Naturalist Peter Bergen helps kids understand the world by asking questions of it.
The trick is this: Your Ring of Awareness should be larger than your Ring of Disturbance. We each have both. The Ring of Awareness is the depth at which you’re able to understand, notice, and translate the details of life around you. The Ring of Disturbance is the amount of noise, clutter, and disorder you might swing out into the life around you. Think of Charlie Brown’s buddy Pigpen reanimated as noise.
Naturalist Peter Bergen has an easy illustration. Say you want to go on a hike and see some wildlife. You drive out to the Pt. Reyes National Seashore and park. Excited, you leap from the car and slam the door.
“Right away, all the animals are like, ‘Here they come,’” Bergen chuckles. “The birds alarm and when the animals hear that, they just disappear.”
Better, Bergen suggests, is to quietly step from the car and click the door closed with your hip. “When you’re quiet and you put your own mind at ease,” he says, “you can move closer to the animals.”
This is just one of the small lessons that Bergen dispenses all summer long to children at his Outside in Nature day camp program held at Petaluma’s Tara Firma Farms.
The other thing campers ages 7 through 12 immediately learn to do is to use knives. After all, they’ll need them to whittle throwing sticks, darts, and fire kits. Even after nearly two decades teaching children about nature, Bergen remains most mystified by their parents.
“A lot of parents think of knives as really dangerous,” he says, standing in the shade of Tara Firma’s “Nature Nook,” an alcove in the large pass-through barn. “We go swimming in the pond, and the parents are enthusiastic about that. But if the kids cut themselves, we can fix that with a BandAid. If they have trouble in the water, that could be very serious. People’s perception of what’s dangerous and what’s not . . . ” he shakes his head. “Knives are just tools, if you teach the safety protocols.”
On a late spring day, Bergen, 59, indulged his visitor with a hike around Tara Firma’s property, on that portion of the land where he leads his Outside in Nature program. Stopping by the pond, he furthers the point. “Every seven-year-old tells you that they know how to swim, so we take them up here and put them in tubes. If they can swim out to us, that’s their test. Then we decide. But they get the experience of it; it’s not me telling them, ‘You can’t swim.’ Who knows what the long-term effects of that might be?”
Bergen sees the farm setting as perfect for introducing children who may not be used to wild animals to the ways, at least, of domestic ones.
“When we’re out in the field with the kids, there are pigs, chickens, ducks, and cows. I practice with the kids how to approach them. How do you pull in your Ring of Disturbance? Do they stay still, do they notice you, or do they move away? Then, when we run into wild animals, like a deer or turkeys, we can approach them. I’ve done nature programs at preserves and the animals are more wary.”
The curriculum is rooted in something that Bergen calls Children’s Universal Passion. He assesses his small group of campers at the start of each session, looking for their interests with the intent of building on it.
“What I do here is not outdoor education,” he says, “we call it ‘Deep Nature Connection.’ We help facilitate the kids to have a relationship with the natural world. How we do that is through full immersion. We want to find the kids’ interest and passion and go towards that.”
By “full immersion,” Bergen is in part referring to questioning what is around you. If a child notices a certain flower, for example, he will begin to query the child about it. How many petals does it have? What does it smell like? Is there any scat evident near it? Beginning to search for those answers allows the camper to slow down and really see the flower, rather than spotting something yellow in a field, tagging it a “buttercup,” and moving on.
What I do here is not outdoor education. We call it 'Deep Nature Connection.' Peter Bergen
“That’s a doorway to a nature connection,” he says. “That’s where the engagement begins. You don’t see or recognize stuff that’s not in your brain.” If the child is interested, Bergen will take her back to the Nature Nook so that they can look up the plant’s Latin name and other information; if not, the exploration has at least begun a pivot towards new knowledge.
That said, the emphasis is on having fun. “It’s all the things you used to do when your parents weren’t around when you were seven, eight, nine years old,” he explains. “Splashing in the water, running fast, looking under rocks, and catching stuff.”
At least, that’s the stuff that Bergen used to do as a kid, spending weekends on his uncle’s rural New Jersey farm. Today’s children often aren’t so privileged. “I actually have kids who say that they’ve forgotten something over there, up by that barn, over the fence,” he says, gesturing about 300 yards away. “I say, ‘Go get it,’ and they’re stunned, because they’ve never ever been that far away from adult supervision and they’re eight years old.”
The program also teaches respect. “Everything that we interface in the field, we look at as a gift,” Bergen says. “If we’re catching worms to go fishing and we know that we’re going to take a life, we say thank you. Something I learned from an elder is the importance of giving something back, and what we do is we get a little piece of hair from the back of our necks. After two days, the kids understand that they give their hair. It pinches a little bit, but there’s no blood. Native American traditions give tobacco and cornmeal. That’s the respect and acknowledgement that it’s an energy exchange.”
Bergen started as what he calls a “brag and drag” docent at the Audubon Canyon Ranch in 1995. He laughs as he explains: “We’d drag the kids around for three hours and brag about everything they saw—and who knows what took.”
These days, he’s deeply involved in the Eight Shields experiential model espoused by naturalist and author Jon Young (What the Robin Knows) and Young’s mentor, Tom Brown, Jr., under both of whom Bergen has studied. Rooted in indigenous storytelling and knowledge-sharing traditions, the Eight Shields model embraces the importance of community in raising kids, the power of storytelling, and questioning what is around you so as to better know it.
“A lot of people go out in nature and have fun on jet skis or fishing or whatever, so they’re right on the edge of nature,” he says. “I know someone who’s an avid fisherman, but he calls the oak tree outside his house ‘a nut tree.’ I grew up with nature because my uncle had a farm, but I didn’t have anyone to tell my story to and I didn’t have anyone asking me questions. And that’s what takes you into the deep nature connection. Knowledge of place—that’s how the Bushmen can survive in such a harsh place [as the Kalahari]. And not just in their lifetimes, but going back generations and generations and generations. Those stories have been told.”
But kids are kids and summer is summer. The important work is fun.
“I don’t think I’ve had any kids here who haven’t had a good time,” he says as he tracks the flight of a bird across the sky.
Outside in Nature summer sessions run July 7-11 and 21-25, as well as Aug. 11-15.