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The Ecology of Hope

About the Author

Cheryl Charles, Ph.D., is co-founder, President and CEO Emerita of the Children & Nature Network, a member of the Paul F-Brandwein Institute Board of Directors, and a member of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Commission on Education and Communication.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

14 Comments

  1. Cheryl — Yours is among the very few treatises on Nature that ties it so nicely to the notion of hope. Thanks for the valuable perspective! I love what you guys are doing and am testing the waters in several ways for the best way I and my blog can jump in.

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  2. John Thielbahr

    Let me be the first to cast my vote for Cheryl Charles for President. You have put so beautifully into words what we all feel and can’t express. I wish I had known Perl Charles. I would have adopted him as my own grandfather, something I missed as a child. I did not miss being in the natural world, however. My mom and dad made sure of that, setting the stage for my own amazing journey with Rich and Cheryl. If we can inspire hope in children and youth, they will inspire hope for all of us. Thank you, Cheryl. Your message arrived just in time. And what a great picture. jt

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  3. I love this concept of the “ecology of hope” and want to call parents’ attention to a great book written by one of my favorite writer’s for children, Vermont’s Katherine Paterson. The book is Bridge to Terabithia and it inspired me to do my master’s thesis at Vermont College on Hope as a Moral Imperative in Children’s Literature. And where does this hope originate? In those special places in nature where we cross the bridge to Terabithia. Thanks for this wonderful piece.

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  4. Cheryl you were fortunate, having a horse at a young age took you places to enjoy, wonder, ponder plus having the guidance of an elder.

    While reading of your experiences and well crafted thoughts my focus turned to personal recollections: Cub Scout Day Camps, Boy Scout Camping and over nght hikes. Later served seven years as a camp counselor and one glorious summer in tht period taking weekly canoe trips for the camp. Years passed, kids grew and we got into backpacking. More years flew by. Retirement brought month long stays in small Suiss villages with hikes accompanied by cow bells, rushing streams and beauty without compare. Now, slow walks with careful steps
    and aching knees. Memories of places, campfires, wildlife, companionship have sustained quiet moments all my life. Seemingly stronger now. Don’t know if I provided hope but did get my offspring to sample the challenges of the real world.

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  5. Cheryl, I agree with these comments and love it being called the “ecology of hope” In our work with children doing animal assisted therapy we looked at various elements to demonstrate effectiveness in our program – empathy, peer relations – and then I ran into this really simple hopefulness scale and I felt that this was truly the factor that we wished that children could improve their sense of hope. It was amazing how in 5- 8 hours of clinical interaction with a therapy animal children responded to feeling an increased sense of hopefulness.
    Just beautifully written Cheryl – and a wonderful reminder of what’s important.

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  6. Cheryl – Thanks you for all you do, say and stand for.

    Without Nature we are not WHOLE, without being whole their is no HOPE, without HOPE their is no FUTURE, without a FUTURE their is no NATURE.

    We are NATURE – embrace it, care for it and share it with a child.

    Cheryl, this is the drum you have been beating since Perl and Tom shared it with you and that you have passed along to scores of others. It is a simple gift, but in the end it is the only gift that is worth passing on. This “new nature movement” is really “an old nature movement” that has been passed from generation to generation for the eons, until now… it is time to follow the lead of the C&NN and rekindle this natural order that Perl passed to Cheryl and she is passing to us.

    Teach a child that —we are nature and in that lies hope for the future!

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  7. Cheryl, I love the photo of you horseback as a child. We are lucky to share that experience – you in New Mexico, me in the Colorado mountains. I see signs of hope everywhere and a willingness to revisit some the wisdom of some of the “old” ways – outside chores, for instance, instilling that sense of purpose and connection to the natural cycles. Hope is what feeds new thought. It is the soil in which new ideas grow. Thank you.

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  8. This is so beautiful and everything I believe in. Our experiences are very similar. I blog about it here: http://www.bloomersisland.com/blog/sage_advice — not to advertise myself as it were, but rather to let you know you have a kindred soul out there. I have been doing video blogs about growing up on a farm in Western, Pennsylvania. I am not a very good cinematographer (I’m getting better with practice), but I wanted to pass along to kids the experience of what is becoming a lost culture in this country. Anyway, thank you so much for sharing and inspiring!

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  9. Thank you for all your hard work. I really enjoyed your article and look for inspiring words everyday. I work as an educator at a wildlife center, http://www.buschwildlife.com and love that I get to work with kids, outside, teaching about nature! thank you again and I look forward to working with this organization also.
    Brenda Nickolaus

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  10. AWESOME! One of the best articles that I have read in a long time. I got choked up – let’s do it!

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  11. Cheryl, Just reading this gives me hope! You describe so clearly the importance of it, something I intuitively know but now you have me thinking already about maybe it is teachable. And that as parents we have a job to do in teaching our kids how to be hopeful, and how to use hope and will positively. In todays social, environmental, political and economic context, it’s all too easy to lose hope, so it#s nice to find it here today. Thanks, Stuart

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  12. Dear Cheryl, beautifully written message. You combine words that are not often brought together with today’s shadows of global warming, habitat loss, and conflict. Your message reminds me that we as humans and caretakers of our planet have the ability to create our own environmental destiny. Our planet will teach us the consequences of our choices but we always have the ability to choose the better way. It is our most important job to clear the path for our children to continue making these choices. It shouldn’t be a struggle to take care of our environment or limit our impact. It should be second nature. Thank you for the reminder. Jenny

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  13. Cheryl, Thanks for your inspiring words about ecology and hope. The world needs more awareness of these ideas. Hope you are continuing to make the world a better place through your work and play. I miss our meetings together. Maybe we can find a way to bump into each other more. Life continues to be that challenge that we want to grow. Opportunities to do good on earth abound. See you next time in the next place. Cliff

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  14. i really like the experience exploration wilds and woods mountains and i wish the similar feeling i hope the world will be better and our Ecology will return step by step us it was before .

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