I think that children are attracted to nature by instinct. No one has to teach them to love animals, or admire plant life. It just kind of happens. On Earth Day, one of the most helpful things an adult can do to look at the ecological issues of the day is to get one’s mind back there, back to the time when nature was held in awe.
When we were kids, it was second nature to think of ourselves as being surrounded, even protected, by the beauty of nature. We couldn’t own it then. It was too big to own.
It fired our imaginations the way all important forces in the world do. That we couldn’t really understand where that power was coming from wasn’t something we thought about all that much. We were too busy getting lost in the stories that the beauty of nature suggested to us, when we were able to listen more intently.
When I was young, there were trails, wooded, primeval. The area we moved to was developing as a prime bedroom community for Toronto. This was Oakville, Ontario, well named for the white oaks native to the area, and once the grist to the shipbuilding industry at the mouth of the Sixteen Mile Creek when the town was established. I still consider it my hometown, even if I’d never move back. Part of why this is is the memory of the trails, or Trails with a capital T.
The Trails were bound between General Wolfe High School on the west, Sheridan College on the East, Upper Middle Road to the North, and McCraney Street to the South. But, they were immense, bigger than the physical limits placed upon them by simple geography.
They’ve taken on a mythical quality in my mind. They were Sherwood Forest. They were Tarzan’s jungle. They were Tolkien’s Old Forest. They were Narnia. They were anything we wanted them to be. My friends and I would spend hours playing there, exploring, building forts, riding bikes, and reveling in the imagination which is the raw material for childhood artistry. There were more than trees, grass, and bushes that grew in those woods.
We’d spend whole summer days in the woods, along the Trails, by the creek which ran through it, until our shoes were soaked, and until our cheeks were smudged with red clay and chocolaty brown dirt, our hair plastered to our foreheads. The shadows grew longer between the boughs, and our innate sense of time brought us back to the reality of our suburban homes around dinnertime. We went back to the lawns, the streets, the pale glow of street lights.
Sleeping in our beds as night fell, the trees far away, growing around, over, and beneath the twisting Trails continued to thrive, to spread outward, and upward. And the creek ran through it all, chuckling over the flat stones, under the moon and the protective skirts of the forest.
We slept until morning flooded through our windows. We’d burst out into the new day, and do it all again, off to the Trails again and scampering between the boughs, lost in the stories we made.
One day, I rode my red Raleigh bicycle into the trees, on my own. My bike pulled around the green corners on the dusty track of the Trails, and through the long yellowing grass warmed by the sun and abuzz with grasshoppers. And around another corner, suddenly I hit a clearing, and the makings of a new front lawn. There were no trees where there should have been. They were building new houses on the rim of the ravine that made up the upper domain of the Trails. There was the word ‘Woods’ in the name of the development. I was too young to understand the irony.
And suddenly, I was hit by a strange feeling: that the venerable tree kingdom was threatened by the wheels of progress, that the Trails could be invaded and possibly eclipsed. It was a helpless feeling, a powerless feeling. My Trails! Our Trails! They were being encroached upon.
Houses and lawns had their place, I knew. But they were in a different world from the Trails, which stood apart from that more mundane world. The thought of it being swallowed up by more streets, more lawns, more people other than us kids and our imaginations seemed downright immoral.
Many years later, I read a poem called Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which told the tale of the embodiment of nature in the form of a giant green knight on a green horse, sent to test the mettle of civilization as represented by King Arthur’s Camelot, a kingdom that had been proclaimed by its founders as having unquestionable dominion over the world.
The Green Knight rode, to the very hall of the King with his challenge. The Green Knight’s very presence proved that the King and his knights were not the untouchable authority they thought they were. They were subject to the sway of nature just as everything else is. And the Green Knight taught them that the kingdom they took such pride in was only as good as how responsible it was to “the call” to do the right thing.
Perhaps something to think about on Earth Day is how these two worlds of civilization and nature should co-exist. Perhaps Earth Day is a time to remember our own love of the woods, or lakes, or other natural landscapes that exist in our pasts and in our imaginations, as well as the ones that exist in the here and now.
Maybe Earth Day is the time to remember how much bigger the natural world actually is, not only as it was in our eyes as children, but as it stands, as a home we depend upon.
Happy Earth Day!
“Children in the Woods” EllenMac 11 @ flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.