Sunday, March 01, 2009

The Case of the Missing Babies

Princeton has quite a few natural areas, but in another way, I would say that we are not providing for the needs of kids for nature. Take for instance the strong need in children to witness the wonder of creation and growth. By this, I mean the birth and growth of baby animals. The breeding of dogs is largely left to professionals. Kittens are scarce, which may be just as well, given the toll stray cats can exact on local birds. Farms open to the public are few and require a drive.

What do we have to fill this void? Some people are lucky to have birds nest close to a window. My daughters have seen Monarch caterpillars grow into butterflies, and seen cicadas emerge from their shells. They were delighted to find baby goldfish in our backyard miniponds, and promptly gave them all names. But really this is slim pickins when compared to all the joy, wonder and learning that could be taking place. 

So, what do I tell my eight year old when she pleas to buy an exotic frog at the local store? We know that the trade in exotic pets, as with the importation of exotic plants, has contributed to the unraveling of our ecosystems, as well-meaning owners release exotic animals into the wild when they can no longer care for them at home. 

This situation is akin to the difficulties gardeners face when they seek out native plants to buy. What we have in both cases is a void in local native offerings that people then seek to fill by importing exotics. There are, fortunately, some steps being taken to supply local native plants to buy. The Friends of Princeton Open Space has held small native plant sales the past two years. Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve sells native plants, and other local organizations like Stonybrook Watershed Association and the Mercer County Master Gardeners have periodic sales. Most promising, in terms of scale and sticking to local genotypes, is D&R Greenway's efforts, which began with a sale this past fall. 

The more difficult problem is how to fill the void in children's lives, when demonstrations of nature's fecundity are so hard to find. I remember as a kid bringing a couple tadpoles home from some nearby pond and watching them grow legs in our aquarium. That's the kind of thing I have in mind. Though nowadays we're discouraged from foraging in the wild, there must be an alternative to teaching kids that nature is something they buy at the local store.

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