Did you know you can gauge the health of a body of water by examining the creatures that live within it? I didn’t. This week, my kids went to a 4H wildlife clinic, in which they would visit a local river and dig up all sorts of water critters. After that, using identification charts, the kids would determine whether said stream was pure, slightly polluted or “eeeeewwww.”
We hiked out into the wilderness. This was my first 4H outing, and I remembered “muck boots”, bottled water, and hoodies but, in a significant #momfail, I forgot the bug spray. Thankfully, a more seasoned 4H mom loaned us her all-natural can, which smelled like citronella on steroids but absolutely got the job done.
As we hiked, my eight year-old photojournalist stopped every 1.3 minutes to document our journey. My 11 year-old talked Minecraft up ahead with a like-minded boy (I swear it’s like they’re speaking Aramaic) and I was left toting a gigantic net as I trailed my daughter and avoided patches of poison ivy marked with hot-pink signs.
We finally reached our destination, the bank of a clear and shallow stream peppered with smooth stones. The kids gathered round the leader, who passed out more nets and little scientific-looking plastic specimen cups. Mind you, we live in the Midwestern U.S.; we’re not exactly known for our exotic wildlife, so I wondered what these folks had in mind. After a brief explanation (“get out there and skim, dig, burrow and collect every living thing you see, and deliver it into this clear-plastic bin), the kids swarmed the stream.
It’s funny how, as a grown-up, one’s sense of adventure tends to hibernate. As I watched the kids’ enthusiastic excavation efforts, I wondered what the big deal was – until the 4H leader shooed the adults into the river, “Don’t just stand there, get in there and help.”
I stumbled down the hill and onto one of those smooth rocks.
Expert tip: smooth = slippery.
My arms windmilled as I tried to find my footing. Finally, I assumed a surfer-like stance as the water rushed past. I watched my eight year-old forget to consider the height of her muck boots; she just went for it and marched center-stream until her eyes bulged, “Mom! My boots just filled up with water!”
My 11 year-old, sans muck boots, hopped from stone to stone like a live-action Mario Bros game. Working together, in a matter of 15 minutes, the kids turned up ten crayfish (and one boss level, as my son puts it), a snail, three minnows, 12 water-striders and three clams. I’ll have you know I myself even pointed out one of the minnows (insert self-congratulatory back-pat). The kids also found an ancient metal fence-post, which they reported to the nature center.
Everyone turned in their nets and gathered round to examine their discoveries. They took turns documenting, and spent time comparing their specimens to the 4H identification charts. After much discussion, the leader announced that, based on what the kids found within, our stream is in tip-top shape.
As we trekked back to our cars, I got to thinking. I hadn’t known one could tell the health of a body of water by what lies within, but I suppose in hindsight it’s no surprise. Really, isn’t it true of us humans as well? On the surface, our Instagram lives look healthy, sparkling and pulled together – and that may be true. But there’s always more beneath the surface. If we take just a little time, if we care and look closer to see past the surface sheen, isn’t that when we get to the heart of things? Only after a little soul excavation can we begin to see the true heart-health of others, only then can we truly understand.
Our river, sun-dappled and clear, certainly appeared to be healthy – and thankfully it was – but we just as easily could have found it to be polluted, suffering. Had we not looked beneath the surface, we never would have known.