By Jensen Montambault, The Nature Conservancy
Raising a young conservationist is a whole lot more than making bird feeders out of used plastic bottles and foisting them on grandparents and unsuspecting neighbors. It’s an agreement to live with nature like an emotional equal, as part of the family.
Our four year old, for example, loves “baby pine cones.” I mean LOVES them. She brings the small hemlock cones scattered around our yard into the house by the fistful, cradles them, sings them lullabies and tucks them into bed.
But this bucolic vision ended the morning there was no space to make breakfast because the entire kitchen counter was covered in baby pine cones. It was too much, even for two parent-ecologists like us who usually appreciate locally-sourced decor.
“You canít bring in any more pine cones,” her father told her.
Tears, real tears, gushed. I had to throw the cat a life jacket before flipping the eggs.
“But I can’t let them sleep outside,” wailed the young conservationist. “They will be cold and lonely.”
Her dad tried the logic angle: “If you fill up the house with baby pine cones there won’t be any place for us to sleep and then we will be the ones sleeping out in the cold.”
“We have a tent,” countered the young conservationist.
He tried the scientific method: “Hemlocks are ‘r-selectors,’ which means they make countless pine cones so that even if some get eaten or some wash or rot away, some will make it to be adult trees. There is no way you can rescue them all.”
“Not these baby pine cones! I can count them all.” The young conservationist raced outside and planted herself on the walkway. Her dad joined her around two-hundred to try the habitat approach. “Honey, we like to live in the house, but the pine cones like to live out here. It’s where they have everything they need to grow.”
“This is their house?” wondered the young conservationist. “But it is muddy.” We had a wet, heavy late February snow. Icy patches hung on grimly to the north of the deck.
“Besides,” said her dad, “by the time you finish counting these pine cones, the tree will make more. It’s a renewable resource.” The young conservationist slowly came inside.
That night, after her dad went to put her one-year-old sister to bed, the young conservationist and I fixed her lunch for the next day. She pulled out a handful of baby pine cones she had been hoarding in her lunch box.
“Do you think that the pine cones really like to live outside? Is it really their house?” she asked me.
“Well,” I asked her, “what do plants need to grow?”
“Dirt, water, sunshine and air,” she answered promptly; they had been studying plants at pre-school. “But outside there is just mud.”
“Mud is dirt and water. It will dry out.”
“I’m not sure we get quite enough sunshine in our house.”
“Do you want to plant your pine cones?” I asked her.
“At night? In the dark?”
“Why not? There is a moon,” I replied. And that is how we ended up spending the evening, tossing cups of baby pine cones into the yard and chanting, “Grow! Grow! Grow!”
The next morning, her dad asked where all the pine cones went.
“Home,” replied the young conservationist. We had made a huge leap in understanding that it’s possible to truly care about something with very different needs from your own. And even when it is not aesthetically pleasing it is still beautiful to live side-by-side with functioning nature.
Jensen Montambault lives with her husband, also an ecologist, and two pre-school aged daughters, who they hope will love nature, in Charlottesville, Virginia. A conservation scientist for The Nature Conservancy’s global program, Jensen has nearly 20 years of experience working with environmental conservation in the Americas, Africa and the Pacific, as well as a Ph.D. in interdisciplinary ecology from the University of Florida. She also enjoys tackling home improvement projects and playing outside.
(Image: Pine cones for lunch? Source: Jensen Montambault.)