the world is mud-luscious and puddle-wonderful*

So, a few weeks ago, I read two blog posts (by bloggers I follow regularly) with interest.  The first is by John @ The Allergic Pagan, writing that children aren’t truly capable of appreciating nature (or at least that is how I read it, sorry John, if this is mis-characterizing your post).  His position, I think, is summed up fairly well with this quote:

For me, and I think for most adults, there is a significant qualitative difference between experiencing a sunset first hand and seeing a picture of one.  But I don’t think my kids really appreciate the difference.  Again, I could blame it on the new technology, but I don’t think I was all that different as a child.

He goes on ponder the why of this phenomenon–perhaps the “experience of wonder requires a certain knowledge”.  A knowledge of geology helps us appreciate rocks better, etc.  And, ultimately, the knowledge of the fragility of life–the certainty of eventual death, that “Standing under the night sky, staring up to stars so thick I feel like a could scoop them up into my hands, my awareness of my own mortality transforms my experience from a purely aesthetic one to a spiritual one.  I am no longer just seeing something beautiful; I am changed, humbled by the vastness of the universe manifest before me.”

The second post is a counterpoint, by Allison Leigh Lily @ Meadowsweet and Myrrh, has another perspective.

Yes, there is contemplative appreciation — that which takes root in silence and patience, which blossoms only with time and age, and which pries open our hearts with its gentle but persistent fingers until the walls of busy-ness, purpose and control that we have built up are eroded away and return to the soil of our uncultured souls…Knowing that we stand aside from this endless movement through life and death only for a moment, seeing the whole spiraling dance in all its beauty. Yet we do stand aside. We watch.


But there is also a kind of appreciation that is active and curious and immersive. It is self-forgetful and inarticulate, but that does not make it any less real. It is the appreciation of skipping across hot concrete in soft, bare feet….It is the appreciation that builds sandcastles for the singular pleasure of kicking them down and watching the waves reclaim them — and that, if scolded and told to sit still and “just enjoy the beach,” bristles at the self-contradiction of such a command! It is the appreciation that cramps like an unused limb after too many hours in the car. It does not simply look, but feels the tides and rhythms of the natural world in blood and bones and breath. It would rather chase the river, ride the ocean waves, and soar before the storm than merely sit back and observe such cycles from a clean, dry place.

Now go read the rest of Allison’s and John’s posts (read John’s first)!

Regular readers here might have guessed that I favor Allison’s take on this matter over John’s.   My own experiences as a parent and as a child fundamentally disagree with the idea that children are not capable of experiencing a real/authentic/true/valid/enter-qualifier-here sense of wonder or awe in nature.  Allison’s post covers the idea “awe” differing between one person and the next pretty well, so I’ll skip that idea.  Instead, there are two points in particular that I want to examine–the idea that knowing stuff is essential to awe, and the idea that an understanding of death is essential to awe.

First of all, I don’t think you need scientific knowledge for awe.  Knowing the species name for the rose, or how light refracts, or what a food web is, is just one way of experiencing the world–and, to be honest, its not even a way that requires any sort of time spend in the out of doors, in nature.   Certainly possessing information of what something is called or how it works can certainly add another layer to one’s intellectual appreciation, but its really the last thing I think about when a dolphin pod does a drive by of my morning swim.  I have a bachelor’s degree in biology, and I would argue that my children experience wonder in the natural world in a way that is far more insightful and painfully honest because it is unburdened with the same degree of knowledge that I have. They see things that I don’t notice (with all my training, and fancy education in the natural sciences***), simply because the scale and perspective of their involvement with the land is so very different than mine.   My daughter isn’t enthralled by nature because she wants to be a scientist, she wants to be a scientist because she is enthralled by nature…just as I got a degree in biology because I was inspired by my experiences in the wilderness.

Secondly, I disagree with the idea that children don’t understanding the fleeting and fragile nature of life.  If a child doesn’t understand the fleeting and fragile nature of life, its because they haven’t been taught it in a tangible way (heck, l know adults that don’t get that).  With a little care, kids can be taught the experience of death and loss (and, I happen to think that it is our responsibility as parents to teach them about it).  Furthermore, a child that spends time in the woods or by the shore or anywhere with a bit of green on a regular basis knows that life is fragile because they have seen it, held it, and mourned for it.  A child that has been taught empathy (and I truly believe that empathy is more often than not a skill that needs to be taught) can appreciate this even more greatly than some adults.  Nature is not all fluffy bunnies and brightly colored butterflies, and the longer one spends outdoors, the more often someone (adult or child) sees the red in tooth and claw, sees death, sees decay…and also sees birth and new beginnings.

The problem, I think, is one alluded to by Allison in her post:

My parents, middle-aged suburbanites who had long grown used to spending all day mostly sedentary in an office environment, were content to park the car along one of the many popular scenic overlooks and stand gazing into the gaping landscape before them. After about ten seconds… I knew there would be no adventures beckoning us that day.

Sounds like a vacation or two taken from the book of my childhood.

Let me introduce you to the first land I fell in love with…  Readers, meet Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada**.

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I was raised in a time and place where “come home when the street lights come on” was the norm, and kids roamed from yard to yard (and knew which yards would get them yelled at)…unstructured outdoor time was not the rarity for children that it is today.  I’ve always loved the outdoors…whether it was my (semi-suburban) backyard, the woods behind my elementary school, the “creek” (overgrown seasonal drainage ditch) at my grandparent’s house, the huge garden at my great-grandma’s.  So, when presented with the opportunity to go on a summer canoeing trip to Canada sponsored by the local high schools, I didn’t just go once, I went every year but one from my freshman year until I joined the Navy at 23.

This was not a vacation in a car with my parents wanting to look at stuff, instead of doing stuff.  This was an intimate experience in nature that catered to the sense of movement, of adventure, of fun, of hands in the dirt that kids crave.  My first year out, I got sunburned, blistered, and even got hypothermia.  When I was hungry, I ate…when I was thirsty, I dipped my cup in the lake and took a drink (no filter needed).  I saw moose and heard wolves and fell in love with the song of loons and the Northern Lights.  I discovered what it meant to feel small and yet so very, very powerful, and to feel big, and so very, very insignificant.  It was the most wondrous and inspiring (and physically demanding–worse than boot camp) experience of my entire life (until I became a mom).  I didn’t need to have an understanding of death, or of the fragility of life, or an intimate knowledge of the way the world works to have an awe of nature…I learned those things by experiencing nature, by being part of it.  And it is these experiences that I am trying to give my children.

Richard Louv writes a really great book called Last Child in the Woods (I’ve been a fan for awhile) that talks about the importance of time outdoors for kids (I’ve talked about it here too), specifically time that is unstructured, and even better if its child-centered or child-led.  For kids like mine, I can (and have) toss them out the doors and let them roam field and forest, or sea and shore, and nary a complaint do I hear (because they carry their own little tiny Camelbacks and snacks)…and there are only two rules–if you can’t see me anymore, you’ve gone too far (since they are still just 4 and 6), and don’t eat anything you pick without a second opinion from mom (both of my kids know a handful of edible plants and they have their favorites).  I don’t care about dirt, and I’m not afraid of a few boo boos.  But not every child has been raised like this. The experience of nature isn’t second nature for every child.

The younger you get ’em, the easier it is.  A young child, before we wrap them in “civilization” and teach them to live in a box, doesn’t mind a good rain or a squish in the mud or letting a spider crawl up their arm.  They are closer to nature at that age, than they every will be again.  Because, to them, the whole world is a huge and grand adventure where everything is new and interesting.  The idea that something is disgusting or scary or to be avoided is something that is taught.  Add a couple of years of educating the wonder out of them and conditioning them to exercise their thumbs really well, and it can be a bit more work to reintroduce them to the outdoors.  But its not impossible (I worked as a summer camp counselor in college, I learned things).

Which, I suppose leaves us with my disagreement with John (and agreement with Allison) that kids to experience awe in nature (just in a different way than some adults are content to), and with the idea that I think that we can influence our children’s engagement with nature.  What it doesn’t leave us with, is how we can influence our children’s experiences with nature…and I think that topic will have to be a Part II (since I’m going a bit wordy here!!).

*Quote by e e cummings

**Unfortunately, the photo’s don’t quite do it justice, since they are 18 year old pics that I scanned in a cruddy scanner!!

***TBH, one of the problems in the ever more specialized field of biology is that most biologists are so shoe-horned into their own area that they miss the big picture–there are geneticists that have never seen the species they study, and ecologists that can’t identify the species in the ecosystems they study.