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Learning Love of the Natural World

Learning Love of the Natural World
By Beatrice Ekwa Ekoko

This is a Mysterious Land.
Blue grass, purple flower
Red person, red sun
Brown rain
This is a Mysterious Land

By Bronwyn Kay, age 4

What does it take to move a people to act? What does it take to move a people to defend a forest, to protect a valley? To even risk arrest for their conviction that Nature is worth fighting for? And what effect does that have on kids?

A friend who is usually reticent about taking a public stance on social/environmental issues suddenly becomes impassioned enough to go up to a local, currently threatened site where tree cutting for an expressway has already begun and risk being nabbed, children and all, because she believes in the need to preserve this space for future generations. She still cherishes fond memories of hiking in those very same woods as a child, playing in the manholes, catching minnows and tadpoles, watching clouds pass by as she swung on the tire swing. Other friends reminisce about skipping school to get down to the creek and “‘have a blast!”. Not surprisingly, these are some of the same people who are out there today, trying to save what is priceless, what, once blasted away may take hundreds of years to return, if ever.

Australian professor J. S. Gould said somewhere that “we can not win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and Nature as well – for we will not fight to save what we do not love.” Here lies the crux of the matter.

Clearly, people who have that emotional attachment to the natural world are agonized at what is happening to the last remnants of natural spaces all around the planet. On them, we pin our hope of action for a liveable future.

Which brings me to education. Becoming aware of how important is contact with the natural world to the future of our race on this planet, schools across North America have begun naturalization projects on their school grounds, a much welcomed sight for eyes accustomed to the usual visual deprivation of concrete and cement associated with schools and prisons. These projects include planting trees and native species, shrubs, meadows, and ponds.

If even schools are attempting to up ecological awareness in kids, imagine how much more opportunity life learning families have to learn to love the natural world! They can work with their communities to adopt a creek, a piece of forest, a wetland, becoming a steward of it. This is a commitment that could extend over a long period of time so that concern for, and love of the adopted site could evolve. Life learning children are fortunate enough to have the chance to be in a forest as opposed to studying a forest in the classroom. They are able to engage directly on a face-to-face level with animated life. (I think of the tragedy of how right beside a school filled with kids sitting passively in the classroom, possibly studying the different parts of a leaf, the real thing is out there in that valley, as people struggle to save the very trees that produce the leaves they are studying.)

Even with most learning establishments and homes embracing the celebration of Earth Day each April, practicing recycling programs and so on, the reality is that this is not enough. We continue to educate the young for the most part as if there is no planetary emergency, the assumption being that better technology will take care of the rapidly worsening environmental crisis. But the crisis, as David Orr says in his book Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment and the Human Prospect (Island Publishers, 1994), is “in the minds that develop and use technology. The disordering of ecological systems and of the great biogeochemical cycles of the earth reflect a prior disorder in the thought, perception, imagination, intellectual priorities, and loyalties inherent in the industrial mind. Ultimately, then the ecological crisis concerns how we think and the institutions that purport to shape and refine the capacity to think.”

Like Orr, I am convinced that “nothing short of a redesigning of education by adopting the ‘protection of the ecology’ as a basis, in every discipline will do.” The earlier that love for Nature starts in a child’s life, the better. Someone who respects and honors the natural world, who loves this awesome earth, its astounding diversity its frightening power, its mathematical elegance, needs to walk with a child in a truly natural world. Regularly, someone needs to take that child to forest and meadow, gaze with them into the depths of a sparkling stream, explore in secret caves and hide behind tall grass, be still for the deer and the rabbit to pass. The idea is that rather than approaching Nature through a lens, dissecting and evaluating, classifying and measuring, one ought to first allow the natural world to take ahold of one.

Orr proposes that children should be introduced to the “mysteries of specific places and things before giving them access to the power inherent in abstract knowledge...aim to fit the values and loyalties of [children] to specific places before we equip them to change the world.”

In this way, as the children grow, their commitment to their own environment will grow with them and we will have a stronger pool of people to draw from in reversing the tide. What the planet needs now is not more “successful” people but, as Orr says, “It does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make habitable and humane.”

Perhaps it is because so many people are separated by modern life from the natural world, and can not perceive their actual dependency on it as a reality, that there are still too few people willing to take on the challenge of saving our Mother Earth.

But if children of all ages were to be given the opportunity to commune with the natural world with as much enthusiasm and zeal as many do in shopping malls, no doubt we will stand a better chance at having a beautiful and healthful ecology in the future. No doubt we would come to know beyond words and thought, that indeed we are a part of this magical world. Then, in the words of social activist and writer Joanna Macy, we would witness that “as we work to heal the Earth, Earth heals us.”

Beatrice Ekwa Ekoko is a Hamilton, Ontario, Canada-based visual artist, and writer. For a number of years, she was also co-producer of Radio Free School, a weekly radio program by, for and about home-learners. She is also the unschooling mother of three.

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