When I was about 5, I took a walk along a boardwalk that stretched out over a watery area unlike any I had seen before. Before me was an expanse of cattails, thousands and thousands of them.

When I was about 5, I took a walk along a boardwalk that stretched out over a watery area unlike any I had seen before. Before me was an expanse of cattails, thousands and thousands of them.

A few more steps, and the house behind me was out of sight. I was in a sea of cattails. To my young mind, I might as well have been on the moon.

I was at the edge of the Horicon Marsh, where my great-grandparents and sundry great-aunts and -uncles lived. Located about halfway between Madison and Milwaukee, Wis., the Horicon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge-State Wildlife Area is, at 32,000 acres, the largest freshwater cattail marsh in the United States.

To me, it was just "the marsh," and it was magic. Standing there, surrounded by lily pads and the wind-rustled cattails, I felt the stirrings of what has become a lifelong need to be part of the natural world.

A few weeks ago, while looking for something in my basement, I stumbled upon an old copy of "A Sand County Almanac." On that cold Saturday afternoon, I never did find the "something" I was looking for, but I did re-read the collection of essays -- and quickly got lost in Aldo Leopold's wonderful words, written in 1949.

Here, he writes about why the arrival of geese means spring has sprung:

"A cardinal, whistling spring to a thaw but later finding himself mistaken, can retrieve his error by resuming his winter silence. A chipmunk, emerging for a sunbath but finding a blizzard, has only to go back to bed. But a migrating goose, staking 200 miles of black night on the chance of finding a hole in the lake, has no easy chance for retreat. His arrival carries the conviction of a prophet who has burned his bridges."

Leopold's book, considered by many a seminal work of the environmental movement, takes the reader through a year on his Wisconsin farm. Re-reading it took me back to my 5-year-old self, feeling truly awed by nature for the first time.

Other books have done the same for me over the years.

Annie Dillard's "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek," for example. She writes about nature, not as a scientist would with plenty of technical detail, but out of curiosity and a need to explore. Those impulses led her to write a book that would win the Pulitzer Prize when she was just 29.

She writes about seasons that seem to overlap:

"Migrating birds head south in what appears to be dire panic, leaving mild weather and fields full of insects and seeds; they reappear as if in all eagerness in January, and poke about morosely in the snow."

Dillard is not writing about why that happens -- only that it does. Her book is all about seeing the little pieces that make up the great big outdoors. And like Leopold's, her book awakens my wish to be outdoors exploring it all.

Although the occasional warm day will tease us, there's another month, more or less, of winter ahead. What better time to curl up with Leopold or Dillard and remind ourselves of the deep connections we all have to the plants and animals that make up our natural world?

Meanwhile, when you pull yourselves away from those or other nature-oriented books, please join Preservation Parks' naturalists for your own explorations. Preschool Park Pals (ages 3-5) will meet March 10 at 1 p.m. to explore dinosaurs, and Park Explorers (ages 6-12) will meet on March 14 at 10 a.m. to learn about Ohio's rain forest connection. Both programs will be held at Gallant Woods Preserve, 2151 Buttermilk Hill Road.

An adult nature walk (ages 16 and up) will be held 2 p.m. March 15, at Char-Mar Ridge Preserve, 7741 Lewis Center Road.

For more information about Preservation Parks facilities, programs and events, please call (740) -524-8600 or visit www.preservationparks.com.

Sue Hagan is marketing and communications manager for Preservation Parks of Delaware County.

Sue

Hagan