Come forth into the light of things. Let nature be your teacher. – William Wordsworth
There’s something about autumn. The crispness of cooler days and the way the sun casts longer shadows. The red, yellow and orange hues of the trees serve as tangible evidence of passing time and reminders of the cyclical rhythms of life. And the fallen leaves, ah yes, the leaves.
For nearly the first four years of Ethan’s childhood, we lived in the woods on the far outskirts of a Midwestern metropolis. Our first house abutted a state park complete with towering bluffs overlooking a river and acres upon acres of woodland. Our next home was just as rustically situated, next to a creek in a lively woods with near daily sightings of coyote, deer, turtles, bats, owls, and all sorts of critters in between. Our doors literally opened into a forest, and Ethan’s early childhood was rich in encounters with the natural world.
Each year, autumn brought its own heightened sense of joy, because if there was one thing Ethan truly delighted in, it was fallen leaves. Crunching in leaves, smelling leaves, tossing leaves in the air, leaping in piles of leaves, and rolling in leaves with complete abandon. Likely even munching leaves when we weren’t looking. A total sensory experience!
Every leaf speaks bliss to me, fluttering from the autumn tree – Emily Bronte
The simple times spent in nature have offered the very best sensory experiences we could imagine… and for all for free. Spending time outside every day has been fundamental to our unschooling journey.
Certainly we were blessed to have lived immersed in an environment so rich with wild discoveries, but meaningful encounters with nature can be found just about anywhere, even in big cities. Backyard birds and bugs alone provide a wealth of discoveries about the cycle of life, feeding habits of animals, ecology, the water cycle, and more.
Nature offers us countless concrete, scientific learning opportunities, but just as importantly, nature allows us to experience a unique and vital state of being. In nature, we give ourselves permission to slow down. We notice things. We observe. We ask questions, and if we don’t know the answers we look them up in our nature guides or later online. We collect bugs and examine them, we feed our backyard birds and notice their singular habits. We walk barefoot and feel the rootedness of our bodies to the earth. We gaze at the night sky and take note of the cycles of the moon. We get in the mud puddles, and we play in the rain and snow and feel it upon us, with open mouths tilted skyward. And in doing so we experience ourselves, not as separate from this Earth but as a vital and connected part of a whole system.
Shortly before Ethan turned four years old, we packed up and left our house in the woods for a new chapter in the desert Southwest. To offer perspective on how huge a change this presented, a few days after we arrived in our suburban town with cacti-lined streets among red tiled roofs, Ethan asked in bewilderment, “Mommy, are we still on Earth???”
Although autumn leaves take a little more effort to find here, there are plenty of new opportunities for connecting with nature. In the absence of towering trees, there is the ever-present sunshine and our very own small patch of backyard grass, framed by a mesquite tree with its own community of bugs and birds. So much life persists here waiting to be found, uniquely adapted to survive in a harsh desert habitat. A whole new world of nature to discover.
During this autumn of Ethan’s fifth year, we’ll visit a pumpkin patch, and maybe take in a corn maze, and of course hit the warm desert streets in costume for Halloween. But we’ll also be seeking out the quieter places… the local park with the old growth trees tucked back in the corner, ready to shed for the season. And under those trees is where we’ll likely be… rolling in the leaves.