By Christian McEwen
Since 1984, Christian has led writing workshops all over the United States, from the far reaches of the South Bronx to steamy Georgia. She also taught in the British Isles, in Scotland especially, under the auspices of the Scottish Poetry Library. Her favorite residency was with the Spey Grian project, for which she taught poetry and journal-writing, tacking round the western isles on a hundred-year-old sailing boat. Christian has worked with all ages between six and ninety, with a special focus on elementary school children, college students, and senior citizens. Back in the 1990s, she taught a course in nature poetry at the New School in New York, which later gave rise to the anthology, The Alphabet of the Trees: A Guide to Nature Writing, co-edited with Mark Statman. Almost every January, she teaches in the Winter Studies program at Williams College, helping students to develop “a mind of winter” through playful exercises in writing and drawing. The following essay is excerpted with permission from her book on slowing down, World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down, published by Bauhan Publishing.
Tomorrow, will we have hundreds of times to play?
Georgia McEwen, aged 4
I remember lying in the grass, looking up into the flaming autumn glory of the spindle tree. The berries were a fiery orange-scarlet, each one shaped like a tiny four-cornered hat. I was six or seven then, the oldest child, with two younger sisters and a younger brother. Nursery life was noisy and demanding. But I felt happy there, under the spindle tree, watching the old horse, Snowball, ambling about, or listening to the wind in the thin straps of the leaves. I went back over and over again.
In the same way, I returned to the barn, pushing past the dock-leaves and the stinging nettles to the damp space underneath where the forget-me-nots grew. I used to sit there for what seemed hours, while the chickens scratched and scrabbled from the chicken-coop, and the forget-me-nots gazed back at me with all their thousand bright blue eyes. I dug in like a little animal, full of the clenched pleasure of being alone. “I am myself,” I thought, “myself,” free of the grown ups, of all inside obligations, and at the same time (perhaps contradictorily) at one with the soft waving of the grasses, the looming presence of the trees.
“All children want to crouch in their secret nests,” writes Seamus Heaney, remembering his boyhood in County Derry in the early 1940s. He himself had a special affection for the boxwood hedge in front of his house, the fork of a certain beech tree, and “the soft collapsing pile of hay” at the back of the byre. But most of all he loved the throat of an old willow tree at the far end of the farmyard.
It was a hollow tree, with gnarled, spreading roots, a soft perishing bark and a pithy inside. Its mouth was like the fat and solid opening in a horse’s collar, and once you squeezed in through it, you were at the heart of a different life, looking out on the familiar yard as if it were suddenly behind a pane of strangeness. Above your head, the living tree flourished and breathed, you shouldered the slightly vibrant bole, and if you put your forehead to the rough pith you felt the whole lithe and whispering crown of willow moving in the sky above you.
From an adult point of view, such experiences can look almost negligible. Adults tend to think of nature in terms of “the great outdoors.” They crave distant, glittering vistas, snow-capped mountains, broad, far-reaching valleys. Children are less particular. A hedge, a ditch, a tiny knoll, will give them all the countryside they need. Audre Lorde spoke in passionate terms about a pocket park in Harlem, close to where she lived as a young girl, “That place, the green, the trees, and the water, formed my forest of Arden.” It was the only green place she ever saw.
I will never forget, after my first book, some students said, “Miss Lorde, would you call yourself a nature poet?” And I thought, “What? Me?” And then I realized how wedded to these images I was. And they came from this pocket park. I would fantasize about sun on a red brick roof. It was the shards of sun against the wall…And that became entrenched in my mind as beauty. The sun on a red brick roof. And a rose trellis.
Such places may look like nothing to the casual passer-by. But for the ardent child, they make a whole enchanting world. “Look, Mama!” cried the little boy across the aisle, as our bus drew level with the fenced-off territory that constituted Tomkins Square Park in Lower Manhattan. “Look, Mama! It’s the forest!”
You can see the forest in a handful of scraggly winter trees, as you can see heaven in a wild flower, but to do so, you need both world enough and time, or, in Emily Dickinson’s terms, “revery.”
To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.
We have the clover and the bee, at least for now. But time for revery is shrinking by the minute. One tends to assume that the burden of this falls mainly on adult shoulders, and perhaps on school-age children. But in New York, at least, the language of haste and deprivation has reached even the youngest among us.
Olivia is just three years old. She lives in Manhattan with her parents and her older brother, Luke, and spends most of her time at home, playing and taking naps, with the occasional visit to the Central Park Zoo. Her father is the writer, Adam Gopnik. In Through the Children’s Gate, he writes about Olivia and her imaginary friend, who goes by the name of Charlie Ravioli. Although he is only seven and a half, Ravioli already has a lively independent life. He lives on “Madison and Lexington,” goes to the beach in the summer, and, according to Olivia, has been “working on a show.” But (and this is the quintessentially New York part of the tale), he is always too busy to play with her.
[Olivia] holds up her toy cell phone to her ear, and we hear her talk into it:
“Ravioli? It’s Olivia…It’s Olivia. Come and play? Okay. Call me. Bye.”
Then she snaps it shut and shakes her head. “I always get his machine,” she says.
Or she will say, “I spoke to Ravioli today.” “Did you have fun?” my wife and I ask. “No, he was busy working.”
On a good day, Olivia “bumps into” her invisible friend and they go to a coffee shop. “‘I bumped into Charlie Ravioli today,’ she says. ‘He was working.’ Then she adds brightly, ‘But we hopped into a taxi.’ What happened then? we ask. ‘We grabbed lunch,’ she says.”
Olivia is a bright, impressionable child, and the world she is describing mimics the one she sees around her. Most of the adults she knows are busy urban professionals, and “the language of busyness” dominates their conversation. There is no surprise there. After all, as her father explains, “Busyness is our art form, our usual ritual, our way of being us.” What is actually remarkable is that Olivia should manage to triumph over such unprepossessing material, making out of stress and disconnection an opportunity to hone her own inventiveness, and, yes, indulge her capacity for revery.
No Child Left Inside
“Much has been made of ‘No Child Left Behind,’” says the nature writer, John Elder. “But what we actually want is ‘No Child Left Inside.’” Clare Walker Leslie agrees. As one who has taught natural history and journal-keeping for more than half a lifetime, she knows the power of the simple question, the utterly modest assignment. “Who are your neighbors?” she asks her second graders. “They’re not just people, they’re also salamanders, chipmunks, rabbits, great blue herons.” Again and again she leads her students out into the schoolyard, out into the local park. After the usual noisy babble of the classroom, “We all go out in silence, and just listen.” John Tallmadge concurs. Another freelance educator, with many years of college teaching behind him, he emphasizes how a twenty-foot strip of grass between the street and the sidewalk can engage the children’s interest. “Starlings, burdocks; the cardinal is a blaze of wonder. The city becomes a huge museum without walls.”
Every winter, when I teach at Williams College in western Massachusetts, I ask the students to adopt a particular spot on campus, and to return to it again and again. I ask them to visit that spot at sunrise and sunset, and under the white light of the full moon, in wind and rain and boring slushy daytime, no matter what the weather. They do not see the point of this at first. The requirement seems empty and repetitive. But little by little, the stories begin to accumulate: the call of a barred owl through the midnight branches, the humped tunnels of the meadow-voles revealed under the crusted snow, the snow fleas leaping in the bright sun, and suddenly they too are giddy with enthusiasm.
There are many such assignments one can give. When Janet Fout’s daughter was a little girl, the two of them used to spend time together out-of-doors, playing and inventing nature games. My own favorite was listening for the sounds they could not hear, which Fout called “The Sounds of a Creature Not Stirring. ” Examples might include: sap rising, snowflakes forming and falling, sunrise, moonrise, feathers, dew on the grass, a seed germinating, an earthworm moving through the soil, an apple ripening, wood petrifying, a spider weaving its web, a leaf changing colors, a salmon spawning.
Janet Fout is an environmental activist, as John Elder and John Tallmadge are committed nature writers, and Clare Walker Leslie is a lifelong artist and keeper of nature journals. But making space for “child time” does not demand any special credentials. Any interested adult can provide practical help: a ride to a local park, a guide book to birds, the gift of a microscope, an old pair of binoculars, cheerful encouragement to go outside and play.
Such freedom and encouragement is especially important to girls. Don’t run so fast! You’ll fall and hurt yourself. Don’t get wet! Don’t dirty your nice dress! Again and again grown women report the fussy anxious voices that held them back as children, and in some cases still haunt them as adults. For myself, I still remember the aged nun peering up into the branches, as I climbed ever higher towards the clear blue sky. “Come down!” she cried. “Come down, tree-climber!” and angrily, obediently, I made my descent. At home in Scotland I spent hours climbing trees and building tree-houses, catching fish with my hands, or wandering alone across the moors. But there at school I could do nothing but submit.
Not all children are given the gift of time, or the support of interested adult mentors. Sometimes guidance and inspiration come in the form of the natural world itself: a tree, an animal, a particular patch of ground. Sometimes (perhaps more often than you might expect) they reveal themselves through books.
When I was ten or eleven, my mother gave me a copy of A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton Porter. I had never heard of Porter, could not even tell if this author were a man or a woman. I knew nothing of moths or birds or the natural history of Indiana. But I knew passion when I encountered it, and courage and injustice, and the story of Elnora Comstock drew me back again and again. Thirty years later, I stumbled on a book of Stratton Porter’s nature writings, edited by Sydney Landon Plum. Here were the memories of her childhood, her love of birds. Here, above all, was an account of the beneficent freedom in which she had grown up.
From the time she could walk Geneva (her given name) was a devoted ornithologist. All day long, from breakfast until lunch, and from lunch to supper time, she made the rounds of the local nests, watching the birds as they went about their business, and championing their cause against cats and snakes and squirrels, as well as her numerous older siblings. After an astonishing scene in which she defended a male hawk against her preacher-father (armed with a rifle), he presented her, formally, with the ownership of every single bird on his land. It was a magical present, and the child was overwhelmed.
Even while he was talking to me I was making a flashing mental inventory of my property, for now I owned the hummingbirds, dressed in green satin with ruby jewels on their throats; the plucky little wren that sang by the hour to his mate…the green warbler, nesting in a magnificent specimen of wild sweetbriar…the song sparrow in the ground cedar beside the fence.
From then on, she chose sixty nests to visit daily, imitating the birds’ calls, and offering grain and berries, until by the end of the season, most of her brood trusted her completely. Warblers, phoebes, sparrows and finches swarmed all over her, perching on her head and hands and shoulders, while she stood beside their nests, feeding the young chicks.
With such a heritage, it comes as no surprise that Gene Stratton Porter should have grown up to be a writer and a naturalist and a well known nature photographer, nor that she should have written her first book (she published more than twenty) in the voice of a cardinal. As Edith Cobb has argued, and others have confirmed, many creative people (writers, poets, artists, environmentalists) return again and again to their early experiences in nature. It becomes, in fact, a prime source for their imaginative work as adults.
Searching & Dreaming
When Theodore Roosevelt was a boy in the 1860s, he spent his days building wigwams in the woods, gathering hickory nuts and apples, and hunting frogs. E.O. Wilson has similar memories. “Most children have a bug period, and I never outgrew mine. Hands-on experience at the critical time, not systematic knowledge, is what counts in the making of a naturalist. Better to be an untutored savage for a while, not to know the names or anatomical detail. Better to spend long stretches of time just searching and dreaming.”
Barry Lopez agrees. “I sit for a long time and watch one thing,” he says. “If you don’t do that homework, you don’t make yourself vulnerable enough to a place, and it never releases itself into you.” He keeps his study window open always. His notes get rained on and sun-stroked, “But I don’t ever want that window closed.”
Without that “window,” the life, the soul, will suffer. With it open, there is always the possibility of surprise. In this context, I like to remember the words of the great ornithologist, Roger Tory Peterson. By the time I met him, he was well into his eighties. But a few months earlier, he had seen something that took his breath away: a flock of swallows—a massive congregation—spiraling down like a tornado against the orange blaze of sunset, tens of thousands of them at one time. It was, he said, the most remarkable thing he’d ever witnessed.
For all the stress and overwhelm in which we live, there is no end to such daily miracles. Gary Snyder has made a life honed by such knowledge, and in relation to “child time,” his advice is well worth taking. Here then, in conclusion, is his poem, “For the Children”:
The rising hills, the slopes,
lie before us,
the steep climb
of everything going up,
up, as we all
In the next century
or the one beyond that,
are valleys, pastures,
we can meet there in peace
if we make it.
To climb these coming crests
one word to you, to
you and your children:
learn the flowers
Center for Ecoliteracy, 2522 San Pablo Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94702. Tel. (510) 845 4595. firstname.lastname@example.org
Cobb, Edith: The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood (New York, Columbia University Press, 1977).
Ecopsychology Institute: www. centerchange.org
Elder, John: speaking with John Tallmadge and Clare Walker Leslie at Glen Brook, NH, October 2006.
Fout, Janet, in Richard Louv, op. cit.
Gopnik, Adam, “Bumping into Mr. Ravioli” in Through the Children’s Gate: A Home in New York (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2006).
Heaney, Seamus: Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978 (New York, The Noonday Press, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980).
Learning in the Real World: 725 Main Street, #232, Woodland, CA 95695-3406. Tel. (530) 661 9240. www.realworld.org
Lopez, Barry, speaking at the Roger Tory Peterson Institute at a gathering of teachers and nature writers, Fall 1994.
Lorde, Audre quoted in an interview by Louise Chawla, op. cit.
Louv, Richard: Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder (Chapel Hill, NC, Algonquin Books, 2005).
Morris, Edmund: The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (New York, Putnam, 1979).
Muir, John: Nature Writings: The Story of My Boyhood and Youth, My First Summer in the Sierra, the Mountains of California, Stickeen, Selected Essays by Muir (The Library of America, Penguin Books, U. S.A., 1997).
Nabham, Gary Paul, and Stephen Trimble: The Geography of Childhood: Why Children Need Wild Places (Boston, Beacon Press, 1994).
Peterson, Roger Tory, and Barry Lopez, speaking at the Roger Tory Peterson Institute at a gathering of teachers and nature writers in Fall 1994.
River of Words, 2547 8th Street, Berkeley, CA 94710, U.S.A. Tel. (510) 548 POEM (7636). Website: www.riverofwords.org
Roosevelt, Eleanor, in The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling, by James Hillman (New York, Random House, 1996).
Smith, Robert Paul, quoted by Gary Paul Nabham, op.cit.
Stratton Porter, Gene: A Girl of the Limberlost (New York, Dell Publishing Co., 1986).
Stratton Porter, Gene: Coming Through the Swamp: The Nature Writings of Gene Stratton Porter, edited and with an introduction by Sydney Landon Plum (Salt Lake City, University of Utah Press, 1996).
Wilson, E.O. quoted in Richard Louv, op.cit.
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