How walking home from school led me into the embrace of nature
TONYAA J. WEATHERSBEE, FINDING NATURE NEWS FEBRUARY 2022
In 1969, when my family moved to our new, ranch-style home in the Richardson Heights subdivision of Jacksonville, Florida, my interest in nature wasn’t just piqued by the wild blackberries and lilies that grew in our yet unmanicured back yard.
It was also piqued by what I encountered on my walks home from school.
During that time – when school children were taught safety lessons with simple rules, like walking on the left facing traffic and looking both ways before crossing the street – walking a mile to and from my elementary school boosted more than just my sense of independence.
The nature I encountered along the way boosted my imagination. Which is always a good thing for a 9-year-old.
The field we walked through, filled with wild dandelions and phlox, beckoned me to pick some for my bookbag or to tuck behind my ears.
The trek over the Ribault River Bridge, a place where I would often stop to look at the water, much to the anguish of my walking mates, had me imagining crossing the river in a rowboat one day and catching a few fish, too.
I’m glad I didn’t know at the time that the fish were swimming with stormwater runoff and untreated sewage.
The magnolia trees on the opposite riverbank bore blossom buds I imagined were pineapples that I would someday pick and bring home and cut up for fruit break at school.
Then, I became a middle-schooler. At that age, walking home became more of an adventure in sharing gossip with friends and, when boys would ask to walk me home, a courting ritual.
All that walking home ended in high school, when I rode to school with my father, who was the dean.
What didn’t end was what my imaginings about the river, wildflowers and magnolia trees had wrought when I was a child: A desire to be closer to nature and, by extension, a sense of adventure and imagination.
It made me fearless about doing things like learning how to canoe in the Gulf of Mexico during Red Cross camp in 1975, and, in 1995, to hike five miles straight up on Alum Cave Trail to Mount LeConte, the third-highest peak in the Smoky Mountains.
Then, in 2005, that same sense of adventure led me to take a scuba diving course while on a cruise of the southern Caribbean – with the final test being to dive from a boat off the coast of St. Thomas to perform basic scuba maneuvers – in waters clouded by a storm that had swept through the area the previous day.
It was intimidating yet alluring. And I passed.
All of this is why I wish that more children could have nature experiences early in life, to boost their imaginations, their fearlessness, and their ability to see nature as essential, not incidental, to their world.
I’ve been writing for Finding Nature News since it launched a year ago and I look forward to covering the Children & Nature Network’s conference in May in Atlanta, where organizations that didn’t exist when I was a child are working to connect children to nature’s wonders.
Such organizations, many Black led, include conference co-host, West Atlanta Watershed Alliance, an organization formed in 1995 to stop discriminatory wastewater management and to connect people to nature and environmental justice issues in West Atlanta.
They include Greening Youth Foundation, an organization founded by women and minorities, which exposes Black and Latino youths to the outdoors and to “green careers” – and Trees Atlanta, which focuses on planting new trees, like the magnolias that filled my imagination as a child, and preserving tree cover across the city.
They include Gangstas to Growers, which shows formerly incarcerated youths how to find adventure and purpose in nature – and Black Too Earth, which, among other things, reintroduces Black people to food resources that have been either forgotten or overlooked.
Resources like the wild blackberries that grew in my Jacksonville backyard before being mowed over and replaced with sod.
Mostly, these Atlanta organizations and many more like them are doing what is needed to help urban youths see nature and the environment around them through the lens in which I saw it as a child and was able to build on once I became an adult.
They’re helping children to see things like trees as essential to the environment and not as impediments to buildings, to see plants and berries that are growing wild as a bridge to culture and sustainability and not as weeds.
They are helping youth learn to grow things as a way to find new paths in life.
I wish these organizations had been around when I was a child. If they had been, one of them might have launched a Ribault River cleanup and the boat ride that I dreamed of.
One might have shown me how the magnolia blossom was as fragrant as the scent of the pineapple that I imagined their buds would bear.
Another might have shown me how the woods weren’t a place for evil to hide, but for nature to thrive
But here’s the thing.
My adventures walking home from school more than 50 years ago ultimately led me to not only take a bigger boat ride as an adult, but a trip beneath the waves, and to walk and to run farther.
It led me to love the woods not just as a hiker, but as a cyclist, as my arthritic knees prevent me from enjoying Shelby County’s Wolf River Greenway on foot.
So, kudos to organizations in Atlanta and across the U.S. for inspiring youths to see nature in the world around them as essential, and as something to be experienced.