Making Nature Memories

Sometimes natural places hold many memories. Azure Mountain in the Adirondacks is one such place for me.

Memories from my childhood tend to come in flashes and moments rather than complete stories. However, I do recall some of the seemingly insignificant moments of walking with my grandfather in the woods behind the house I grew up in. It seemed like he knew every tree in that forest. I was too young to fully appreciate that depth of knowledge on any sort of intellectual level, but I knew that I loved the woods and I loved being surrounded by those trees.

I remember growing up on those rural acres and walking down those trails as the landscape changed from conifers into the stand of hardwoods. I could follow the blue maple syrup lines to the property edge marked by deteriorating stone walls. I remember getting to explore each new landmark as I was allowed further into the woods on my own. I also remember being in those woods with my grandfather as he pointed out birch trees and explained how to identify a deer or rabbit track in the mud and snow.

Quite likely, this is a significant reason why I spent my college years studying the systems, structures, and functions of nature and then spent years beyond that gathering knowledge of the names and interactions found in varying ecosystems from those who know more than me. Somewhere along the way I made the exploration and knowledge of the natural world into somewhat of a career. Despite this, I am well aware that what I do not know far outweighs the things I do know.

For example, I have always had very limited tree identification skills. I learn a little more each year, but it is often a result of circumstance. When my father and I were sitting on the front porch and I heard him casually pull out the names of all the trees across the driveway, I paused for a moment. Even though it was momentarily unexpected, it made sense. He had spent just as long living on this land and walking through those woods as I had; more time really, due to the fact that in my toddler years I was still trying to figure out this whole walking business.

As with much of our knowledge and skills, you forget it if it is not used. Repetition and connection help the facts stick with you. This is partially why I often struggle with identification and remembering what an individual tree, flower or insect is called. I have never been someone who can just be told a name and remember it for very long. There were times in my schooling when I was required to memorize large amounts of terms, concepts, or even just a massive list of scientific names. I would remember those things for the duration of the class, but unless I loved every bit of what I was learning, those facts tended to blur and fade.

Taking time to explore gives children a chance to learn, make memories, and discover new things. Submitted photos

On the other hand, there are some strange and specific things that I recall perfectly. Upon reflection, I have learned that I need an experience, a memory behind the knowledge, in order to remember things. It can be as simple as associating it with a specific place or person, or be tied up with the complexity that is some human emotion or another. I know how to identify trillium because it was the name of a dining hall on my college campus and I know how to identify Joe Pye Weed because I once walked to the edge of a field to cut some and instead ended up getting poked in the eye with a stick. I learned about Killdeer roaming around the gardens at my best friend’s house and I can identify a Bufflehead from afar because I recall witnessing a friend’s excitement at seeing them for the first time on a Wisconsin lake. I know where certain trees are and where to find animal tracks on my parent’s property because they are tied up in the memories of my childhood.

I am someone who needs an experience to coexist with the facts. Something to give the neurons in my brain a reason to solidify that pathway. The more you experience and connect with a place, the more you are willing to seek out information and retain it in the long run because it has more meaning. It feels similar to the way a smell or a song brings you back to a specific memory. These memories are just rooted in nature.

At ACNC, students from across Chautauqua and Warren County are visiting for spring field trips. While making observations and asking questions are important, what is equally as important is facilitating a positive experience with nature. Maybe part of that experience will be the memory that helps a student learn something new, or maybe this experience in nature can just be one more memory that will give them another reason to care about the natural areas near them.

Either way, getting to explore the outdoors with children, just as I was allowed to during my childhood, is an important reminder that the freedom to make memories and have experiences both on our own and with people we trust is just as vital in our learning process as time spent studying and memorizing.

Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk and birds of prey can be viewed anytime the trails are open. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.


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