While it is true that Tim and I are Visitor Center connoisseurs that interest is often in place of a real love of Nature Centers. Nature Centers tend to be exclusive to the plants and animals and not as much on the human history. Not that I don't enjoy learning all about the park or area but I love learning about why we'd make a park in the first place which always boils down to plants, animals and geology. The other great thing about Nature Centers is you get to touch.
As a small child I loved going shopping with my mom not out of any interest in gaining new clothes, in fact I was and still am a pain in that department, but I loved to touch all the fabrics of the draped shirts and skirts. Of course us adults are constantly telling children not to touch, we don't want them breaking anything or leaving their greasy germ filled finger prints all over. Unfortunately this is the best way for children (and adults) to learn. We learn with all our senses, just ask any blind person how important touching is to knowing. We have a touch table at our little information center at Hole-In-The-Wall and I think I've seen more adults go over to it than children. Without fail every single person picks up the Coyote Gourds (Cucurbita palmata). They look inside the holes and they rattle the whole ones that still have dried seeds to bounce around. Young boys love to pick up the skulls and other bones. One little guy noted the loose teeth on the deer skull and commented on how “someone's going to get something from the tooth fairy soon!”, he was quite serious. I debated with my friend's three year old on whether or not the coyote skull could really be from a coyote, he thought not. Others enjoy picking up the cool-to-the-touch rock core. We also have two male mule deer skulls mounted showing how they stuck together during a rutting match and died of starvation. Even though it's not at the touch table people enjoy running their hands over the entangled antlers.
I look back to our travels of 2015 as one of the best educations I've ever had, that I gave myself. Naturally I learned from reading and researching the topics we've covered here in the blog, by using iNaturalist to research the plants and insects I photographed but also just by being outside and really looking at what I was looking at. I suppose that is what makes one a naturalist. Even in, or especially in, the age of Google there is still no substitute for making our own physical observations. Reading about the density of beaver or otter fur will never help one understand just how soft, thick and luxurious these furs are to touch. Reading or seeing on a nature show that such and such birds have clutches of 2-3 eggs a year will not tell you that these are only the eggs left in the nest. The females still make eggs that they might just leave in a parking lot for Tim to find and crush in his hands when he realizes the hard way that the rock that looked like an egg really was an egg. Looking at the spines of a Cholla one will not know that they have a skin on them. It takes a certain bored interest while waiting for a Woodrat (Neotoma lepida) to come out of its midden that I bothered to pinch at a Buckhorn Cholla (Cylindropuntia acanthocarpa) spine and had the sheath come off in my fingers. This was so interesting that I did it again and again. Prickly pear, hedgehog and barrel cactus do not have this sheath. This morning after a lizard in a yucca caught my attention I looked at the Pencil Cholla (Cylindropuntia ramosissima) below. Something about the translucent spines made me grab at them too. Sure enough the papery sheath came off and reveled the waxy dark spine. I suppose there might be some sun protection to these skins so this time I stopped at just the one.
A group of older men from Canada that spend their winters in the desert came into the information center with pockets full of rocks they'd found and were asking about a bean plant that had very spicy beans. “You ate it?!” I asked. They also told me how they ate a Cholla flower and I knew exactly where this story was going to go because I know that the flowers of Cholla Cactus' also have spines. That was a hard won lesson. We don't ever stop learning by touch but we do stop learning to touch when that is what we've been taught.
Back in December I spent a few minutes being entertained by my then 18 month old nephew on a restaurant patio so that my sister could be inside making a purchase uninhibited. He walked the patio touching just about every single thing out there. If he knew the word of the object he'd say it as he touched. If he didn't I made a point of telling him. When he grabbed at the rosemary bush I said his name and then smelled my hands a couple of times until he realized I wanted him to smell his own hands. He got a good whiff, looked at me and exclaimed “Yum!”.