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Collecting for Connecting to the Natural World


By Jack Ridge

Illustration by Ellen Dubreuil

This is a story about collecting. Not the kind of collecting that clutters our basements and garages because we can’t let go, but the kind of collecting that stimulates life-long curiosity for the natural world. This story is about the natural objects we collect, the ones we look upon with curiosity and wonder. The ones we arrange as a way of understanding how the world operates. In my case, in late childhood, it was about collecting and arranging rocks, minerals, and other things geologic. 

My collecting started at an early age. Growing up in eastern Pennsylvania, adults in my life encouraged plenty of opportunities for exploration. We lived in a rural suburb of Bethlehem in a house bordered by farmland. Every day my friends and I rode our bikes to Monocacy Creek, a nearby stream about half a mile away. It was always unplanned and always different, and there was always an abundance of things to see and do. Unfortunately, you would never know it now as the area has become part of the dense suburban sprawl west of New York City, with endless housing developments. But back then, cow pastures, fields of feed corn, and other natural sites provided a kind of outdoor laboratory.

In addition to exploring these natural surroundings, frequent fishing trips and hikes to pick blueberries with my grandfather also stimulated interest in the natural world. My grandparents lived in nearby coal regions, and my grandfather especially loved the outdoors. As an undergraduate geology student, after experiencing the beautiful areas of the western United States, I felt regret that I never got to share this experience with him. Alongside my grandfather, my parents were also supporting participants in cultivating my connection to the natural world. Every summer we would take a family vacation, traveling hundreds of miles to the Outer Banks, rural Virginia, Acadia National Park, Cape Cod, the White Mountains, and upstate New York — all to explore what nature had to offer.

My love of nature manifested in many ways, but the main way was my constant collecting of things, dead or alive! My questions surrounding every new object led to my quickly learning to appreciate the delicate complexity of natural things. I always wanted to know more. I collected shells, rocks, and minerals. Alongside my collections, I had pet newts, a box turtle, tropical fish, a hermit crab, and anoles . And even after all these years, I can still hear in my mind and smile at the firm but not at all stern command, “Make sure that thing doesn’t get loose in the house!”. In the summer, I collected monarch butterfly eggs off milkweed, which was abundant along the edges of farm fields. Once hatched, I raised the caterpillars to their chrysalis stage. I replenished the leaves every day and experienced their miraculous biochemical change: the metamorphosis of a caterpillar to a butterfly. I still have vivid memories of butterflies breaking out of their chrysalis and expanding their wings to dry—and I can still savor that thrill of seeing them fly away.

There were also books to read. I had an enormous collection of Herbert Zim’s Golden Guides, and flipping through them became a pastime. You name it: birds, reptiles and amphibians, trees, astronomy, fossils, insects, mammals, rocks and minerals, pond life – they were a perfect accompaniment to long car rides. The range of different animals was vast, and it became a challenge to find them all. Seeing different kinds of birds became a passion (another form of collecting, albeit in one’s imagination). It was exciting finding something in your collection or guidebook. It was instant validation! And today, I still have the guidebooks on my shelf.

My collecting started in earnest when I was about 9 or 10 years old. The marvel was rocks – something I still collect today, although in a much different capacity. On hikes with my grandfather through the spoils of abandoned open-pit coal mines, I picked up all kinds of fossils. Because coal beds are essentially fossilized swamps, there is an abundance of plant remains in the rocks, including whole ferns, tree limbs with scaly bark, and flattened stems and leaves. And there was pyrite, an iron sulfide mineral also known as “fool’s gold”.  It’s ironic that such an environmentally devastated landscape fueled my interest in nature. Of course, the challenge was figuring out how to carry all the loot back to the car. I learned early on that a backpack and newspaper was a necessity.

My fascination with rocks and minerals expanded to other varieties and got more sophisticated over the years. And the questions I now ask as a professor of geology were unfathomable to me when I was a child. But my past is still very much within me.  And today, I still carry around Tupperware containers in a backpack – just in case!

My story leads to the claim that collecting natural objects must be encouraged in our children. What better way to immerse children in the secrets of the natural world and instill in them a sense of environmental stewardship? Collecting being a highly personal endeavor makes it highly enjoyable, a form of play even as it is a context for learning.  Each child may do it differently, but the result can be the same –an important process for self-learning, developing thinking skills, and connecting to the natural world in ways that show care.

Today, we are in a “collecting crisis”. Children have fewer opportunities to explore the natural world and collect on their own, and they don’t get to spend as much time pondering how the natural world operates. Hikes and bike rides are outmoded for many. There are fewer places for self-guided exploration that allow children to simply wander and collect. Therefore, now more than ever, cultivating stewardship in our children calls for adults to expand opportunities for children to explore the natural world and collect.

Jack Ridge is Professor of glacial and Quaternary geology and geomorphology in the Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences at Tufts University.  His research on terrestrial glacial events in the northeastern U.S. contributes to the ongoing efforts to understand the nature and causes of past climate change.

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