In 1956, Rachel Carson published an essay about experiencing the seashore with her young nephew; Carson’s “Help Your Child to Wonder” established the rich literary possibilities of exploring beaches, seashells, and the night sky with a small boy.
Inspired by Carson’s clear-eyed vision and the rich traditions of American environmental literature, an unexpected kind of nature writing is emerging — one that focuses on the relationships between people and the natural world, reflecting the diverse and sometimes disparate ways that one generation shares the earth with another.The new genre reflects many distinct voices from wide-ranging geographic, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds. Established and emerging authors speak of experiencing mountains, gardens, rivers, or a handful of stones with children or in their own childhoods.
They write as parents, grandparents, uncles, friends, teachers, and former children, sometimes passing back in forth in time to reflect on both the mutable and the timeless aspects of growing up. The nature they encounter is defined expansively, including wild places little touched by humans, places like wooded edges around farmland with limited or recovering human impacts or parks, backyards, and other places essentially crafted by people for their own use and sometimes degraded by human activity.
As reflected in the new anthology, Companions in Wonder, the appearance of this genre is opportune, we believe, in light of growing awareness that outdoor experiences are not luxuries but necessities for children. Today’s parents and grandparents feel acutely the radical shift in childhood—away from tree houses and firefly-catching and toward computer games and Twitter. Solid data are accruing that back the value of nature experiences for children throughout their development, and pioneering research and theory in the field are presented in Peter Kahn’s and Stephen Kellert’s Children and Nature: Psychological, Sociocultural, and Evolutionary Investigations.
But few studies have yet to examine how, when, and where parents and other adults can help make child-nature connections. A topic so complex, diverse, and dynamic will take decades to investigate in a methodical way. Given the pace of the movement and, especially, the urgency of the need, it seems vital to present alternative sources of insight into intergenerational environmental relationships.
Our hope is for action as much as inspiration. No small part of that practical value will be a strengthening and healing of adults’ relationships with the nonhuman world.
Rachel Carson held that the muddy knees we earn exploring with children bring not only reflected joy from a young companion but rebirth of our own wonder and awe. Outdoors together, you and a child can share the palpability of tracks in the sand—the mystery of who made them and why the creature has gone away. In that regenerating circle of responsiveness lie answers to many of the environmental crises we now confront.
The philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore sees Carson’s sense of wonder as a moral virtue that compels us to honor and celebrate the earth. As Moore asserts, “The same impulse that says, this is wonderful, is the impulse that says, this must continue.” Even as a walk in the woods can be an antidote for a child’s nature deficit disorder, sharing that walk between generations is a prescription against deforestation, dwindling biodiversity, climate change, and other ills afflicting our planet. It is not yet moribund, despite an escalating barrage of alarms, and Carson would have shared our yearning for a vibrant recovery. Leading a child to nature seems an elemental step. As Carson says, “Wonder and humility are wholesome emotions, and they do not exist side by side with a lust for destruction.” By cultivating a child’s wonder, you are cultivating a future of hope.
This essay is adapted with permission from “Companions in Wonder: Children and Adults Exploring Nature Together,” edited by Julie Dunlap and Stephen R. Kellert, MIT Press, 2012.
More insight into family bonding through nature:
Photo: The Swaisgoods, family nature club pioneers in San Diego.