For all of its wonder and glory, and there is plenty of that to be observed and enjoyed on a daily basis, nature can also be a pretty harsh place at times. When we step into the outdoors world, often with young children along for the adventure, things can get pretty cruel and fairly graphic, in a hurry.
Kids are programmed for happy endings, so it can provide for a few tough and emotional moments when life does not turn out just like Bambi's story. There are not a lot of fairy tales and storybook type accounts out in the woods, on the lake, or in the field behind the house.
On one recent nature walk, a couple of wide-eyed elementary school students were shocked to find a tiny bird that had fallen or been blown out of its nest by a gusty storm that occurred a few hours earlier. The little fella, still naked of feathers and its eyes not yet open, floundered on the ground on legs far too weak to support its weight.
The immediate reaction of the little guys in our group was to want to pick up the sad-looking baby bird, take it home, and nurture it to health. After a few weeks of feeding and tender loving care, the bird could be set free out on the deck, and take off to a great life of tweeting and flying in the nearby woods.
But this was not a Disney movie. In the real world, millions of very young animals suffer the same fate as this guy no doubt did. After being separated from its mother by weather or predators or some other act of nature, it will die from exposure to the elements, or become part of the food chain as the defenseless victim or a larger, predatory species.
The kids didn't want to hear anything about "nature taking its course". They reacted emotionally to the notion that leaving the tiny bird alone in the high grass was really the only chance it had to survive. There was the remote possibility that its mother would return and retrieve it, but that was the only real chance it had to live another day.
A similar scenario played out in a quiet corner of the barn, where a mother cat had found some loose straw and an old wooden box provided the ideal place to have her litter of kittens. After they were a few days old, it became obvious that four of them were thriving, and one was struggling to keep up with the pack.
In their minds, the "runt of the litter" was cute and cuddly and therefore deserving of some special help from outside forces. As the bigger, more aggressive kittens muscled their way into position to nurse, the runt was repeatedly pushed away or knocked out of the prime feeding location.
The children became frustrated that, despite their best of intentions, the same scenario continued to play out. As the mother cat dozed off and on, completely oblivious to the tussle going on at her side, the stronger kittens made sure the runt stayed at the bottom of the pecking order.
The tiny kitten would live or die based on nature's ways and nature's plan. It was out of our control and out of our jurisdiction, but the kids were very unhappy with that verdict. They had seen an animal show on TV where babies were nursed with a tiny bottle and warmed with a heat lamp, saved by constant human intervention. They wanted the same happy ending here.
It took some work to let them down gently, but the bottom line is that real life in the outdoors, in nature's realm, is not much like Bambi's story. A lot of times, the lion gets the antelope, and the hyenas get the wildebeest.
And in the majority of cases, the little bird that tumbles out of the nest in the spring won't live to see the following day. There's a harsh, sometimes cruel side to nature, and it's not really fair to kids to pretend it does not exist.
Matt Markey is the A-T outdoors columnist.
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