I don’t like to pathologize kids’ quirks, but sometimes my daughter is a nutcase.
Fern’s always had a thing for nature, probably down to all the snails and millipedes I forced on her as an infant. I push her to grow up as "the naturalist’s daughter" (and yes, thanks, I do realize that "the angry germophobe" is just as likely — you should never tell kids how to be).
A couple of months ago, she started asking me to carry a leaf or two every time we hiked. "I want to keep this to do a leaf rubbing," she’d lie, then hand me the grottiest, dampest, lichen-ladenest leaf she could find. Caked-on mud was especially valuable, but no matter what the leaf’s condition, I was to protect it like pirate’s treasure. No big deal, I thought. It’s just a couple of leaves.
A week or two passed, and the quantity of stuff collected on our walk started to increase, the excuses becoming more elaborate. "This is a special leaf for grandma," she’d say. Or "This stick is going to be my broomstick," or "I’m going to do art with this rock." Another week or two and Fern stopped even making excuses; she would just stop every five yards, pick up a leaf, and silently hand it over to me to curate.
You think I’m making a big deal out of nothing, right? No. We’re talking dozens of leaves. A new leaf every ten steps. Leaves the size of pencil erasers, which nonetheless must be retained in my museum of a pocket without loss or damage. Lots and lots of leaves.
For a while I looked for ways to combat the habit. These are city trails; dead twigs are plentiful, but nonetheless I come from an outdoor education background and it’s not kosher in those circles to take anything off a trail. "Just pick up the leaves that are special," I’d say, or "Let’s leave those twigs for other people to enjoy." My words wouldn’t have swayed a rational adult; they certainly had no effect on a three-year old.
At the point where I was actually worried for Fern’s psyche — does a child who hoards leaves use them to fill an emotional void, blah, blah, blah — suddenly I got it. She’s got a collection. She doesn’t collect coins or stamps or Italian shoes, she collects leaves. And as she collects, she sorts, examines, and compares them, values them for a minute, and then tucks them away for safe keeping in — alas! — my pocket.
If collecting leaves is what she wants to do — and even though with autumn here she’s no doubt going to be stooping to scoop up ever more — then so be it. Fortunately, there’s one legacy my life as a naturalist has left to me that I haven’t yet lost:
Pants with lots of pockets.