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Nature's Tiny Teachers

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Published on: May. 2, 1999

Last revision: Nov. 2, 2010

Anyone who has sat quietly within 5 feet of a hummingbird feeder knows that television is a poor substitute for the entertainment at that feeder.Hummingbirds, those wee dynamos, can teach more about nature than 100 classrooms. You'll learn about intraspecies competition, territoriality, food habits and a host of natural history events you don't even know you're learning.

Think small. The famous French entomologist Jean Henry Fabre (1823 1915) wrote many books about insects, and most of his work was done in his back yard. Yet he is just as famous in natural history circles as Darwin or other naturalists who traveled widely and theorized on a much grander scale.

My friend Gale Lawrence, a Vermont naturalist, has written several books about nature study in familiar surroundings, including one on the ecology of houses. The Indoor Naturalist covers everything from dust to yogurt.

Gale opens peoples' eyes to what is around them everyday, everywhere.

Her fascination with the little things around us led her into bookwriting, a natural extension of her curiosity and her training as an English teacher. Most wouldn't carry their enthusiasm that far, but the world is filled with interesting little epiphanies.

For example, the orb weaver at our front door. We called her Charlotte after the spider in E.B. White's book. She crocheted her webs with ceaseless energy and skill, her legs working together with incredible precision to pick and fasten strands.

She was resident for a month a couple of years ago. Each night she would start building about dark and would continue her spinning, like Griselda in the fairy tale, until she had a lovely web.

We carefully searched for the anchor strands that sometimes stretched across the deck. We didn't want to destroy her handiwork, and we'd do the limbo to slip under the support work. Yet each day the web was wrecked, tattered in the breeze.

Somewhere in my vast store of misinformation, I believed that orb weavers destroy their webs each day and start over. Not so, the books told me. I was intrigued enough by the hard-working spider to check, and I learned that time, weather and prey destroy the web, not the builder.

It was a tiny revelation that won't change either the world or my life, but I'm one fact richer for it, one step closer to understanding the world around me.

My son Eddie always has had the good eye for the small. Barely out of toddlerhood, he would

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