The phone vibrated in my pocket. I pulled it out. It was a reach-out from son-in-law, Ben. I answered with a hello and he followed with what has become a consistent salutation.

 “Hi Opa. Eleanor has another nature question for you.”

 I smiled at the phone and felt a brief moment of Oh oh, what will it be this time?

Eleanor is my four-year old Pacific Northwest granddaughter. She absolutely loves her “school,” a nature-based preschool. And over the past year or so she will frequently reach out to ask me a nature question.

One week she phoned and asked, “Opa, are feathers found only on birds?”  I replied, “That’s right Eleanor. No other animal has feathers covering its body.”

Another call she queried, “Opa what is the fastest bird in the world?”  

Then there was the phone call asking about butterfly larvae. And yes, she used the word, “larvae.”

One morning call had me momentarily floundering. “Opa, what is fog?”

I stalled for seconds to gather my information in a manner that she could grasp. 

“ Great question,” I enthusiastically answered. “Do you see fog right now?”

“Yes it’s all over above the ocean.”

I’m thinking, Keep it simple Opa. This is no time to throw out words like sublimation or dew point. 

Another second passed and I said, “Well Eleanor, like the ocean, fog is water that floats in the air. It’s kind of like a really, really low cloud. Water is kind of magic because it can be hard like ice, it can be wet and liquid, like the ocean or rain, or it can be a gas, like a cloud.”

That was enough. She was satisfied and proceeded to report that they were on their way to the doughnut shop where she was going to get a doughnut covered in sprinkles. I wanted to say that “sprinkles” is a form of water but I didn’t.

Eleanor is a little sponge observing the world and then casting a fusillade of questions. I love it.

When Nancy, known as Nana, and I visited for nearly a month and a half last spring we had lots of discovery walks and chats with Eleanor

At one of the neighborhood playgrounds she confided that she dreamed of playing hide and seek with a chipmunk. I agreed and told her if she was super quiet and peaceful towards a chipmunk you never know what might happen.

On another morning I told Eleanor  about an old man, named Ragnar who lived most of his life far from any city or town up in Canada. When he turned 82-years old he had to travel hundreds of miles to see a doctor about his eyes. He had not been to a city for 59 years and he couldn’t wait to get back home in the wild forest and lake country far to the north.

I went on to share that Ragnar thought the people living in cities were not friendly. When he met them on a sidewalk they would not look at him, smile at him or even say “hello.” 

Eleanor quickly responded, “What if we ALL smiled and said “hello?”  So that morning we greeted and smiled at everyone we met. And it felt really good to warm and sometimes even startle strangers with a warm smile and greeting. And even though the news of the day might speak of a polarized society, I was coached by a four-year old that we are all more alike than different.

She told us about Teacher Cresten, the tall lumberjack looking young man who was the Preschool nature instructor. She bubbled about finding feathers and bugs on class walks with him.

One day she came home from preschool really excited to tell me that Cresten had taught the class the scientific name of Douglas fir. I was mightily impressed that a group of four-year olds were introduced to genus and species titles of anything. I never knew what a scientific name or what a genus and species was until I was in high school.

She was so excited to share what she had learned that her delivery of the scientific name was rushed and sort of garbled. I didn’t totally understand the genus name, but I did pick up the species name, menziesii. (The only reason I remember the scientific name of Douglas fir is that it is really fun to say. Pseudotsuga menziesii. Pronounced Sue-doe-suega  men-zee-see).

Then without thinking I smothered her bubbling enthusiasm. I made a major mistake in correcting her on the genus name. The look of pride and joy drained out of her face. Her confident smile melted and her eyes rained tears.

What was I thinking in snuffing her sharing and pride? Clearly I was not thinking. I scooped her up and squeezed her in a hug while explaining that I misunderstood her. I told her I was so proud of my little scientist.

Minutes later she was wondering how trees got so big. I told her how trees drink water from the ground through super tiny rootlets and eat sunshine through their leaves or needles.

Returning to the house for supper, Eleanor declared to her mother, “Mommy, it’s a good thing your dad is so smart.”

Those were words fluffed me up and assure I can die happy.

I knew my sins of correction were forgiven when later I  helped Eleanor get ready for the night ritual of bedtime reading. She had brushed her teeth and was brushing her hair. She paused, gave me an elfin smirk and thrust her hair brush up to my nose. 

“Smell it Opa. It smells like unicorn poop.”

And you know what? Of course it did.