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Natural Fields of Vision

Natural Fields of Vision
By Robbie Hanna Anderman

I was raised and programmed in the New York public school system, getting high marks for performance in the required fields of study. After two years at an Ivy League equivalent private college in Pennsylvania, I was offered the opportunity to enroll in Toronto’s innovative and, at the time, controversial Rochdale College at its newly opening “campus.”

At Rochdale, there was a bulletin board where people would post, “I want to learn X. Who else does? Let’s meet at Q and discuss how we’ll learn together.” The whole concept of “What do I want to learn?” compared to “What do I have to learn to get a mark and a degree?” was radical to me and greatly altered my concepts of education.

So when a friend asked, “What are you doing in the city?”, I replied, “That’s a good question!” and accepted his invitation to visit the hills of Eastern Ontario’s Renfrew County in mid-winter. I’d never seen so many stars, or so much snow, before and soon realized that I wanted to learn how to live in the country, closer to Nature.

Another friend suggested we buy land together and, after a successful search, we did. Realizing how much there was to learn and how likely it was that others would also like to learn such skills, we began envisioning our old, off-the-grid farm as “Rochdale in the Country,” a place for people to come and learn country skills.

We were blessed by friendly neighbors who helped us out and shared their knowledge (not all back-to-the-landers in the late 1960s were so lucky). Winters were great for reading “How to Do” books and articles.

Sharing land, community, and child raising with friends on this land has allowed us to live on a family income usually well under $15,000 per year, yet it has also meant being very busy surviving by interacting with Nature.

Amidst my busy-ness, the children, unconstrained except by the weather, witnessed the wonders of Nature.

Learning What They Want to Learn

Our older son Daryl began to read on his own at age four. So we understood that children actually do learn to read when they’re ready, and when they want to. He soon went on to dismantling typewriters piece by piece and then on to studying and doing all the experiments on one electronic set after another. These early investigations have helped him in his present jobs of tech repair at the local community radio station and computer repair in the local area. Even more, they re-enforced the notion in us that children learn what they want to learn when they want to learn it.

Our middle son Ethan began reading on his own at age 11, as did our third son Ben. We did have our doubts and wonderings as Ethan, and then Ben, grew older with no interest in reading, and several relatives and friends encouraged those doubts and wonderings. Still, it was very clear that these young humans were too busy being “Young World Explorers” every day, witnessing and interacting with the natural world and other humans to bother with reading, especially since we always read story books to them during our relaxing family time every night. (Living in an “off the electric grid” home, we’ve never had a TV, although we did call the Turkey Vultures “TVs”.)

One of our favorite story books from the library was called Clever Lazy, about a Chinese girl from long ago whose baker mother had successfully asked the Goddess for a child “lazy enough to be clever, and clever enough to be lazy.”

One night while reading The Lord of the Rings to Ethan, I got tired and wanted to go to bed mid-chapter. I held firm despite his pleadings; “If you want to know what happens next, read it yourself.” And so he did.

There was no stopping him from then on. However, taking a cue from Clever Lazy, he soon realized that when reading while lying down in bed, one page easily holds open while the book rests its weight on the bed. For the second page, however, one generally has to hold the whole weight of the book up on edge.

Being clever and lazy, Ethan taught himself to read upside down (and sideways), thus, by turning the book around, the bed was able to hold the weight of the book for the second page as well. This has likely contributed to his ease of reading many thousands of pages in the last nine years.

Our friends, Jean and Chris of Golden Lake, often invited Ethan to go out birding with them, thus sharing their enthusiasm for the natural world. Soon butterfly and dragonfly “counts” were a part of his life in the summers, as they also pointed out and named most of the plants while wandering through field and forest.

Soon, with his eyes accustomed to that same 180-degree field of vision used while reading in bed, he was finding butterflies on “counts” in Renfrew County and Algonquin Park that no one had ever seen there before, a fact that was verified by “experts.”

Then he came home and reported one day that he’d identified 18 different species of wild orchids on our 100-acre farm, and a 19th variety across the road, including what turned out to be one of the largest recorded populations of a relatively rare species that grows in fens.

Personal Visual Fields

Yesterday, while thinking about writing this, I went out snowshoeing in the forest over the hill from our home. And I realized something about my son’s unique way of seeing that I’d not understood before.

When out walking and exploring in the woods, and even in our fields, one has to walk carefully around or over rocks, bushes, brambles, and the like. Even more, unless one is on a path, one has to keep alert and watch out for every tree twig approaching from every angle, forcing one to weave, instead of walking in a straight line.

In contrast to walking down a sidewalk, which has relatively straight lines and boundaries, our sons, who always complained I was too slow when I’d stop amidst our walks to prune branches and make a trail, were continually confronted with the need to adjust visual focus and respond to this stimuli while moving about on irregular land.

At the same time, in contrast to paved sidewalk, street, and playground, no square foot of Earth underfoot was exactly like any other. And while there were similarities, the differences could be fascinating.

Now let us consider the visual field of a person who is looking at a book, TV, or computer screen.

A book is generally about six to 18 inches away from the eyes, and about a foot square in area, more or less. The words and pictures are fixed upon the page(s) and the book itself, at rest, rarely moves much. The eyes generally move laterally across the page within a limited range. The mind and imagination are active, yet safely so, within a limited flat visual field at a set steady distance.

With a TV screen, the imagination and mind get less exercise in most cases, yet the limited fixed visual field is similar, though larger and usually farther away.

A computer screen can keep the imagination and mind (and hands) active. Yet again, although the eyes often get the exercise of seeing things move on the screen – sometimes – even similar to three-dimensional, the visual focus is still limited and relatively flat, and at a constant distance.

On the other hand, while “Reading the Book of Earth,” one has a full 180-degree field of vision in 3-D, usually involving living beings (plants, animals, insects, et al.), and elemental expressions like streams, clouds, sun, moon, stars, fire, wind, shade and shadow.

When looked at with the exploring curiosity of a child, or simply an open mind, the natural world has so much to teach us and offers so many opportunities for learning and interaction on so many levels.

Using the art of photography, both sons have taken their “Fields of Focus” close up to Nature. And they have learned – and taught – much.

Many of their photos, especially Ethan’s, focus on the beauty to be found in “little things,” especially flowers, small flowers, like wild orchids. When something that is less than a quarter-inch in size is clearly focused upon and enlarged to an eight-by-ten print, Nature’s secret beauty gets revealed.

Ethan was loaned a camera when he was about 15. Upon showing some of his photos to a visitor, he was gifted with a good manual Nikon 35mm camera that had been gathering dust on a shelf. By now he had an eye for beauty and a respect for the cost of film and prints. While other nature photographers often shoot a roll or two to get one or two photos, Ethan takes his time, carefully considers the angles and lighting, often going back hours later when the sun’s angle has shifted to get the one or two shots he wants. He’s joined a local photographers’ co-op and has exhibited and sold some of his work.

In 1995, my uncle declared that since our sons were not attending school, they needed a computer. Walking his talk, he went and bought us a Mac laptop (we insisted on the laptop, since it puts the least drain on our solar system). Daryl jumped right in, sharing what he’d learned at friends’ homes with us all, and expanding his knowledge by leaps and bounds.

Ben, thereby, was introduced to computers at a younger age than his brothers. After learning to read (especially comic books), he’s gone on to learn several programming languages on his own initiative. He also shares his knowledge and skills with us all at home, and with others elsewhere through chatrooms, etc. So it was no surprise that Ben chose to pick up a digital camera on eBay. This allows him to quickly take many more photos than Ethan would, and to show them to us on the same day: “Look what you missed while working inside.”

Sharing their way of seeing, and their photographs, I have been quite amazed with the revelations of the beauty that surrounds me, but which I’ve been missing for over 30 years, even though I’ve walked right past it. And places like wetlands, which usually only appeal to me in the winter while on snowshoes, are certainly growing more appealing to me to venture in to see what’s there, what I’ve been missing.

What this is confirming for me is that reading is just one skill amongst the many that are available for “Young World Explorers” to learn and investigate. If there is no overt pressure to pick up any skill, learning of it will naturally happen if access to it is available.

Earth is so much a “library” in and of itself, that focusing on learning to read and to look at screens distracts from developing other natural abilities and talents. Reading has been promoted as “The Way” to uplifting civilization and creating material gain, and it actually is. However, I’m of the thought that such civilization and material gain have destroyed much of the natural beauty of Earth, while not making life really better for the vast majority of Natural Peoples, which we all were at one time.

I have concluded from watching our sons that reading limits our Fields of Vision. While it is a worthy and often fun endeavor, we need to balance the amount of attention given to it with awareness of what it actually takes away from us. 

Robbie Hanna Anderman could never decide on a career, nor on a major in college. His father always told him “one must keep learning every day”... and so he does. Having been blessed by five life teachers who share his genetics, he finds each day full of opportunities to learn. Educated to only play the written notes on piano and French horn, he moved over to allowing music to “come through” via the 5-holed Shakuhachi bamboo flute and has allowed the instrument and life to teach him its sounds. Nowadays he cares for his organic pear orchard and vegetable gardens, is releasing his second flute and percussion CD, promotes industrial hemp as a boon for the environment and the rural economy through The Cool Hemp Company and The Hemp SeeDee, shares an off-the-grid hilly rocky “farm” with wonderful neighbors in the Bonnechere Valley in Ontario, Canada, blows natural flutes, is taking a “refresher course” from his granchildren, and is learning the dance of life alongside his wife Christina.

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