A Child’s Gaze

I’ve been head over heels about nature my whole life, and I think it’s made me a reasonably observant person. On even a casual walk, I can usually spot an interesting bird, wary snake or odd bug.

But I also know that I’m nowhere near as good at seeing the world around me as I was as a child.

Of course I’m not. When we’re young, our brains are a lot less cluttered. We’re not constantly making plans, worrying about things we can’t control, replaying conversations, or drifting away in a mental haze. (Or staring at our phones!) When I was little, it felt like I was effortlessly present, focused, and intent. Every bend in the trail, every step, might reveal something I’d never seen before—and I knew that, if it did, I wouldn’t miss it.

And then I grew up. If I never entirely turned my back on nature, too often it became something to be glimpsed amid all of life’s more immediate demands.

Until, inevitably, a child reminded me of what’s truly important.

It was a beautiful day in May, and I was driving my six-year-old son, Jacob, back from a doctor’s appointment. He was due at school, but as we passed a local park—its dense trees shining a glorious green in the spring sunlight—I said on impulse, “Do you want to go for a quick walk first?”

A walk or school? This was a no-brainer.

We parked in Rockefeller State Park’s main lot and headed down the path to Swan Lake…where, for about the next forty-five minutes, we had a nature experience unlike any I’ve had before or since. And nearly always it was Jacob, with his sharp eyes and intense focus, who showed the way.

It all began with snakes. I’d seen the occasional Northern Water Snake along the lake’s marshy edges, but this day it wasn’t just one snake. It was seven. Seven water snakes swimming together, their bodies barely rippling the water as they made their way smoothly across the lake’s surface.

Northern Water Snake eating a fish. Photo: https://www.ontarioparks.ca/parksblog/pinery-watersnake/
Northern Water Snake eating a fish. Photo: https://www.ontarioparks.ca/parksblog/pinery-watersnake/

We’d barely walked a few more steps before Jacob said, “What’s that sound?” I listened and heard it, too: An odd, nasal groaning coming from the lakeshore a little below the path. Peering down, we spotted another watersnake, its jaws clamped around the leg of a huge bullfrog. It was the bullfrog, struggling to get free, that was making the strange cries.

Watersnakes frequently eat frogs, along with fish, crayfish, and even an occasional mouse. But it seemed like this three-foot-long snake’s eyes had been bigger than its stomach (or its mouth), because even as it hung on grimly, it had no luck getting a better grip, much less devouring the giant bullfrog. Finally, with a last convulsive kick, the frog got free, apparently unharmed, and leaped into the lake to safety.

A little further along, we heard another nasal cry from the water’s edge. Another snake with a mouthful of frog? No: two enormous male bullfrogs standing on their hind legs, embracing each other in bear hugs. Wrestling for dominance and to impress any nearby females, they staggered back and forth, occasionally trying to bite each other.

Bullfrog. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_bullfrog
Bullfrog. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_bullfrog

Finally, apparently by mutual consent, they let go and went their separate ways. “Who won?” Jacob asked. I said I thought it had been a tie, but that only the frogs knew for sure.

A few steps later, Jacob said that he wanted to go down to the lakeshore, and we did. Squatting there, we watched Eastern Painted Turtles sunning themselves on a nearby log and sunfish darting through shallow water. Then Jacob, his voice excited, said, “Grab right there!”

Following the direction of his pointing finger, I saw only mud, leaves, and twigs resting in about two inches of water. “But—” I said.

“Grab, Dad!”

So I grabbed. And when I lifted my dripping hand from the shallows and opened my fingers, there on my palm sat a tiny, perfect baby Common Snapping Turtle, its shell smaller than a half dollar. It favored us both with its species’ classic dinosaur-like gaze until I lowered it gently back into the water. A moment later, it had buried itself in the mud again and vanished from view.

Snapping Turtle hatchling. Photo: https://www.bluebirdfarmnc.com
Snapping Turtle hatchling. Photo: https://www.bluebirdfarmnc.com

“How on earth did you see that?” I asked Jacob. But even as he gave a little shrug, I knew the answer: Because he was a child, and children notice things we adults don’t.

Getting back to my feet, I glanced at my watch. It was time to start heading back. Jacob came along without much of an argument, but even then the wonders of that day hadn’t quite ended. As we neared the path back to the parking lot, I caught a glimpse of something orange hurtling like a comet across the lake towards us.

Looking more closely, we saw it wasn’t one orange comet, but two: Two male Baltimore Orioles fighting over territory, a female, or whatever else these gorgeous and argumentative birds fight about. As we watched, they barreled closer, tumbling through the air, clearly paying no attention to where they were going.

“Watch—” Jacob said. But before he could finish his warning, the two birds, still flying full speed, crashed into a bush right at our feet. Only the soft leaves and small branches prevented them from hurtling straight into the ground and likely doom. As it was, a few moments later they both emerged, unscathed, and flew off in opposite directions. All the fight seemed to have been taken out of them…at least for a minute or two.

Baltimore Oriole male. Photo: Macaulay Library #335265051, Grace C.
Baltimore Oriole male. Photo: Macaulay Library #335265051, Grace C.

After that, it really was time to go, to get back to school and work, our “real lives.” I have no idea what important grownup tasks I accomplished for the rest of that day, but my memories of that brief time in the park have never faded. They come back to me whenever I’m outside with children, showing them a cool plant, bug, or bird and then waiting to see what they want to share with me.

But even more than the memories, it’s the lessons I learned that day that keep returning. No matter who I’m with, or even when I’m all alone, they remind me to slow down, clear my mind, and try to watch the world around me with a child’s gaze.

Copyright © 2024 by Joseph Wallace