Square-eyed nature boffins

Dreas and I recently had one of those moments: when all you want to do is up sticks and find a small plot off the beaten track with an appropriately rustic, whitewashed dwelling where you can live simply whilst growing your own vegetables.

You know, when you’ve just had it with the deadlines, pointless admin, office politics and traffic jams of the city... and, all of a sudden, start imagining yourself in a quiet, peaceful place, with a hoe in your hand. Even though you aren’t entirely what a hoe is, actually, and what one would do with it.

Unfortunately we simply don’t have the guts for such a drastic life change, so we did what most city folk do when out-citied. We hauled our cookies into the country for a weekend away, our trusty MPV stocked to the side mirrors with camping equipment and boxes of healthful snacks, like trail mix and bran flakes with cranberries.

Countryside 101

Whenever we do this, I become terribly gung-ho. It’s almost as if I am trying to give my urban kids Countryside 101, all crammed into one weekend, even though I am entirely born and bred upon tarmac. (I know, slightly pathetic, but I am willing to bet my binoculars some of you do it too.)

This time, we found ourselves in a small private reserve on Bain’s Kloof Pass. Gloriously covered in spring flowers, nestling between two majestic ravine/ridge-type things... this was clearly the place where I was going to share my (not often practised) love of nature with my sons. I could feel it in my water-bottle.

Boy-eating plants

‘Look around you, boys!’ I exclaimed that Saturday, about an hour and a half into a hike. (While I was horribly red in the face, the rest of my family had, bewilderingly, not even broken into a sweat. I needed to do something to assert myself.) ‘Look at all the unspoilt beauty around you; isn’t it glorious? Look! There are some... LBJ birds! And there’s a lot of... fynbos everywhere! And how cute are these little dewy red plants on the path?’

My 8-year-old son Benj bent down to look at them, and then looked up at me all brimming with enthusiasm.

‘Well, I wouldn’t exactly call them cute; they are carnivorous,’ he said, about to touch one.

‘Aargh... don’t touch it!’ I shrieked. ‘Everyone, step away!’

‘Don’t be silly, Mommy,’ said Joe, my 10-year-old. ‘Sundews don’t eat HUMAN flesh, they eat little insects that stray across their path. Look at this area – it’s all sandstone, with very little soil. These plants have evolved to get their nutrition where they can find it.’

I looked across at Andreas, who gave me a little ‘how could you not know this?’ shrug. (There are a couple of downsides to marrying a person with four degrees in geology.)

‘Boys, has Daddy taken you on secret field trips without me? How do you know this kind of thing?’

The boys looked at each other and then at me, a little pityingly.

‘I am sorry Mommy, it’s because you spend all day at work – you don’t get to watch nearly as much TV as you should. The Discovery Channel often features carnivorous plants, and other interesting and unusual aspects of our amazing planet.’

As I stood staring, open-mouthed, the DSTV Ad formerly known as Joe took the opportunity to give Benj a little nudge.

‘Hey look, Benj,” he whispered. “I think that’s a Yellow Bishop.’
‘I think you’re right,’ Benj whispered back. ‘And look, his back feathers are all puffed up... it must be mating season.’

And with that, they skipped off down the trail, leaving me and my all my pre-conceptions in tatters. I know that my kids watch a lot of nature documentaries, because cartoons weird them up a bit, but I had no idea they were learning to do more than drool peacefully.

It seems I owe my TV, and perhaps, city life a little apology. I shall be treading both our nearby trails and our tarmac a little more circumspectly for a bit.

Do you think kids learn useful things from watching TV?

Read more by Sam Wilson
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