Sunday, December 15, 2013

Another Jolly, White-Bearded Old Man

I am one of those people who flew into a rage after seeing this holiday season's controversial Toys R Us commercial. The one where a busload of  kids are tricked into thinking they are going on a wilderness field trip to learn about trees (which they apparently find boring), and are then told that really they get to run around a toy store and take home free stuff (this revelation causes them to explode in a fervor of maniacal joy.) If you haven't seen it, you can watch it now.

For those who just watched it for the first time, if your mouth is hanging open with shock and disgust, then you have responded the same way I did. The horribleness of this ad is so painfully obvious, I'm not going to get into it. Suffice to say, it reflects badly on our society that commercials such as this get made.
Work by one of my Wagner students, a sculpture of an Aardvark placed in a diorama
As a secular humanist mom, nature and science education are hugely important to me. My daughter Lysi knows the names of all the captive animals at two nature centers. We have pet millipedes because after holding a giant, African millipede at a bug show last summer, she wanted to have some of her own. We're members of the Academy of Natural Sciences and attend all the preview parties and special events.
This year I'm an artist-in-residence at the Wagner Free Institute for Science. I work with science teachers to design and teach curriculum that integrates our two disciplines. During the Wagner's summer camp, I had inner city middle schoolers draw butterflies, cicadas, and other wildlife in nature journals and create mini-dioramas of animals in their natural habitats.
Hands-on experience of nature in parks and with rescued wildlife engages all our senses and makes it real.
Dude, that's an owl! 
Drawing from life is an exercise in really looking, rather than skimming over what is in front of our eyes.
Now that I get a really good, long look, geez, those talons are seriously scary looking! 
Well-presented information in a good book takes us deeper into understanding.
Owls are predators, descended from dinosaurs. They need those talons to swoop down on their prey.
Finally, creative illustrations transcend what can be seen by the naked eye or camera lens in any single moment. They have the potential to evoke an emotional response, which impresses on us the mystery and profundity of the natural world.
In the library last year, Lysi and I came across Every Autumn Comes the Bear by Jim Arnosky. It's a quiet sort of book. When you really get down to it, all that happens is that a bear appears, hangs out for a bit, then goes to sleep in a cave. And yet Lysi and I both fell in love. What got me was the subtle beauty of the watercolor illustrations. They were detailed, yet loose and painterly. Naturalistic, yet full of unexpected color choices.
In the months that followed, I kept coming across Jim Arnosky's name again and again.  Lysi expressed interest in turtles, and we found All About Turtles. I pulled a book off the shelf because of its striking cover image of an osprey, and it turned out to be Arnosky's Thunder Birds. Lysi got really into bugs, and we found Arnosky's Creep and Flutter. Talk about prolific!
Jim Arnosky popped up once again while I was looking for books for a workshop I teach. In the adult section of the library, among the field guides on trees, I came across Crinkleroot's Guide to Knowing the Trees. An adorable, gnome-like man on the cover charmed me instantly. Inside he introduced himself to me as "Crinkleroot", and said he was "born in a tree and raised by bees." I took the book home and immediately read it to Lysi, who loved it. Not only that, now she knew the difference between coniferous and deciduous trees.
To our joy, we discovered a whole series of Crinkleroot books: guides to butterflies and mothsanimal trackingknowing the birdsgiving back to nature, and more. We checked out as many as our public library kept in stock (which was most of the series).
Even though the books were basically doling out textbook information about their subjects, because Crinkleroot addresses his readers directly and is full of personality, Lysi responded to him the same as she responds to Angelina Ballerina, or any of her favorite characters in literature. The first time we went to the Morris Arboretum and saw a real log cabin, she exclaimed with delight, "It's Crinkleroot's house!"
The only Crinkleroot books Lysi found disappointing were the ones titled Crinkleroot's 25 (fill in the blank with "animals", "more animals", "mammals", "fish", and "birds") Every Child Should Know. In each of these books, Crinkleroot only appears at the beginning, and the rest of the pages are filled with profiles of animals listed. The reason Lysi didn't like these books was, as she put it, "I want Crinkleroot to come with us."
Even though Crinkleroot is a delightful character in a series of informative and playfully illustrated books for children, you will not find Crinkleroot dolls, t-shirts, backpacks, or other hokey merchandise. He does not star in a cartoon on Nick Jr., the Disney Channel, or even PBS Kids. You will, however, find Crinkleroot books in most public libraries and many schools. On Crinkleroot's website you can purchase teaching leaves with art and science lessons, download free coloring pages of animals, and even listen to the Crinkleroot song.
I wish Crinkleroot were as familiar a literary character as Fancy Nancy and Arthur. He is a full fleshed-out personality who presents children with facts about the natural world in a way that is engaging and beautiful. And yet, when I have brought him up to educators at nature centers and the Wagner Institute, they have never heard of him. Just like that horrible Toys R Us ad, Crinkleroot's anonymity is perhaps indicative of our society's disconnect and disinterest in the natural world.
A side by side comparison of Crinkleroot and Santa Claus
Crinkleroot looks quite a bit like Santa Claus. White beard. Rosy cheeks. Friendly expression. They're both chubby and wear a lot of red. Crinkleroot might be shorter, but then in many historical incarnations, Santa is an elf or elf-like man of short stature. (Snopes has a good article on the history and myth surrounding Santa's appearance.)
Then there are the significant differences. Crinkleroot merely lives in a cabin in the woods with his pet snake Sassafrass, consorts with nature, and tells tall tales about being raised by bees. Santa on the other hand, lives in the far-off North Pole (a place covered with shifting ice water) and has magical powers: he can fly in a sled, visit all children in a single night, and spies on all children throughout the year.
A late autumn walk in the woods
If we must associate a jolly, white-bearded fictional character with gift-giving in December, how about purchasing some Crinkleroot books to add to the home libraries of the children in our lives? Instead of putting cookies out for a mythical elf, we can take a walk in the woods and note that the nakedness of the deciduous trees signifies winter and the time when bears sleep.

* The image was Owl In Flight, an oil painting by Jane Gough.

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