School always felt like a prison to me. I grew restless and bored. Even as a child I somehow understood that truth could not be found in dry, brittle, dusty facts. So, during the school year, I daydreamed a lot, so much so that it often came up on report cards or in parent-teacher conferences. I longed for summer. Summer meant freedom. Freedom was also found in books, libraries, and the woods.
As a child, I would pack my backpack with the necessary items: snacks, a thermos of either juice or water, books, magnifying glass, my camera, sketchpad, pencils, and a journal. I also left enough room in my backpack for whatever I might find while exploring the woods behind our house. Sometimes I went with neighborhood friends. Sometimes I went on solitary expeditions. For me, solitude was never loneliness.
Whenever I went into the woods, it always offered up something about herself: blackberries, whose juice stained my hands and its brambles scratched my hands and arms, wild strawberries, and sucking the sweet nectar from honeysuckle. I discovered that the leaves of the slippery elm had the rough texture of a cat’s tongue. Later, when I taught this to my own sons, they were amazed and delighted by this discovery.
There was such freedom in discovering the world on one’s own, without a dreadful teacher telling me what was and wasn’t important about what I discovered. Instead, I could see, hear, smell, touch and react to the wonder of the poetry that nature had to offer if one was present to its rhythms. “Come forth into the light of things,” the English poet William Wordsworth wrote, “Let Nature be your teacher.” I heartily agreed because Nature was a far better teacher than many of the ones I suffered under throughout my school years.
I loved to walk in the streams and to feel the coolness of the water on my feet and legs. To see the ferns and brightly colored mushrooms and moss that lined the banks. It appeared magical, as if a fairy might suddenly appear out of nowhere.
My heart and imagination opened up when I was among the trees, the Bloodroot found among the semi-shade with its white petals and yellow stamens in the center, and the birdsong and the sudden darting of a woodland animal (squirrel, field mouse, rabbit). Often I would find a soft spot of ground to plant myself on and I would quietly sketch the animals, who reminded me of the ones found in Beatrix Potter books. Like Potter, I practiced on having a “seeing eye” that notices every stone and flower. Her illustrations helped me to see animals in a clearer light as they busied about, gathering nuts or berries or worms. To be still and quiet enough that I could notice them, but they forgot about me. My presence was not an intrusion to their own.
Beatrix Potter made me aware of plant life and of fungi, something I might not have given a second glance to if it weren’t for the aliveness in nature that she presented with her glorious illustrations. One can look at her incredibly beautiful and detailed drawings to see what a keen eye and mind she had towards mycology. She taught me that art and science are not separate but are connected. Because of that, Beatrix Potter opened my own imagination to being aware and appreciative of all forms of natural life.
“We cannot stay home all our lives,” Beatrix Potter once said, “we must present ourselves to the world and we must look upon it as an adventure.” And I am so glad that I did. How different my childhood might have been if I had grown up with computers and the internet. I am thankful that I didn’t have all of the technology that my kids have. While children today explore the virtual world, I got to experience and explore the real one. I got to feel the dirt under my fingernails, the dampness of sitting on moss by a stream, the freshness of the earth after a summer rain.
That is why I find it so important that I give my sons the space for creative wandering and wondering. They need to see the wild black cherry trees and touch the raised, warty dots of its bark. They need to feel the coolness of stream water and the stones and sediment beneath their bare feet. They need to feel the excitement of spotting an Eastern mud turtle. Or taste sassafras or wild mint. It is important for me to give them the woods and the fields and streams so that they can experience the joy of being connected to the earth. They need to know the sounds that nature offers, as well as its silences. How dangerous is it for our children to grow up estranged from nature? How many of them will see nature only in terms of consumption and profit because they don’t have a connection to it?
The natural world cannot be a stranger to our kids. Or to ourselves. That’s why I encourage and love it when my own boys suggest a nature walk. It delights me to see that they want to be alive and present to what the woods have to offer. I want them to grow up with an appreciation so that they, too, can pass this ache to be in nature on to their own children. I want them to understand what Hans Christian Andersen meant when he so wisely wrote, “Just living is not enough . . . one must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower.” May they always have that freedom.