Nature and the Awe of Childhood

Is there only one way to appreciate nature?

In his recent blog post, John Halstead seems to say that there is. As he muses over his own children’s apparent distraction and lack of appreciation, he wonders why they do not share the same awe that he feels during times when he is immersed in the natural world:

This past weekend, I hiked with my family up a mountainside to show them a beautiful meadow and a vista I had happened upon. My kids, now 11 and 14, enjoyed the view for all of 10 seconds before becoming distracted. The same thing happened on the drive through Glenwood Canyon west of Denver. It was a struggle to tear them away from their electronic devices to appreciate the magnificence all around them. I could blame it on the technology, but I know it is more than that. Parents have been dealing with this phenomenon long before there were iPads (although I’m sure the technology exacerbates the situation). How many parents have driven their children across the country to see the Grand Canyon, only to hear them say, “Wow! … Can we go home now?” [emphasis added]

i might have lost it, but it's never been lost //1Certainly mine have. I was in my preteens when my family made the trip out west from Pennsylvania to visit some of the most well-known and awe-inspiring national parks in the country. After days of driving, I had come to loathe the endless, flat stretches of farmland and dull, dusty ranches that were all I could see from the backseat — to this day, I feel a special kinship with Dorothy and her dislike of the state of Kansas, which to my childhood self seemed to go on forever and consist solely of people trying to drive through it or get out of it. When we finally arrived at the Grand Canyon after the interminable days of driving, I was sick of looking out the window from a cramped back seat and sleeping in cramped hotel rooms while my parents watched TV at night. I was itching to stretch my legs and explore, to feel my body moving again. 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.

John proposes that only adults can truly appreciate nature, because children lack the knowledge, the perspective, the patience and the awareness of their own mortality. In his words, I hear a vague echo of Richard Feynman, the theoretical physicist perhaps most famous among non-scientists for his insistence that a scientific understanding of the world does not diminish our appreciation, as some poets and artists might complain. Rather, science can very often enhance our sense of beauty and awe. Whether we are gazing at vast bejeweled starscapes or modest springtime blossoms, we can see not just the color and form in front of our eyes, but the patterns of atoms and evolution and gravity and death and desire that interconnect this small piece of the universe to everything else. As an adult, I can understand how this kind of appreciation for nature is something that has to be learned, cultivated through patience and quiet attentiveness.

And yet, as a step-parent of kids I’ve watched grow from four to fourteen, and who have always been as active and eager about exploring the natural world as I remember being myself when I was their age, I find myself surprised that John would assume that “appreciation” of nature must always so passive and abstract. That any real appreciation of nature lies in understanding it as a symbol, a sign that points to some other, deeper truth. John is bemused when his son compares a beautiful sunset to a picture, saying:

Shouldn’t it be the other way around? 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.

And yet, it seems that John’s appreciation of nature holds much more in common with an appreciation of art than anything else — it is to be witnessed and contemplated — it is a receptive, interior experience more than an active, exterior one. If there is a difference for him between a sunset and a picture of a sunset, it’s not clear what that difference is, except perhaps that the “real” sunset is a fully immersive experience that engages all the senses at once. Or perhaps the difference is precisely that it is not a picture, and for many adults (and I include myself in this indictment!) who spend our days staring at right-angled computer screens or looking out right-angled windows at a hedged-in world, not being a picture is enough of a novelty itself.

As a parent, I’m surprised at Halstead’s odd assumption that all children are the same, and that in general they can’t appreciate nature, when that so obviously contradicts my own experience with my stepkids. But as someone who still remembers vividly what it was like to be a child, I’m also surprised to discover that I’m actually a little bit angry. That child who still lives within me balks at his woeful misunderstanding of my childhood dissatisfaction and restlessness. If I seemed bored of the Grand Canyon after ten seconds and wanted to go home, it was not because my appreciation of nature was somehow deficient.

Live For AdventureFor my childhood self, “home” had never been a place of humdrum ordinariness to be taken for granted, as it seems to be for so many adults these days. Home was, rather, that place of freedom where I had hours to spend exploring the world around me in immediate, visceral adventure and discovery. Home was where my brother and I built forts among the branches of the trees in the autumn and snuck through golden tunnels of blooming forsythia in the spring. Home was where I could wander down the block to the park to spend an entire evening contentedly catching fireflies, or dawdle away an entire afternoon stalking field mice and grasshoppers or digging for crayfish in the creek, while the adults in my life ran errands or planned dinner parties or watched television and just generally treated the world like it was something to be used and consumed — either for work or for pleasure or for spiritual enlightenment — rather than a sacred place to experience, to dwell in just as it was.

The Grand Canyon might not have impressed me, and yet at home I could derive great enjoyment on a summer afternoon from dancing through the sprinkler in my bathing suit, to scramble out onto the hot, dry sidewalk just to watch the way the water dripped off my body and trickled across the cement in chaotic, darkening rivers that followed the minutest cracks and contours. And if the adults asked me what I was staring at so intently, how could I explain to them my fascination with this minute landscape beneath my feet? How could I make them understand that it was enough simply to watch the patterns of the universe unfolding in front of me, without having to understand it or control it or articulate it as part of some other truth? And how often did those adults simply shrug, or smile distractedly from the heady heights of their grown-up perspective, and turn their attention back to the work of being in charge of their own lives…

To John, perhaps the Grand Canyon is an abstraction, a symbol of humanity’s smallness. Having honeymooned among the great red rocks of the midwest only a few years ago, I understand the unique beauty that such landscapes hold. The solitude and solace they can evoke in the soul as one sits looking out across those far distances that draw the eye into a contemplation of infinity and emptiness. But back when I first visited these places, I was a child. Smallness was no metaphor for me. I did not need a symbol to remind me of how large the world was, how fleeting life could be. Life was overwhelming, it was speeding by all the time, faster than I could process, but always beckoning. Not content to merely sit back and consume beauty, I was restless with longing to be in the thick of it.

And yet, it was during that same trip when I was just a kid that I found myself enthralled by the haunting hoodoos of Bryce Canyon and the lush valley paradise of Zion. It was the same trip that brought tears to my eyes when we entered the mighty, green mountains of Wyoming — a landscape that seemed like a wash of cool relief after the unyielding reds of the desert. If I asked my parents over and over what the names of these places were, it wasn’t because I was more interested in naming them than I was in experiencing the scenery. It was because I knew one day I would go back there, as an adult, on my own terms — free of that watchful authoritative presence that sought to mediate my experiences for me. It was that same trip so many years ago that I, like John, saw the night sky in Utah and felt like I was seeing the universe for the first time…. And again, on a mountaintop in Maine when I was in college, and then again later, the same experience watching the sun rise out of the ocean the day before my wedding, the week before my honeymoon would take me back to those landscapes that had so moved me fifteen years before. Are such experiences really only limited to certain times in our life? Are they really only accessible to certain people?

John entertains a healthy skepticism about writers who would hold up childhood as an idealized time of attunement with the natural world. But he goes too far, I think, when he calls into question the very ability of children to experience awe and beauty, as if children do not possess a rich and complex interior life all their own. If John cannot trust the memories of writers like Annie Dillard and Rachel Carson, he’s unlikely to be impressed by my words. But I have spent most of my life working hard to learn how to articulate the wonder and awe that I experience, precisely because my life has been full of people seemingly indifferent to those experiences — first because I was a child, and now because I am a woman. (It has long been a tradition among white males to suggest that women, children and people of color lack the aptitude for contemplation and self-reflection necessary to “truly” appreciate and understand the world; when such people express sorrow or grief, it is assumed that they are only small sorrows which pale in comparison to the woes of men, and when they express joy or wonder, it is only because their simple minds are overwhelmed by what they cannot fully understand.)

DiscoveryAs a writer myself, it’s a blow to see some of my role models accused of constructing false memories of their own childhoods. If John is reluctant to trust to memory alone, I wonder how much faith he would put in the extensive paper trail I have left in my wake: boxes stacked upon boxes in the closet of my old room at my parents’ house, full of thousands of pages of childhood journals, half-finished poems and school projects… From the rain-soaked, moody-landscape love poems of my teenage years, to the naturalist journals and biology textbook notes I kept in middle school, to the minutes for an Endangered Species Club I started with friends in grade school…. to my first ever “published” story that I wrote when I was five years old, a story about how playful fun turned suddenly into tragedy as I watched a couple of classmates tossing pebbles into a pond accidentally strike and kill a duckling. My first confession as a little girl attending Catholic Sunday school was to admit how angry I was that the adults in my life didn’t seem to understand why this story was so important to me, my frustration that they could not see the ugly little tragedy because a duckling, like a child, was too far below their notice. And my anger at myself for not being able to explain it to them, for failing to have the right words at my command. And the kind old priest smiled distractedly from the heady heights of his grown-up perspective, and told me to say three Hail Marys. And I wondered if he shouldn’t have told me to think of the accidental killers and spare a prayer for them.

It wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that I have, ever since, been saying a prayer for those accidental killers and trying my best to make my words worthy of the messy, crazy, beautiful, ugly, stupid, awe-filled world we live in. Maybe I was a weird kid, more enamored, more sensitive than most, and as I’ve grown up, my perspective has changed and evolved. But that this is true only convinces me all the more of how important it is to appreciate the diversity of experiences and the many voices that strive to share them, and not to be too quick to dismiss certain experiences or perspectives as less valuable or insightful than others.

Is there only one way to appreciate nature? I can’t believe there would be just one.

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. There is the appreciation that gives us back to the world as a river gives itself back to the ocean, and the ocean gives itself up to the sky beneath a warm sun, and the sky too eventually pours itself out over the land and returns to the rivers again. We watch this cycle from the warm, dry comfort of our make-shift shelters, knowing that one day we too will give ourselves up to the land, the sea and the sky. 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.

Nature loverBut 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 of wriggling your limbs in falling rain just to see the spray, just to participate in the movement of falling and splashing, just to feel your skin go rough with goosebumps. It is the appreciation of someone who has not yet spent a lifetime building up walls, and so has no use for sitting around with such sad wisdom contemplating their dissolution. An appreciation that, in the face of old ruins reclaimed by weeds on the edge of town, would rather build a clubhouse among the crumbling walls, baking mudpies and gathering leggy bouquets of dandelions, than think quietly about the grim reality of decay and neglect. 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.

This appreciation, too, can be as still and silent as a stone…. if it is a stone that has captured it. But it can also be as wild and flighty as a dragonfly, or as smooth and sharp as a blade of grass, or as distant and subtle as a cloud. It revels in the taste of the world and its many scents, eager to plunge into the next moment for whatever new wonders it will bring, not concerning itself with loss and death just yet, for the world is still too full for there to be any room for mourning — and even mourning, when it comes, will be just another kind of wonder to explore.

And these are not the only ways that we appreciate the world. There are many others. Some may belong more to children, some to those busy adults neck-deep in earning a living and raising a family. There are some that may belong uniquely to the very old, the elders who see the folly of youth as no worse than the folly of maturity. If poetry for old men is “powerful emotion recollected in tranquility,” should it be any surprise that there are times when our children can only describe their own intense delight by comparing it to the art that such men praise, leaving a better explanation for the tranquility that will inevitably come with time?

But there is time enough for tranquility and its beautiful words, the child in me cries with a cascade of giggles and a raspberry or two — let’s not waste any more of our delight while it is here!


Photo Credits:
• “i might have lost it, but it’s never been lost,” by Shirin Winiger (source)
• “Live For Adventure,” by Conor Keller (source)
• “Discovery,” by Adam Graddy (source)
• “Nature love,” by talkingplant (source)


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Alison Leigh Lilly nurtures the earth-rooted, sea-soaked, mist-and-mystic spiritual heritage of her Celtic ancestors, exploring themes of peace, poesis and wilderness through essays, articles, poetry and podcasting. You can learn more about her work here.

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