe as a butterfly flutters about. Stephanie Ehrlich says that this kind of experience can't really come from the classroom or TV nature shows.

EHRLICH: You can't do, like, virtual reality outdoor stuff. It's not the same. You have to be exposed to it. You have to touch it. You have to breathe it. You're not going to smell things, you know, from watching TV. You have to go out and experience it and that's, I think, the only way you're going to develop a real feel for it.

(Woman: "Oh, what is that? Fuzz. Fuzzy wuzzy; can you touch that fuzz?")

RAUCH: The children feel the fuzzy leaves, called lamb's ears. Of course, not everything in nature is warm and fuzzy.

(Woman: "He was very interested in the bumble bee, but he wanted to hold the bumble bee." Child: "Bumbee bee...")

RAUCH: And then David spots a plant with pods that look like tiny watermelons.

CONSOLAZIO: No, don't eat it, honey. We don't eat that stuff.

RAUCH: Anything poisonous here?

EHRLICH: Yeah, actually. This is a plant, it's digitalis, it's used for heart medicine. But taken in large doses it could really do some damage.

RAUCH: However, this hazardous road is a 2-way street, as when David gets a-hold of a lovena puff. This plant features buds that are filled with air. David quickly discovers that squeezing them makes a fun pop sound, sort of like natural bubble wrap.

CONSOLAZIO: Squish, squish. You know what? He's going to kill all those flowers.

RAUCH: Or when he sees the calamundin or Panama orange tree, a small plant with tiny oranges.

DAVID: Oranges...

CONSOLAZIO: Try not to pick the fruit. You can hold that one.

DAVID: Are there more?

CONSOLAZIO: No more, no more. Only one.

RAUCH: But any minor destruction is probably worth it. Felix's mom certainly thinks so.

PIMENTEL: He's just enjoyed himself. It's true, this is the age. They're just opening up to all these things and exploring and curious and not scared of bugs. By the time they start school, they're already, you know, they've seen it all.

RAUCH: Next spring, Stephanie Ehrlich is hoping to expand Babies in Backpacks by reaching out to poor and minority parents with tots, especially teenage parents.

EHRLICH: I think it's really part of growing up, to be involved with nature and to have a relationship with it as a young person. I think it really, it grounds you in a way for later life. You feel connected to something bigger.

RAUCH: For Living on Earth, I'm Neil Rauch in New York.



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