Biophilia: A hypotheses that humans prefer nature and subconsciously seek a connection with the rest of life; the instinctive bond between humans beings and other living systems.
“Be careful, Finn. You could die to your death,” Simon hollered to his older brother who was 25 yards ahead of us on Hitchcock Nature Center’s Fox Ridge Trail. We were navigating the Loess Hills of Western Iowa one a hot, summer morning; it was already about 80 degrees at 9 a.m. I was sure Simon meant to say, “fall to your death,” but his sentiment was clear, and his four-year-old wording somehow poetic.
“No you couldn’t!” Finn shouted back, annoyed as usual with his little brother. Simon’s words worked on Finn less like a warning and more like a charge, his gazelle-like footing transporting him further and further from us, closer to everything the trail had to offer—trees to ponder, mounds to climb, plants to inspect, birds to watch, squashed frogs to analyze, thorny branches to brush by, fallen logs to balance upon, prairie grasses to pick, animal footprints to identify. Nothing could keep him from eagerly exploring like a curious cat.
As he ran ahead, I worried he might actually fall or twist and ankle since the earth beneath us was like stiff pudding from rainfall a few days before. Our shoes were getting muddy and the ground was uneven. It remained useless, however, to try to contain him.
“Check this out, Mom,” Finn said, stopping just long enough to show me a plant with small, dark red bulbs attached to the leaves. I was sure these would become something in the future—a blossom or creature— but I had no idea what it might be. We studied their firmness and dark color and I shrugged my shoulders when he wondered what it was. I actually had little knowledge of the flora or fauna that inhabited these hills. Instead, I operated as a blissfully naive naturalist, only knowing that I liked how it felt to peer across the horizon and witness the rolling ridges and valleys. I relished moments when my children became fascinated these outside things. I’d long ago banned owning a television in our house, much to the chagrin of everybody, to help promote such borderless play.
“Here, mom?” Finn asked atop a mound, looking down at us slow pokes still on the trail.
We reached a lookout point and resting place where I promptly took out our crackers, bananas and water. Here, we sat on Spartan, rock “benches” and refueled. I peered out over the hills and noticed a small, yellow bird perched in a tree.
“Look at that bird, Mom,” Simon said. “What’s its name?”
“I’m not sure,” I replied.
I felt foolish not knowing more about what we were seeing, but today it was enough to simply see the bird and sit in the sun. Tomorrow, I would commit myself to learning more.
As I put away our provisions, Finn began his journey down “The Chute”—a steep hill that transports us from ridge to valley covered with prairie grass, where we can then choose from several trails, some well marked and others for the more adventurous. This narrow, steep passage was once meant for a horse and buggy helping settlers through the hills.
As Finn moves quick as a hummingbird, while Simon and I slowly descend. Simon stayed near me, convinced we could perish on the trail.
“Mom, are we gonna die down here? Like, get keeled?” he wonders.
“Well, no,” I assure him, wondering why he’s so fixated on death this morning. “It’s warm outside and we have a map and we know where we are.”
“There aren’t any lions?” he questions.
I look at him and shake my head from side to side. His brown eyes study my face closely as he continues to hold my hand. I move his longish, brown hair away from his forehead so he can see better. Sometime between the ages 4 and 8, children swing from one end of a pendulum—a mother’s body and embrace, the human beings first ecosystem, to the other side—a dancer full of adventure, risk, and independence. A mother’s natural struggle often is to help her children navigate this course, allowing them enough space to grow into successful, willful adults yet provide an ecosystem of safety when needed. This dance sometimes correlates in opposition of her own needs and comfort.
“There’s no way we could die!” Finn shouts with all the luster and certainty an 8-year-old boy can possess as he runs to the end of “The Chute” away from us.
I decide maybe there is value in reminding them, however, that Mother Nature is boss and there are consequences to disrespecting her forces.
“If it were winter, and for some reason we came out here in the bitter cold and we got lost or hurt,” I say, “it’s possible we could die outside. We have to respect nature,” I tell them, unsure if they’re old enough to understand, unsure I know how to do it myself.
“Told ya!” Simon says, pleased that it’s possible we could die and that his suspicion is correct.
Down “The Chute” and in the grassy valley, I make the choice to let them explore for awhile. They find rocks, climb on tree stumps and speculate if Bigfoot is lurking around the bend. Are those frog songs we hear? I sit on the grass and close my eyes, feeling the hot sun on my cheeks. I remember recently reading that being in nature has both emotional and physical benefits. It reduces feelings of anger and stress while also lowering blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension and stress hormones. It’s hypothesized that we are genetically programmed to positively engage with trees, plants, water and other natural elements. I relax further, feeling the earth support my body.
I think I know the way back to the nature center from another trail, but since I’m alone with them, I decide to retrace our steps, back up “The Chute.” My mother bear inclination is to err on the side of safety and certainty rather than take a chance.
“This is really steep,” I say out loud, though I don’t think the kids notice. My heart is pounding when I reach the top. We eventually win the center and climb the steps of its Hawk Watch Tower. From here we can see many miles to Omaha, where we will soon return to our air-conditioned lives. Hawk Watch Tower is most popular in autumn, when visitors can spy raptors like the turkey vulture, prairie falcon, broad-winged hawk or even the bald eagle. I imagine we’ll return during this peak-watching season for another adventure, observing the birds in flight.
“I wanna see a bald eagle,” Finn says. “That would be so cool.”
“It would be,” I say.
I feel calm and happy as we begin the drive home. The car is uncharacteristically quiet. Our visit to Hitchcock works on us like meditation.
“I really like it out there,” Finn says.
“Me too!” shouts Simon agreeing with his older brother for the first time today, as we take the I-29 exit south toward Omaha.
Laura Johnson Dahlke, MFA, studied creative writing at Antioch University Los Angeles and also has an MA in English from The University of Nebraska at Omaha. She teaches composition courses and writes creative essays and research-based articles. She is a budding naturalist who hopes to learn more about appreciating nature and exploring the Loess Hills with her children. She lives and dreams in Omaha, Nebraska, with her husband and four children.