May 14th, 2007


Please, Can I Keep It?

When you live in Austin, Texas, it's manditory to go swimming every single day all summer long. And when we say summer, we mean May-ish through October-ish. 

It's not a bad rule. Whoever cooked it up was onto something. It's really flippin' hot in Texas and full, watery submersion can help with skin tone, swollen ankles and marriage. I'm serious. 

And the weatherman must've gotten with the mayor and the mayor must've been a mother, because you can hardly turn a corner in this town without falling into a pool or swimmin' hole. They make it really easy on you.

Still, as you might imagine, all this swimming becomes quite a commitment. Time, a bathing suit budget, and the porch railing forever hung with wet towels. So I like to wait, each spring, until I just can't stand it anymore. 

Yesterday was that day. The predicted 'high 80s' were really the low 90s, and we took the plunge in our neighborhood 'pool' which just so happens to be a 3-acred, spring-fed nirvana called Barton Springs. First, we hemmed and hawed and dipped our toes like the wimpy procrastinators we are (it's 68 degrees). Then we swam. I swear, you pop up in a different mood than the one you dunked under with. It's that instantaneous. 

There's a rocky shallow end that the kids love especially, for the au naturel sense of adventure. It's where Huck Finn'd hang if he were a city boy. 

So there we were yesterday, delighted by the particularly abundant crops of minnows and tadpoles. Really, the water was all flush and squirmy. And our girls tried to catch them in their hands, just like every kid in the history of kid-hood has tried to do. Many giggles, a few tumbles on the slippery stones, quite a few 'fish that got away.'

One slightly older boy, though, had caught himself a big ole' bag of minnows and was carrying it around, happily, in his hands. His father followed him, suggesting over and over again that the boy release the fish. All the reasons -- they're going to run out of oxygen, they're crowded in there, they don't like plastic, they want to grow into big fish -- all the reasons fell on deaf ears because the boy wanted to keep the fish. And he said so. 

The dad massaged his forehead and looked a little desperately at the baggie full of fish -- pretty worried, I think, that he'd have blood on his hands. And then he said, to all of us, "When we were kids we didn't always want to keep everything. Did we? I think we all just caught 'em and let 'em go."

I don't know if that's true. In fact, I can think of a couple of specific exceptions including a small snake that somehow escaped the cooler we had him in and was never to be seen again, much to my mother's displeasure. 

But the discussion that evolved yesterday, as the fish were wilting in the bag, revolved around today's immediate gratification, consumer culture. If our kids get what they want when they want it (now, if not before) is it really that surprising that they want to keep nature's booty, too? Nevermind the plastic bag and lack of oxygen, our kids have been trained in acquisitions.

So how do we talk to them about wanting the most out of their lives and working toward that and, at the same time, teach them that there is much in this world that isn't ours and oughtn't be? 

One of the catch-phrases has always been,  "Leave those (flowers, frogs, shells) here, so there will be more for the next folks to enjoy." But that implies that nature is here primarily for our amusement and pleasure. 

I think this has to be a question of stewardship, of a responsible and ethical use of power. I think if we empower kids to tend to the natural world (which sometimes means, of course, simply getting out of the way), that caring for nature rather than keeping it will become habit. 

Even the water, still cold, pools at our feet and we leave it behind, where it belongs.