“As children,” Ansel Adams once said, “we are very sensitive to nature’s beauty, finding miracles and interesting things everywhere. As we grow up, we tend to forget how beautiful and magnificent the world is. There is magic and wonder for eyes who know how to look with curiosity and love.”
When I was a boy, if the weather was nice (especially during the months of summer vacation), my mother would drive us from the house with, “It’s too nice a day for you to be inside. Go outside and play!” My friends and I loved playing in bushes and shrubs or climbing trees (to survey the world, as if it were our kingdom), or lying in the cool green grass under the weeping willow tree. We delighted in insects and caterpillars, snails, roly-polys (or pill-bugs), butterflies and, at night, fireflies. There was nothing more fascinating than discovering a box turtle or sitting still enough that birds would come close to us. We would roll down the hill of our big backyard. Or chase each other around trees. Or collecting acorns to have acorn fights. We labored with joy in building small dams in the creek. Playing in summer rain storms.
The woods was a sublime world for us to explore. We would watch spiders on their webs, squirrels chasing each other around and up trees, of watching birds make their nests, and of finding what we considered secret places that were only ours. We built small little homes of twigs and bark and moss that we called fairy homes. We would use the tops of acorns as their bowls which we would place a small berry in, as a kind of offering for when the fairies came upon the houses we made and make them their homes. And why not? We were convinced that the woods was a magical place. How could it not be when one was likely to spy a raccoon or rabbit and, on rare occasions, a fox?
During part of the summer, I would be sent to my grandparents’ farm. Life had a different rhythm there than at my own home. For one thing, they awakened early – at 5 am, which to my mind is an ungodly hour and should never even be considered as a possible time to get out of bed and start the day. But I did. My grandmother fixed us a large breakfast and then I would go with my grandfather to the fields where he grew vegetables (such as corn, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers). He would drive his tractor and, to my delight, his pet bird would ride on his shoulder. I sat on the trailer pulled behind the tractor, which is where we would put the vegetables that we picked. Amidst the rows of corn, I might see a king snake, a rabbit, a field mouse or, sometimes, a deer.
It was amazing to see how all of the seeds my grandfather had planted had taken root and grown into plants with a harvest of fresh vegetables. To have seen this go from an empty field to one that was plowed and prepared. To see all of the effort and hard work it took to get such plants to grow and yield a crop. This is probably why I fell in love with the writing of Wendell Berry.
Because of all the time I spent as a boy in nature, is it any wonder that I became so emotionally rooted to it and have nurtured a love of nature in my sons? This deep connection to the natural world is something I have fostered, along with a great appreciation for the seasons and what each has to offer.
Recently, I began rereading The Secret Garden, which I loved in childhood. As I rediscoverd the world of Mary Lennox and Mistlethwaite Manor, I began to fall back under the spell of the secret garden. As Mary and Dickon tend to and plant seeds, I loved how Frances Hodgson Burnett describes their time, “There was joy on earth in the secret garden that morning, and in the midst of them came a delight more delightful than all, because it was more wonderful.” But it made me lament how many children do not get the opportunity to take delight in planting and tending and nurturing seeds into plants. Of getting their hands dirty in soil and uncovering the life that lives there, such as wriggly earthworms.
In one of the passages from The Secret Garden, she writes, “One of the strange things about living in the world is that it is only now and then one is quite sure one is going to live forever and ever and ever. One knows it sometimes when one gets up at the tender solemn dawn-time and goes out and stands out and throws one’s head far back and looks up and up and watches the pale sky slowly changing and flushing and marvelous unknown things happening until the East almost makes one cry out and one’s heart stands still at the strange unchanging majesty of the rising of the sun–which has been happening every morning for thousands and thousands and thousands of years. One knows it then for a moment or so. And one knows it sometimes when one stands by oneself in a wood at sunset and the mysterious deep gold stillness slanting through and under the branches seems to be saying slowly again and again something one cannot quite hear, however much one tries. Then sometimes the immense quiet of the dark blue at night with the millions of stars waiting and watching makes one sure; and sometimes a sound of far-off music makes it true; and sometimes a look in someone’s eyes.”
This glorious passage makes me think of my own time, watching the sun come up as I rode on that trailer to my grandfather’s field. Or playing with neighborhood kids in the moonlight of our backyards where the night sky was infinite and the fireflies appeared like tiny blinking stars about us.
Rereading The Secret Garden reminds me that it’s not just the appearance, but even the poetry of the names, that make flowers beautiful: Lily of the Valley, Canterbury Bells, daffodils, crocuses, Campanula, blue larkspur, among others. Perhaps it was reading this book as a child, as well as my mother’s own love for gardening, that made me take pleasure in gardening myself. To grow things from seeds or bulbs. To weed and water and tend to such precious life and feel connected and alive.
Tasha Tudor, who did the illustrations for The Secret Garden, said, “It’s exciting to see things coming up again, plants that you’ve had twenty or thirty years. It’s like seeing an old friend.” And isn’t it?
Every Spring, I am thrilled to be reunited with the perennials I planted before and to be greeted again by them each season (beginning with crocuses and then daffodils). It is a glorious reunion and a reminder of the miraculous resurrection that takes place in creation every year.
Research has shown that spending time in nature makes a person more energized than in drinking coffee, as well as making one happier, kinder and more creative. Scientists are seeing that spending time in nature literally changes the brain in ways that have positive impacts on one’s life and health. Being in the natural world decreases stress. They even discovered that people who walk in nature, as opposed to an urban setting, had lower heart rates and were more relaxed. Spending time in nature causes what they term “attention restoration,” whereby people can focus better.
Beatrix Potter understood this. She spent great amounts of time in her garden, in nature and she wrote, “Thank God I have the seeing eye, that is to say, as I lie in bed I can walk step by step on the fells and rough land seeing every stone and flower and patch of bog and cotton pass, every tree, the scent of heather… Even when the thunder growled in the distance, and the wind swept up the valley in fitful gusts, oh, it was beautiful, home sweet home.” And one can see this attention to every detail in her journals. Pages and pages of notations and illustrations of what she encountered and would, later, show up in her children’s books.
One passage, she writes, “In Summer there were white and damask roses, and the smell of thyme and musk. In Spring there were green gooseberries and throstles [thrush], and the flowers they call ceninen [daffodils]. And leeks and cabbages also grew in that garden; and between long straight alleys, and apple-trained espaliers, there were beds of strawberries, and mint, and sage.”
With her keen observational skills, she noticed the flora and fauna; even discovering previously unknown varieties of mushrooms.
She studied animals’ habits and habitats. As she noted in her journals:
Harescombe Grange, Stroud 1894, June — . . . I went out in the morning with Caroline into the copse at the back of the house, a steep wooded bank. It had been wet overnight and we got dirty to our heart’s content.
I was extremely interested with the badger’s marks and their claw-walks, worn bare and slippery underneath the nettles and brush, but could judge they were made by a large stumpy animal, and the size of their footsteps is quite startling in an English wood.
Caroline said that she had never succeeded in seeing one during the fifteen years that they have lived at Harescombe, yet we saw their tracks in a lane half a mile from the Earths. The latter are curious, struck out by the hind legs like a rabbit’s hole, but a square piled-up bank like the spoil-banks in front of a coalpit. We found some curious snails, and poked about delightfully. . . .
She took the opportunities she spent in nature to observe and to question.
Woodfield, 1883, Thursday, August 2nd. — . . . caught some newts in the afternoon. Didn’t know they grew so big, or that they squeaked, it is as queer as to hear a fish make a noise.
They cannot breathe under water, having no gills except in the tadpole state, but they, like frogs, can remain under the surface for a long time. They sometimes let out the air at the bottom of the water, but generally rise to the top so as to get a fresh supply. The moment they have parted with the old they breathe rapidly through the nostrils like other reptiles, as may be seen by the rapid palpitation of the throat; but there is one thing about the breathing which I never noticed in any other, the newt having put out the used-up air, draws in fresh by quick respirations through its nostril. Then, if in the water, it sinks to the bottom till the new supply is exhausted; but the air when used, instead of returning through the nose, collects in the throat, extending it greatly. Then the newt rising to the surface, lets out the air by opening its mouth wide with a snap.
Now the thing which puzzles me is that land-newts, frogs and toads and salamanders, though they breathe the air in at their noses in the same way (taking in a good deal and then stopping to use it), do not get fresh air through the mouth, or collect it in the throat, but through the nose. Indeed, I think sometimes they breathe and discharge the air alternatively like an ordinary animal, otherwise they would burst from breathing in too much. Another thing is, how can frogs stop underwater so long as they sometimes do, over half an hour? The big newts seem to have to rise oftener than the small ones.
Beatrix Potter understood the importance of paying attention, being aware and being present to one’s surroundings. Nature inspired curiosity and wonder in Potter that she would retain her whole life and would deeply shape her own identity and her art. She did not see her art as disconnected from her observation of nature.
In The Secret Garden, the reader watches as Mary Lennox comes alive by spending time in nature and, as she does, how the natural world of the secret garden comes alive under her love and care. It’s a symbiotic relationship where both benefit and blossom. I cannot help but believe that this would be the case for any child who is allowed to discover and explore and spend time in creation. Only then will they begin to see the magic and wonder of the glorious world about us.