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RADICAL AMAZEMENT: Nature and the Spiritual Life of Children

About the Author

Richard Louv is Co-Founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Children & Nature Network, an organization supporting the international movement to connect children, their families and their communities to the natural world. He is the author of nine books, including "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder" and "The Nature Principle." His newest book, "Vitamin N," offers 500 ways to build a nature-rich life. In 2008, he was awarded the Audubon Medal.

The crescent moon was a rip in the blackness. Deep maroon spread above the island. The mirror of the lake seemed lit from below. The air was cool and trout began to rise. Coyotes howled, then stopped as suddenly as they began. I reached up and banged on the underside of the van’s pop-up bunk.

“Boys, wake up. Look outside.” But of course they did not stir. My older son’s hand hung over the edge of the bunk, fingers twitching in sleep. I smiled at his hand, and continued to watch the morning grow.

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In truth, a sunrise is a mundane occurrence. Happens every day. Sometimes the sunrise is hidden by clouds or smog or sleep; it happens whether we’re watching or not. But if we’re awake, a sunrise can be a window to something larger.

This memory was formed two decades ago. It still rises.

A few evenings later, a group of friends got together at our house. The topic of religion and children came up. One friend said he has rediscovered the peace of church and hoped that he could communicate this to his children.

He recalled his own childhood experiences at church as less than fulfilling; and the gap between what the adults said on Sunday mornings, and what they did during the rest of the week, did not escape him. Yet, without his childhood exposure to church, he would not now find so much comfort in the rituals of liturgy and song. Another friend hesitantly admitted that, because she has not introduced her children to organized religion, she feels guilty. She does not believe in religion, so she feels that taking her children to church would only teach them that parents are hypocritical.

And yet, this friend, who described herself as an atheist (she seems more of an agnostic), also remembers intensely spiritual moments as a child, when she believed she was speaking directly to God. As an adult, she continues to experience similar moments, when life becomes blindingly vivid.

I thought of my sons and the sunrise on the mountain.

Most of our moments are less majestic. We stumble from deadline to deadline, pay the bills, grind through seemingly prerecorded conversations with our bosses and workmates and even our friends, when we fear that we will be detected for who we really are, merely human.

Several years earlier, a group of local religious leaders — a priest, a minister, an imam and a rabbi — also met in my living room. During the discussion of fatherhood, Rabbi Martin Levin, of Congregation Beth-El, said that to be spiritual is to be constantly amazed.

“To quote the words of Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel, a great teacher of our age,” he said, “our goal should be to live life in radical amazement.”

Heschel would encourage his students to get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted: Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

For many people, organized religion offers the necessary structure, a weekly reminder that there is more to life and afterlife than budgeting and blackness. Others find a different or overlapping source. Since I was a boy, fishing has been my special window to the spirit. It is not the only window, and not for everyone. But for some of us, it is good.

As the day moved from dawn to dusk, I waded into the calm water, lifted the rod and let loose of the line. I watched my boys along the shore. The younger one, who had temporarily given up on fishing, joyfully hauled his catch of the day, an old bucket, across the mud flat. The older boy had taken his rod into a thicket where there was a secluded pool. Perhaps, in that place, he was immersed in that quietest, strongest of voices.

Sometimes the rhythm of the rod is like a chant or the swinging of incense. Sometimes I can almost feel the water bulge and know that a fish is rising beneath it. Now a trout lifted itself, caught the sunset on its orange flank, and above the water stopped in time, as did my children and the world.

And then life went on. In a few hours, the boys and I would begin to miss their mother, and we would head home more amazed by the sunrise and sunset, by light and dark, by small muddy shoes on the stairs or the sound of my wife’s hairbrush, by the smallest of moments

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Richard Louv 
is chairman emeritus of the Children & Nature Network and author of LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder and THE NATURE PRINCIPLE. This essay first appeared on the C&NN site on Nov. 21st, 2012. It is adapted from an earlier book, THE WEB OF LIFE.

Follow Rich on Facebook and on Twitter @RichLouv 

More Reading

VITAMIN N FOR THE SOUL: 10 Ways Faith-Based Organizations Can Connect Children, Families and Communities to the Natural World

All Children Need Nature: 12 Questions About Equity & Capacity

The Uncommon Core: Schools, Wilderness, and Supporting the Natural Resilience of Young People

“Hummingbird Parents”: Seven Actions Parents Can Take To Reduce Risk And Still Get Their Kids Outs

The Hybrid Mind: The More High-Tech Schools Become, the More Nature They Need

Don’t Tear Down that Fort: Ten Lessons (and more) that Kids Learn from Building Their Own Tree Houses and Forts — if Adults Let Them

7 Comments

  1. Great piece, Richard. I’m so grateful that my parents gave both church and Nature chances to take root in my soul. I’m glad Nature’s the one that has thrived.
    By the way, I share your love of fishing. Besides getting me (and my children / grandchildren) outdoors and providing destinations for hiking & canoeing, that mystical connection to an alien world through a filament is pure magic.

    Reply
  2. Hello, I am from Caracas venezuela, Y own and manage a Summer camp here in Venezuela for 25 years now and would love to translate this articule and share with my Campers and their families If you allow me.
    It is incredible how this morning I was telling my partner about a message I sent to my mom, who lives in Florida: ” Mom I woke up this morning needing to let you know I had the happiest and the best times of my life during my Childhood! And I am so grateful for that…” and started sharing with my partner my memories of those days, 40 years ago, and when I finished, I thought to my self, I can remember this as if it were yesterdaY! and 30 minutes later I receive this article. I LOVED IT
    Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  3. Beautiful post, Richard. Thank you. I just returned from Peru where, of course, nature is so much a part of the life of the rural Quechua children that it’s integral to everything they do.

    Page Lambert
    Connecting People with Nature.
    Connecting Writers with Words.

    Reply
  4. I have always felt a direct connection to God through nature. It is His creation and we have been given such a beautiful gift to observe and enjoy. We all need to stop, breathe, look around at God’s beautiful creation. Everything has a purpose under Heaven. All is connected. I feel God’s presence most often in those quiet moments outdoors, away from manmade noise, pollution, development, and other human trappings. The Earth, Sun, and stars are magnificent!

    Reply
  5. Wonderful post I resonate with it totally.
    Living in the foothills of the Himalays I see its many peaks almost everyday yet evey time I see them I am filled with amazement. They tell different stories during different hours of the day…..the colors take my breath away… they make me laugh, they make me sing, they make me sit in silent contemplation.

    Reply
  6. I love how fishing, for you, is a window to the spirit. Nature for me is my religion, if you could call it a religion. It’s when I truly feel myself submerged in each moment, feel focused and notice each detail, unlike that of the endless chores and to-do lists that follow me when I’m inside four walls.

    If there is a god, and’s that a debate that will never go away, I feel something that resembles what people call god, spirit or life force when out in nature.

    Reply
  7. Thanks Richard — for this piece and all of your writing. You are making an impact on the world and I’m impressed with your energy and creativity. Keep up the good work.

    Reply

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