We’ve added a lot of life to our family this summer, literally. For years I’ve wanted to grow some indoor plants. This summer Grace and I potted a couple bonsai trees, Ficus Too Little, to be exact. This past week, with the threat of an outdoor frost, they came inside and joined our other borders—three fish and a four-month-old puppy.
Living things are, as Grace says, “really tricky.” They’re not predictable. Whether it’s a plant with its changing needs for water, or a fish that seems moody and won’t eat, there’s no simple A-B-C plan for taking care of plants, fish, and dogs. While not easy, it is valuable. So I wanted to think this out a little bit. Aside from companionship and simply keeping kids busy, what have our plants, fish, and dog taught us this summer?
Following the Sun
Living things need light. The ficus thrives on as much direct sunlight as we can give it. Because of the trees in our yard, we often went out this summer and moved the bonsai from one side of the deck to the other. Though they didn’t know it, the kids were learning that the sun rises in the morning “over there” and sets “over there” (we’ll add east and west later). We also talked a little about how all living things draw energy ultimately from the sun and plants.
All three of our new wards require water. On hot summer weeks, the bonsai need water almost every other day. We water the plants and then discuss how the sun pulls the water through the roots, trunk, and into the leaves. The water carries important minerals and nutrients from the soil and feeds the plant.
The dog, on the other hand, passes the water we provide at regular intervals. The kids are anxious to both keep the water bowl full and let the dog out when he whines at the door. It’s an equation even a preschooler understands: Water in, water out.
But then we have the fish. They don’t pass their water. Instead, they live in it. Once a week, we swap out about a third of the water in the tank for fresh spring water. Then once a month we drain and wash the tank, clean the gunk from the rocks, and start from scratch. The kids have learned that fish pull the water through their gills and “breathe” that way. They also have learned that uneaten food and algae can cloud the tank. And they’ve seen how a filter works.
Great Open Spaces
In one way or other, all of our creatures need space. The dog loves romping through the backyard, chasing a ball, playing tug of war, etc. (Think of all the ways a dog gets kids outside!) The trees need space to grow, both upward, but also down. Maintaining a bonsai’s roots is perhaps more important than maintaining its foliage. And the fish, of course, need room to swim. Each of these creatures has its own environment, and thrives in it.
I like to think, and perhaps I am pushing it, but I like to think that all this tank cleaning, water changing, fish feeding, fertilizing and leaf pinching, poop scooping, late-night walking, and potting and repotting is somehow giving my kids a different perspective on life than they would have if their days were spent punching away at a Gigapet or “playing tennis” on the Wii. I like to think it will give them the perspective that life isn’t about remote controls and game controllers—in fact, there’s little about it we can control. Instead, like fish, dogs, and plants, life is something we feed and clean up after, tend and water. It’s something we care for, always attentive because it’s not predictable… it’s tricky.