I spent half a day at Mt Coot-tha Forest Park with a bunch of ten year olds recently. They did what ten year olds do, climbed rocks and trees, played tag, threw each other’s hats into the creek and then ate their body weight in chicken sandwiches and orange cake. They also caught yabbies.
I didn’t even know Brisbane’s creeks had yabbies but the other mother with us, Jane, who brought the orange cake and three of the kids, was an expert yabby catcher, as it happened, a skill she’d learned growing up on a property near Texas in southern Queensland where, she said, they’d catch yabbies the size of a large prawn or small lobster. The ones at Mt Coot-tha were much smaller, and the kids could pick them up in their fingers. They were brown, like the creek rocks they live under, each with a single claw. Their proper name is Cherax destructor, I later learned, and what ten year old wouldn’t love a creature with a name like that? We put the largest of the yabbies, perhaps two inches long, in a plastic thermos cup and observed it. When one of the kids got a tick in his neck, I pulled it out. Feed it to the yabby, someone said. We did. We learned two things. Cherax destructor’s diet doesn’t include ticks, and ticks can swim.
I made the mistake of asking Jane how you prepare freshwater yabbies, expecting, I think, a gentle euthanising. “Keep them in water while you get the pot boiling,” Jane said, “and then scoop them up in a colander and throw them in.” When they’re reddish and, I assume, quite dead – they’re ready. I didn’t blanch, I hope, just continued to look as if that’s what I’d do with those poor little Cheraxes when I was ready to eat ‘em too.
Jane’s experience of growing up was different from mine, but we both knew the magic of natural places, and we were both back there in a moment, given a chance. I remember days spent down the creek at home in Chapel Hill in Brisbane’s west. We’d set out in the morning with a packed lunch, never knowing what we’d find, tadpoles in various stages of frogness, ever a wonder, guppies that always died when we took them home, dragonflies, other bugs. Sometimes we wouldn’t get home until dark, not a worry on our minds.
In his book Last Child in the Woods, American writer Richard Louv says today’s children don’t spend enough time whiling away hours in their own company in natural places. Neighbourhoods don’t have as many natural places to begin with, and we don’t let our children roam free anyway because we of the overparenting generation are so afraid. Kids can’t build tree forts because they might harm important trees or fall out of them, and they don’t go outside as much because screens of various dimensions are way more tempting. Even at school and in playgrounds, ever more oppressive health and safety regulations stop kids exploring their environment. “Nature” has become a thing we see in a national park that’s either vaguely dangerous or protected so completely we can’t really engage with it meaningfully.
Louv links lack of engagement with nature
to a whole range of problems for children including obesity, attention
disorders and depression. He says kids – and grownups – suffer “nature deficit
disorder”, and they won’t bother protecting something they have no connection with.
Louv’s evidence base is scant, especially around links with disease in
children, but his thesis is one I rather like.
But the last thing I want is to give already overburdened parents another thing they should be doing. Luckily, in Louv’s thesis, nature is part of us and we of it, whether it’s fishing for yabbies in a local creek, climbing a tree in the back yard, or taking a trip to the monolithic national park. For me, those hours spent in the company of ten year olds by a creek were worth every moment. American writer Wendell Berry suggests we sometimes need to “rest in the grace of the world.” Ten year olds know how to do this by instinct. They have much to teach us.