Following a winter that was exceptionally harsh for much of the United States, spring has finally returned. Milder weather, longer days, and the re-emergence of flowers and creatures should remind us of the wonders of nature that are just outside our doors. Help your kids to appreciate and understand the eco-world around us.
I recently had the pleasure of a two part Mexican eco-adventure of my own, accompanied by my son Rhett. Traveling with Natural Habitat Adventures, an environmentally friendly partner of WWF, the first part of our trip was to visit the majestic Monarch butterflies in their winter sanctuary. The second part was to view the Great Gray Whales of Baja.
Our first entry into the monarch kingdom was the El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary. Ascending the trail through the forest, we caught our first glimpse of the butterflies, but there were also hummingbirds whirring around us, as well as other delightful birds. When we arrived at our destination, the migratory resting place, the Oyamel fir trees are covered in the orange and black of autumnal foliage -- but, these are not leaves. Millions of butterflies are at rest, weighing down the branches.
As the sun warms the Monarchs, they begin to take flight. Only in these sanctuaries can you actually hear their wings cut through the silence. It's easy to to see why the ancient Aztecs believed that the souls of the dead are reborn as Monarchs.
The remaining days of our butterfly trek include horseback travel to visit a stream where the Monarchs are known to drink, and Piedra Herrada Sanctuary -- the newest sanctuary, winter home to even more of the spectacular specimens. We learn about efforts to preserve the fragile forest ecosystem that is key to the survival of the species.
The second part of our journey, to visit the whales, was no less than spiritual. We spent several days, observing and learning about the Great Grays and their habits. While the expedition leaders are mindful not to disrupt or disturb the animals, the whales were amazingly curious, and even social.
These graceful giants would breach, and frolic in the lagoons and eventually make their way to investigate our small boat. We were acutely aware that we were in their territory, and that they could reject or even menace us as -- but they are gentile and friendly. It was obvious that they were encouraging the offspring, 14 to 16 feet at birth, to interact with us. One of the mothers swam under our tiny skiff and slightly raised us as she scratched her back on the underside. I got the chance of a lifetime to rub the belly of one of the babies.
It was easy to interpret the generosity and warmth of the whales as their awareness of being goodwill ambassadors to we humans, in spite of the horrors we have inflicted on them historically and which continues in some corners of the earth. One gets the feeling that they are saying: "Look at us, know us, protect us."
While a visit to Mexico to see the Monarchs or the Great Gray Whales may be too exotic, there are simple, local ways to to teach your children to appreciate the wonders of nature. I'm not going to suggest that you put a whale in your swimming pool -- in fact, that would be cruel -- but, you can read about them with your kids. You can attract butterflies to your backyard. You can instill an appreciation for our planet, and an understanding of how humans have an impact on nature.
- Create a butterfly garden. Plant a butterfly garden with the right plants and flowers that butterflies love to feed on and lay eggs on, you will certainly have a yard full of butterflies throughout the growing season. Butterfly gardens can be any size -- a window box, or part of your garden.
- Be sure to plant region-native milkweed if you want to attract the Monarchs.
- Visit a botanical garden, and local parks as field trips. Keep a photo journal of the flowers and insects you spot.
- Many zoos, including The Bronx Zoo in NYC, have butterfly exhibits where you can experience the wonder of butterflies in lush settings as you walk among them -- in addition to the animals and reptiles.
- Be aware of the harmful effects chemicals, insecticides and fertilizers can have on the environment.
- Monarch Butterflies gather in several places around the U.S. as they make their fall migration to warmer climates. Two famous places you can catch them in abundance are Cape May, NJ, and Pismo Beach, CA.
Embrace the change of seasons. Get outdoors, spread your wings, and share the beauty and wonder that surrounds us with your kids. Perhaps, as a family, you can research, plan, and budget for a summer vacation nature trip to a local beach, zoo, or Monarch Butterfly migration near you.
Please share your comments and experiences in the space below.