I was raised in the deserts and high country of the American Southwest. An only child, I spent hours and hours on my own, or with friends, including my cousins, exploring arroyos, climbing trees, and experiencing the sense of being at home that comes from being connected to the place where you live.
Some of my earliest defining childhood experiences from the time I was four years old and got my first horse, Palo, and well into my 20s, were of spending time on horseback, with my granddad, Perl Charles, or my dad, Tom Charles, ahead of me with his horse in the lead.
We had so many wonderful adventures in rugged and semi-rugged natural settings in the deserts and high country of Arizona, and many were calculated, especially by Granddad, to put me in a position to survive some risk-taking and gain some mastery and self-confidence in the process—from learning how to jump over fallen logs on horseback to taking my horse through streams and up and down steep mountains.
Granddad, Perl Charles, also first brought the term “ecology” to my life. He was born in 1899 and traveled with his family to the western US by train, wagon and on foot. The family, with four very young children, Granddad being the eldest, settled in New Mexico in 1907. He, as were many in the family, was a life-long conservationist—and always a teacher and storyteller.
Humorous and wise, he epitomized common sense. He taught me that all parts of any environment, living and non-living, exist in relationship to one another in an ecology. The parts interact dynamically, and no one part stands alone. As poets and naturalists through time have observed, everything is connected to everything else.
Combine ecology with the concept of hope, and we can imagine and help achieve what I call “the ecology of hope.”
There are many factors that contribute to humans’ capacity, and need, for hope. Without hope, we die—if not immediately in a physical sense, we do in terms of dreams, aspirations, and spirit, all of which are fundamental to human health and well-being. I believe, among other factors, that hope is derived from the exercise of will—learning as well as practicing, from the youngest of ages, how to do so. Practice in exercising will, on whatever scale, helps to develop a sense of efficacy—that is, a perceived belief that you or I can make a difference, even as we learn from our mistakes as well as our successes. Combine the exercise of will with the experience of efficacy and hope is the result.
So, for many reasons, we, who can, need to demonstrate the positive power of the ecology of hope—especially, now more than ever, in the lives of children and youth.
For young children, efficacy and hope are nourished by playing and learning in wild and semi-wild places outdoors—turning over a rock and feeling connected to all of life; climbing a tree and feeling a surge of confidence and exhilaration, peace and perspective; having an adult share a place so special that the child feels valued and develops a lifelong connection to the power and the beauty of the natural world. In my view, the most inspiring and effective parents, grandparents, teachers, friends and mentors are those who labor with love and respect, heart and humor, to create an ecology of hope every day in the lives of those they touch—beginning in childhood’s earliest years.
The belief that we can make a positive difference is at the heart of the children and nature movement, and what Richard Louv calls “the new nature movement.” We believe that we can make life better for children, and ourselves, by opening the door to the first classroom—the natural world, from backyards to neighborhoods to schoolyards and public places.
We can inspire in children a belief that the world can be a better place, that the present can be nourishing and the future a time of fulfillment. We can go a long way to achieving that goal by reconnecting children and nature in their everyday lives—in their home environments, their neighborhoods, their schools and communities.
I am reminded of Granddad again. Some adventures were philosophical. I was about 16. Granddad took me to a high knoll in the White Mountain region of Northern Arizona. In every direction, 360 degrees, all we could see was horizon, with juniper, some Ponderosa pine on the knolls, big skies and open range. There was nearly nothing in the way of human habitation that was visible. He said, “Vistas like this—a big view—always give me perspective.”
He and others raised me to strive for perspective, for a balance of culture and nature, with a drive to bring diverse interests to the same table to find the common good, and with a healthy respect and sense of responsibility for the needs of future generations. Out of those roots, idealism and pragmatism, worry and optimism, compelled me to join Richard Louv, Amy Pertschuk, Mike Pertschuk, Martin LeBlanc and Marti Erickson to found the Children & Nature Network with our commitment to a world in which all children play, learn and grow with nature in their everyday lives.
We believe that, with each of you and others, we together can heal the separation between children and nature. We can reinstate joy, wonder, and a sense of purpose in children’s everyday lives. We can re-establish a healthy, natural balance between technology and natural systems. We can build a movement that succeeds in reconnecting children and nature—and in that process inspires new generations to believe in a better future. We together can leave a legacy of leadership and an ecology of hope.
_________Cheryl Charles, President and Co-Founder of the Children and Nature Network., is also the co-author, with Bob Samples, of Coming Home: Community, Creativity and Consciousness.
Photo: Cheryl Charles and her son Stician, when he was little.