21 Laws of Nature as Interpreted by My Children

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1. If you shake hands with an evergreen tree and the branch bites you, that’s a spruce.

2. Insects rule the world, but they don’t talk about it.

3. The reason the ocean is salty is because all the animals have been peeing right in it since before there was even time.

4. One of our grandmothers is dead, and now she is growing flowers.

5. Dad says all beings are holy in the same proportions, except the Los Angeles Lakers, who are demonic.

6. The best way to eat a worm is to have another kid do it.

7. A shrew is like a mouse with a bad temper.

8. Dad says every time you go for a walk in the woods you ought to get credit for a full day of college.

9. Anyone who thinks people are cooler than animals should remember that a lot of animals can eat people.

10. The reason that scrub jays and conifer jays bicker all the time is because they love each other.

11. The way to tell a mammal from an amphibian is snot.

12. Mom says camping is a way to see God up close, but Dad says God loves us and wants us to shower daily and sleep in a bed.

13. Plants are smart because they can eat sunlight and we can’t.

14. Dad says people still kill whales for money even though whales have languages and songs.

15. If you find poop in the woods and it’s tiny round balls, it’s a rabbit. If the balls are larger, it is a deer or elk. If they are really large, you should come home.

16. Eagles can see so well they can see what you did yesterday.

17. Dad says evolution is working to make us less violent and make animals more forgiving.

18. The more money you have, the less you pay attention to plants and birds.

19. Dad says some kinds of trees can drink clouds.

20. If you can’t make a new ant, don’t kill an old one.

21. If you are really sad, go outside and you will feel better after about an hour.

Brian Doyle (1956-2017) was the longtime editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, in Oregon. He was the author of six collections of essays, two nonfiction books, two collections of “proems,” the short story collection Bin Laden’s Bald Spot, the novella Cat’s Foot, and the novels Mink RiverThe Plover, and Martin Marten. He is also the editor of several anthologies, including Ho`olaule`a, a collection of writing about the Pacific islands. Doyle’s books have seven times been finalists for the Oregon Book Award, and his essays have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, OrionThe American ScholarThe Sun, The Georgia Review, and in newspapers and magazines around the world, including The New York TimesThe Times of London, and The Age (in Australia). His essays have also been reprinted in the annual Best American EssaysBest American Science & Nature Writing, and Best American Spiritual Writing anthologies. Among various honors for his work is a Catholic Book Award, three Pushcart Prizes, the John Burroughs Award for Nature Essays, Foreword Reviews’ Novel of the Year award in 2011, and the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2008 (previous recipients include Saul Bellow, Kurt Vonnegut, Flannery O’Connor, and Mary Oliver).”


  1. While helping me with some yard work yesterday, my 3 year-old son said, “Dad, let’s take a break and eat some sorrel.” (Rumex acetosella, that is) He found a nice patch in the yard and promptly sat in the middle of it and began munching the lemony greens and when I began to join him from a still standing position he quickly scolded me, “No, you have to sit down and eat them.” Often adults forget how to relax.

  2. My nine-year-old son Zephyr gave me this advice for recognizing deadly nightshade: It has leaves shaped like the arrow tips of the Elves of Lothlorien (NOT the Elves of Rivendell), the flowers are like the flowers on our tomato plants, only with purple petals and yellow in the middle, and the berries hang like tiny red tomatoes.

  3. while driving the other day my four year old said out of the blue “evening time is like dawn for the stars”…children are true poets!

  4. Lovely list, thanks! @Philippa, it must be something about 4 year olds! One morning a couple of years ago I was with my daughter and her son, who live in London, driving to pick up the keys to my new flat near the beach on the South Coast of England. We were all very excited, but my 4 year old grandson’s question really made me stop and wonder about the way kids experience the world today. ‘Nana?’ he asked, ‘What time does the seaside start?’

  5. These are wonderful! Some made me smile; others put a huge lump in my throat. Children usually get it right!

  6. When my son was about 4 years old he said, “You can tell it’s spring ’cause the mud is growing.”

  7. My 5 year old daughter said, “I love it when I have good dreams. It’s when my mind gets to visit my imagination.”

  8. An absolutely delightful read, thanks. I only disagree with #17, that Evolution is working to make us less violent (I don’t see any evidence of that, sadly) and animals more forgiving (I think they always were — how else could we domesticate, enslave, and genocide so many of them?) But it is also true these days that kids need a daily dose of optimism along with their multivitamins. And it looks like their Dad is a great source!

  9. Four year old nephew from back seat of car (where he was supposed to be asleep,)said: ‘Hey, what if God was just the first guy?’

  10. Love these! When my daughter was 2 years old, many years ago, she opened the door, listened and then said, “I can hear it getting dark.” It was the crickets.

  11. Thanks for the focus on children’s wisdom, and for the comments!

    When my son was around 5, he had the habit of kissing flowers good-morning which I thought was wonderful by itself, but when I asked him why, he said “because then they know you think they’re beautiful and you’re saying thank you for that.”
    Alas, he gave up that practice
    and is suffering a lot of sadness about what’s happening to our natural world. I reminded him of that practice and his face just
    lit up!

  12. Thank you! My son has been trying to decide what to put on his brick outside the new nature center. He chose #20. Now it’s a law set in stone!

  13. My grandson decided that a tree is the most perfect thing he could think of.

  14. The list was pure innocence and poetry. Some of the comments made me weep. Thank you to all who wrote in before (and after) me.
    What a bittersweet glimpse into other minds. Let’s hope the children hang onto the poetry they themselves came up with. Maybe that’s the secret to changing society?

  15. One of our children, when he was four, said “Mum, can I grow a tail on my bottom? I want to be a monkey. I am bored as a human.” My first one felt quite worried once when he saw someone cutting the branches off a tree and he said “Oh no, they are chopping the hands and fingers off the poor tree. Trees don’t do that to us.”

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