Native Voices: Reclaiming a Culture through the Traditional Canoe
Nathan Piengkham is a member of the Kalispel Tribe and the Executive Director of The River Warrior Society. Members of the fourth-grade crew interviewed him about his involvement in the resurgence of the traditional canoe. This is the interview transcript.
Can you tell us your name, where you are from, and a little bit about yourself?
My full name is Nathan Samsavath (pronounced Sahm-suh-vat) Piengkham (Pronounced Pink’em). I am from the Kalispell Reservation in Washington State. I was born on the coast near Seattle, in Redmond Washington.
I went to Cusick School, which is a tiny school. There were about 20 kids in my class. I played soccer and baseball. I also did martial arts a lot when I was a kid. My dad is not Native American. My mom is half Native American and half European. My dad is from Laos, near Thailand. So I am half Lao. One of the things Laos is known for is kickboxing and my dad taught me that when I was younger. My uncles taught me Kung Fu and Karate when I was younger. My Uncle Dave was a national Judo champion when he was younger.
I grew up in the mountains so my cousins and I were out in the forest a lot when we were younger. It was really fun. I got see frogs, bugs and turtles.
Many tribes throughout the region have not made a canoe in many years and they are starting to build canoes again. Why and can you tell us what is happening now?
Well, that is kind of a long story. I didn’t know anything about canoes. I actually bought a 12-foot long fiberglass canoe from the store. I never got to paddle it because my uncle had finished building that dugout canoe. So I didn’t even know a lot about the stuff that was going on. A lot of the dams were put in so we didn’t really have a use for our canoes anymore, so no one ever built canoes. We were told not to speak our language, so no one really spoke our language either. We only just started to get a lot of that stuff back. So we are starting to learn our language again. If I were to greet you guys I would say Hest Shulook (xest schulux) or Hest Salhalt (Xest Sxlxalt). That means good day. Then I would say Nathan Piengkham or thlue ease quest (ᴌu i skwest), which means “Nathan Piengkham I am called” if you translate it directly. We just started learning our language so it’s hard to get it all back. It is strange growing up without knowing my language. I knew some of my language growing up, but not a lot of it. So it is cool now to see everybody learning the language. We have a school about the size of your school (Palouse Prairie Charter School, about 180 kids) and the kids learn it from a really young age, so they know it better than I do. So what happened is that one of the tribes on the coast gave the tribes in my area giant cedar logs, maybe 3,000 – 4,000 pound logs. Those logs were sitting there for about two years and no one was doing anything with them. They sit that long because they were actually drying out. When the plants are first cut down, they are still wet, so it takes about two years for logs to dry out. After those two years my uncle and my brother, and a few other people started carving a log. And in 2016 all of the tribes decided that we would paddle together. There were two people named Dan Nanamken and BenAlex Dupri who organized some paddles, but they did not get all of the canoes together. Later they both told me that I was the one who has to take over to organize all of the canoes and the canoe journeys. And I said, “Okay!” And that’s how I am involved in all of this.
When you were a kid, what types of canoes did the tribes that you were most exposed to build and use for transportation?
When I was a kid we didn’t have canoes at all. The canoes that they had before I was young, people aren’t sure about. People thought we had sturgeon nose canoes made out of birchbark, and people thought that was all we had. But we did our own research and we found out that we had birchbark canoes, white pine bark canoes, and another canoe called the tamarack bark canoe. I just found out that we used to have these canoes too. And those are the different bark canoes, but we also had dugout canoes, which is the kind that you guys might have seen us bring out to the Snake River. It’s the kind that starts with a giant log and you carve it out. There are also different types of dugout canoes. There are all different shapes and sizes. We used to have all of those types of canoes.
What happened to the canoes that your ancestors made?
When our ancestors made canoes, it was their canoe. So when they died, they buried them with it. That is why no one every sees canoes anymore is because we would sink them out in the lakes or rivers and they would get buried. There is one dugout canoe in the very bottom of Pend Oreille Lake. It could be part of a burial, so that is why we don’t bother it. So we can’t really see what it looks like.
Why did your tribe stop building canoes?
We stopped building canoes for a long time because people didn’t like to be Native American when I was younger. I am Kalispel, but people didn’t like to be Kalispel. They were ashamed of it because we were really poor. We were put on a reservation where farming wasn’t good, so people couldn’t make any money. So no one wanted to be us because we didn’t have any money and we didn’t have a good place to live. So people didn’t like us to speak our language. Our own parents and grandparents didn’t like us to speak our language. They didn’t like us to do things that our people used to do. Many people were focused on drugs and alcohol and getting into trouble because, out in the mountains there’s not a lot of stuff to do. Normally we would be making canoes because canoes and canoeing out on the water or fishing or picking strawberries and huckleberries was what we always did. We would be doing a lot of fun stuff, but we didn’t have all of that anymore, so people just turned to doing things that they didn’t understand very well, like drugs and alcohol, which is sad.
When was the last canoe made by your tribe?
We don’t know actually. That is not in our history. Right now we have two canoes. One dugout canoe and one white pine bark canoe. And those are the only ones that the Kalispell tribe has that anyone knows about. We used to have more, but nobody knows about them. The thing is we didn’t have a lot of written history, so there are people alive right now who might remember that last canoe, but they can’t remember it unless they are out there canoeing with us. If they are stuck at home, they won’t be able to remember. So maybe hopefully when you guys get to go paddle out on this canoe maybe we can bring some older people and they might remember stuff like that.
Did transport become difficult when you stopped building canoes?
Transport did get a little bit harder. Instead of canoeing down to our family members, we would walk. It wasn’t that big of a deal since we have a tiny reservation and people were starting to buy cars for transportation. Like I said, our tribe was really poor, so all the families would all use one car. They would all pack into one car and drive up and down the reservation Our reservation is not very big. The Kalispell tribe is a small tribe, about 500 of us total. About 150 live on the coast, 150 live in Spokane, and about 150 of us live on the reservation. So there are only about 100 of us who know anything about our history and our ancestors. There are not very many of us left. In 1950 there were less than 150 of us left total. There are not many Kalispels alive anymore, at least that’s what we were always told.
What is the importance of the traditional canoe for you and your tribe?
It’s about learning our history and learning what we should be doing. Instead of turning to drugs and alcohol or other boring stuff, or instead of leaving the tribe and going somewhere else, now people can stay home and work with the canoes. Or they can learn our Salish Language of the Kalispell Tribe, or they can learn how to get the natural foods from our mountains. With the canoes we would fish all the time for fish that were in our area. And we would eat plants that were along the edge of the river, like garlic, onions, or chives. There is a lot of good food on the river. We used to eat oysters or mussels. We would trade with other tribes to get salmon or other types of plants, like water potatoes. A lot of the kids go out in October to get water potatoes, and some of us will take out canoes to get them because water potatoes are in shallow water. But the water is cold so you have to be really tough.
Why after so long did you decide to bring the traditional canoe back?
I didn’t decide, but others were Dan Nanamkin was the first one that was trying to bring it back. He started the River Warrior Facebook page and that’s how everyone originally communicated about canoes. Then BenAlex Dupri, he is a videographer and he makes documentaries. When we left Standing Rock, North Dakota and visited with the tribe up there, he stayed there because of the pipeline protest, which became very well-known throughout the world. Ben Alex made it his mission to stay there and make a documentary there, which just came out not too long ago. Our canoes are in that film for sure. Our canoe families went out there and helped a lot to make sure that the people were taken care of. When he left for Standing Rock, I was left as the only one to take care of the canoe families. I see it bringing a lot of our community together. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) originally for the Kalispell Tribe, the BIA office was on the Nez Perce Reservation. Even though our office was far away from us, it worked really well and we didn’t have any issues. The problem was that when they switched our office to the Spokane agency, suddenly we didn’t get any services anymore and we couldn’t contact the BIA anymore. We don’t know why, but we needed to have a relationship with the Nez Perce Tribe that was far away. Now because of the canoes, we are talking to the Nez Perce Tribe again and visiting people down here in Moscow. The canoes are bringing our communities together. So that is why I chose to stick with the canoe stuff. It is really important for all of our people, our family and our friends.
Was it hard to bring the canoe back, and why or why not?
Yes, it was very difficult to bring the canoes back. Like I mentioned, there were a couple of people trying to help me, but they ended up doing other things and they kind of left me with it. For two years we paddled without any formal support. A lot of people have a school or cultural or language program to help them organize, but at the time I was still in my late 20s and I was really new to organizing and being a leader. I used to be a tutor and I would help people graduate from high school. I would help some of my family members graduate. I also took kids out for activities, like to play basketball, go skateboarding, or go swimming. One time I took a bunch of kids to Yellowstone National Park and we went swimming, but there was a big sign that said “Beware, Vicious Otters May Attack.” And I was like, “What?” There were no vicious otters, but there were leeches, and that was creepy. There were a lot of buffalo wandering around the streets. So it was difficult, but I had a lot of training to learn how to organize people. I went to college for Tribal Administration and Tribal Government. I double majored in Psychology and Philosophy. I took a lot of business, accounting and math classes, but my focus was always psychology and philosophy.
It has been difficult to bring back the canoe. We are still organizing our canoe family. I just started a nonprofit, the River Warrior Society, to help us so that we have an organization to facilitate everything that we’re doing. Some people might think that “Warrior” is aggressive for a name, but “Warrior” could mean a lot of different thing. It’s people who are fighting for a cause, not fighting people. It’s people who are fighting for people’s rights. Your teacher could be an Education Warrior because they are fighting every day to make sure that you get the best education you can get. So as River Warrior, we are fighting to maintain our culture. We are fighting to keep it. And so that we can educate our future generations so everyone can learn about the canoes, not just certain people. If you think about it, it doesn’t matter where your ancestors were from. Wherever they lived in the world, they all lived by a lake or a river or an ocean and they probably had a canoe. So learning this canoe stuff is learning all of our history.
Did the tradition and steps of how to build a canoe fade from your mind as so many years have gone by?
No, the thoughts and processes don’t fade because every time we look at the canoes, we remember what happened. Like my uncle chipped a piece out of the canoe, and every time I see that chip I remember him carving that out too hard and too big. So every time I see it, I remember the techniques and procedures of building the canoe. Every time we go out to paddle, we remember another piece.
Do you build new paddles every time you build a canoe?
We usually try to because the pieces you shave off of the canoe, you can use to make paddles. I have a paddle that is made from the same wood of my canoe. So they are both connected in that way. The cedar log we had was over 800 years old, so that paddle that I have is over 800 years old.
What is the importance of carving paddles?
There is a lot of thought that gets put into making a paddle. Every time you make a carve into it, you remember that. So having your own paddle means that every time you look at it and every time you paddle you remember how to carve. So it is like a teacher. That is one important reason, but also our ancestors did that same thing a long time ago, so at the same time you are learning how to carve a paddle, you are also learning your history. And people make paddles out of different types of wood, and every type of wood you carve differently. If the paddle is super light, you’d have to make it thicker so it doesn’t break. If the wood is super heavy, you can make the paddle really thin because it is really strong so it is not going to break. There is a lot of knowledge about making paddles. What the tribes on the coast would do is that they would make everyone on their team make a paddle, and then they would sell them to raise money to go on a paddle trip. That was how they would raise their money to go on paddles.
To learn more about Nathan and the River Warrior Society, visit https://riverwarriorsociety.org.
Native Voices: Reclaiming a Culture through the Traditional Canoe
Gary Dorr is a member of the Nez Perce Tribe and Chairman of The River Warrior Society. Members of the fourth-grade crew interviewed him about his involvement in the resurgence of the traditional canoe. This is the interview transcript.
What is your full name and where are you from?
My English name is Gary Dorr. My real name is Standing Red Bear. I live in Craigmont, Idaho on the Nez Perce Indian Reservation.
Many Tribes throughout the region have not made a canoe in many years and they are starting to build canoes again. Why is this happening now?
The reason why we are building canoes again, or why we are going back to it, is to reclaim part of our culture. It comes at a time when the culture and the environment are under attack from global warming threats, from pollution. So it makes sense for us to reclaim our authority over the water. And the best way to do that is in the traditional way because our treaties are traditional, traditional words for our ancestors. So we are going back to those words in a good way, the way we would have done it back then with a traditional canoe. Whether it is Kootenai, Coeur d’Alene, Shoshone-Bannock, Paiute, Standing Rock, Rose Bud, or all the coastal tribes, including the Nez Perce, we are all reasserting our authority on the water in a traditional way. So that is why it is coming back.
What types of canoes has your tribe built in the past and what were they used for?
In the past we have done dugout canoes and sometimes we used to burn them out instead of carve them out. I like to tell people that they were our grocery cart, our family car, our post office, and our hunting rigs. We would take them on the river and we would go across the river. Sometimes we’d go just right across the river to go to the other side to gather roots. Sometimes we would take them fishing, even at night time using lanterns with fire, and we would spear fish from it. The other thing we would do is to take them out to lay nets in the water. And we would go all the way to the ocean to gather different shells, to get to where the other fisherman are, and to meet with our other relatives on the coast. We would bring messages back, so that is why the canoe was our post office. And our grocery cart because we would go over and get berries or other roots. It was our hunting rig because before we had trucks we would go hunting in the canoes and gather things.
What happened to the canoes your ancestors made?
Well a lot of different theories on that. Some people say that some people burned them and others say that they buried them in the mud because when the missionaries came here they wanted to get rid of all that culture. So to save it we either burned it ourselves or we buried it in the mud and lakes. We do have four canoes that were made by some Nez Perce elders back in 1913, or somewhere around there. They are in our museum, not on display, but in a separate warehouse. So those are the oldest canoes and the models that we are working off of to make our canoes today.
Do you know why your tribe stopped building canoes?
Again, there are a couple of different theories about why we stopped building canoes and that was probably the missionary influence because when they made the Indian Reservations they wanted us to become farmers. And we used to go from Oregon all the way to Montana, and to Washington, all over the place. We would go with the seasons to different camps. We didn’t stay in on place like a farm house to farm. So in order to keep us doing that they took our horses, they burned down our wickiups and our tipis, and took our boats. They made those things bad to use so we would stay in one spot and become farmers.
Why after so long did you decide to bring the traditional canoe back?
Well we have been trying to bring our language back for years and years and years, and there are quite a few people who are taking our language classes. The other part of that is actually using the language. When we go to ceremonies we use the language. When we go root digging some of the women have songs that they sing when they are digging the roots. So this is just another way for us to expand our culture. A new use for our language is to build this canoe. And we wanted our children to experience this again because people have tried it in the past. I guess abut 1990 someone tried, but they didn’t finish the canoe. So we are going further than they have. It is mainly for our children, so that they can regain that skill.
What is the importance of the traditional canoe for you and your tribe?
It is a symbol. It is a symbol of living with the land. There is nothing man made in the dugout canoe. The paddles are from trees. The canoe is from trees. There is no plastic, no glass, none of that. It takes people to build that. So the importance is gaining our culture and passing it on to our children, also because the children helping us build our canoe have never been in a dugout canoe. So they are going to be the first Nez Perce children in over 113 years to sit in a dugout canoe. It is a big part of our culture because we are surrounded by rivers – the Clearwater, The Salmon, The Snake, The Columbia, The Palouse, all these different rivers and yet we don’t have any canoes left. We want our children to have that back. This is basically our gift to our children and that is why it is important to us.
Is it hard to bring back the canoe, and if so, why?
It is a little bit hard because we don’t have all day to do it. We meet once a week for about three hours so it has taken us a long time. Part of having that canoe sitting exposed for so long is that it’s curing. And as it curing, it is drying out, and it is starting to crack. Because we haven’t sealed it up, because we haven’t finished carving it. So I went through and I sealed what was left on the outside and that helped to stop the cracking. We put some butterfly braces in there along the cracks to keep it from separating more. It is hard with everybody’s work schedule. We are dealing with a traditional craft that was built in three or four days and we are only there for a couple of hours a week, so it has taken us almost a year to get this done. And that is because we are taking a traditional craft and we are combining it with today’s modern work environment and work schedule.
Why did you name your canoe New Medicine?
It is named New Medicine because to us we’ve lost this way. Let me explain what medicine is. Medicine can be words. Medicine can be actual roots, plants, or food. Water is medicine. Prayers are medicine. Giving someone a hug is medicine. You have a good effect and a bad effect and medicine is that effect. So when we built this canoe it is a new medicine to us because none of us have built a canoe in 113 years. To us it is new, but it is actually an old medicine that we are bringing forward. It has always been there for thousands of years, but for us, for me, it is new. So that is why we called it New Medicine.
What is the importance in your tribe to have kids help make canoes or paddles?
It is very important because we are making mistakes on our canoe, but our children are there so next time we are going to teach them a better way of making a canoe. What has happened is we have families now that are coming to the canoe. We have two families that are coming there with their children. My dream is for those people to get a tree in their yard and start building their own family canoe. When they do that, for the children it just becomes natural. Just like every day you brush your teeth, it is a natural thing when you get up in the morning. For children when they want to go camping and go up in the mountains. If they want to come back the easy way, they will find a tree, chop it down and make a canoe. That is how simple the knowledge should be.
How special is it that the kids are helping you?
I think it is really special because children are more pure than we are. When you are born, you are the most pure you are ever going to be. When you are older, you are exposed to things, you have anger, jealousy and all these things that can come the older you get. When you are young, you don’t have all of that. You are just happy. So that brings a good energy to the site where we are building the canoe. They have prayed with the canoe, so I think that is the most important thing. This canoe is a ceremony. Even before we started building it we went into our sweat lodge and prayed for their canoe to come to us. On that day we started the ceremony, and our children are part of that ceremony.
Did the tradition of building a canoe, and the knowledge of how to build it, fade from your mind as the years passed that you didn’t build the traditional canoe?
Yeah it did. For example, when we were here in 1805, when Lewis and Clark first got here. When we sent them down the river, in ten days we built five canoes for them. Ten days. So that’s two days per canoe. That is just as natural as getting up and brushing your teeth. But for us it has taken a year to build. We are getting better at it, but it is something we have to learn. You are not going to learn it until you actually do it. That is why we started to do it, because there is no other way to learn it. You can read it in a book, but until you swing and axe and start carving, until the wood starts to split, you don’t know how to handle that. That is why we are doing it.
What is the importance of carving paddles?
The importance of carving paddles as it was explained to me is that because we worked on these canoes very quickly in three or four days there was a lot of carving going on. So to keep the children from getting hurt while we were swinging axes, we let them carve the paddles. That gave them the hand skills to use a knife, carving tools, whatever we used to carve the canoe to carve the paddle. It kept the children busy while we were doing the heavy work with the log.
What do paddles mean to you in your tribe?
The paddles for us mean the children’s independence. Once we had these small canoes, the children wouldn’t be able to do it unless they had paddles. In order to use the canoe you had to have your own paddles. That makes you independent. And it was the same thing for the people. Sometimes the women had smaller canoes to go across the river. If there canoes were small enough they could use their hands, but if not, they had to have a paddle. So you can have the nicest canoe in the world, but if you don’t have a paddle you aren’t going to be able to go anywhere. So it was about independence.
Historically how long did it take to make a paddle?
Well usually we could make a paddle in maybe a day. For us, the Nimi´ipuu, the Nez Perce, our canoes and our paddles were not fancy. They didn’t look like a piece of art. They were clunky. As long as they worked that was all we cared about. We didn’t put drawings on them. Today we do just because it’s something special for us. But in the past, way back in the day, we built canoes in two days.
What are the steps to making a paddle in your tribe?
First you have to draw it out. The thing with paddles is that normally the children built them because we did a lot of heavy work with the logs. So to keep the children safe while we were working on the canoe the children would be the ones working on the paddles. So we’d trace it out and just let them carve away with knives or sharp points.
With your tribe, traditionally what kinds of shapes and uses did your paddles have?
Normally the first person in the canoe has a pointed paddle that is maybe a little bit skinnier. The reason is that when we pull into shore the first person digs that addle into the dirt, into the shore, and holds the canoe while everyone else gets out. So everyone else should have a rounded paddle. The person in the very back is the one steering the canoe. They might have a little bit longer and thicker paddle because they are pushing and pulling and directing that canoe on a straight line.
Why do you make paddles?
I actually haven’t made a paddle yet. I had someone give me a paddle so I didn’t have to build mine. The reason why we make paddles is when you’re in a canoe, it’s really neat, and you will see this once you are in your canoe, you lay your paddles across the canoe and you can go like a drum beat and sing songs. When you are all going at the same time, that expresses unity. Thump, thump, thump, thump, thump, thump. You can all start on different beats, but if you do it long enough you will find that everybody gets the same beat. It’s a natural thing and we know that. That’s why we do it, to get everybody right in the same mind and get everybody unfied.
Do you build new paddles every time you build a canoe?
I don’t know about every time because this is our first canoe that we have built. We are building a bunch of paddles though. Generally, if you carve your own paddle that goes home with you. We always place the paddle part in the water, but when we lean it up against the wall, we always place that end up and the handle is what touches the floor. And that is just one thing we have learned from our elders. We might have to build paddles again because some of them might break. I think that some people have built their paddle a little bit too thin and when we get on the shore the first paddle on the front of the canoe is always pointed. And the reason for that is when we pull into shore that person digs that paddle into the sand and the dirt and holds the canoe. So that paddle probably will break, because we are down there on the river with e bunch of rocks. So we build them whenever we need them.
Is there anything else that you want us to know about paddles?
The only other thing I want you to know about paddles is to make sure that you guys practice with them on the land first, so that you are all stroking with them at the same time. Because you’re not all on the right side, you’re not all on the left side. So one person will be on the right side, the next person up on the left side, the next person up on the right side, the next person up on the left side. So when you stand in two lines what happens is that the first person in the front of the canoe, when they raise their paddle, everybody on that side behind them raises their paddle, and that way they stroke at the same time. So the person in the front is the one who controls the speed at which you guys are paddling. If you are on the left side you watch the person in front of you, and that person watches the person in front of them, all the way to the front of the canoe. So the person in the front, as soon as they start stroking, everybody on the left side should be stroking at the same time. Same thing on the right side. You watch the person in front of you, they watch the person in front of them, and so on all the way to the front. So you are not clunking paddles, and you’re all going at the same time. That is something you can practice today. Even though your paddles aren’t done, you can practice getting up in two lines, one on the right side and one on the left side, and watch the person in front of you, all the way to the front. That’s so you have more power and so you’re not clunking paddles or mashing anyone’s fingers.
Is there anything about paddles and your tribe specifically that you want the world to know?
We started making our dugout 13 months ago. We started in a ceremony in a sweat lodge and we prayed for this to come in a good way and for everybody to be safe. Building the canoe is part of our ceremony, so our ceremony has been going for 13 months now. When we put the canoe and paddles into the water, it is also a ceremony because we want the Snake River dams to be breached. We have some goals to get those dams out. So we are taking these canoes as a form of prayer. For the paddlers, every stroke, every time they put their paddle in, they are making a prayer. So we say “every pull a prayer.” We are going to break that down. We are going to protect the water. We are going to restore the salmon. Please help us. So that’s probably the difference between just going out recreational boating and a traditional canoe that we’re doing.
To learn more about Gary and the River Warrior Society, visit https://riverwarriorsociety.org.
Everyone Ought to Have a Ditch
“What gets lost, when we focus on facts, are the initiation experiences, the moments of transcendence when the borders between the natural world and ourselves break down.”
by David Sobel
spend a lot of time these days talking with teachers, foundation directors, environmental educators, and evaluators about how to most effectively shape environmental stewardship behavior. The $64,000 question is—what’s the most effective way to educate children who will grow up to behave in environmentally responsible ways? Or, more elaborately, what kinds of learning, or what kinds of experience will most likely shape young adults who want to protect the environment, participate on conservation commissions, think about the implications of their consumer decisions and minimize the environmental footprint of their personal lives and the organizations where they work? There’s a surprising dirth of information about exactly how this process works.
A number of researchers have studied environmentalists to try to determine if there were any similarities in their childhood experiences that contributed to their having strong ecological values and pursuing an environmental career. When Louise Chawla of Kentucky State University reviewed these studies (Chawla 1992), she found a striking pattern. Most environmentalists attributed their commitment to a combination of two sources, “many hours spent outdoors in a keenly remembered wild or semi-wild place in childhood or adolescence, and an adult who taught respect for nature.” Lots of time rambling in neighborhood woods and fields and a parent or teacher who cared about nature were frequently cited as causal forces in the development of their own environmental ethics. In his autobiography about growing up in Denver, lepidopterist Robert Michael Pyle describes the urban semi-wild place the inspired him.
“My own point of intimate contact with the land was a ditch. Growing up on the wrong side of Denver to reach the mountains easily and often, I resorted to the tattered edges of the Great Plains, on the back side of town. There I encountered a century-old irrigation channel known as the High Line Canal. Without a doubt, most of the elements of my life flowed from that canal.
From the time I was six, this weedy watercourse had been my sanctuary, playground and sulking walk. It was also my imaginary wilderness, escape hatch, and birthplace as a naturalist. Later, the canal served as lover’s lane, research site and holy ground of solace. Over the years, I studied its natural history, explored much of its length, watched its habitats shrink as the suburbs grew up around it, and tried to help save some of its best bits…Even when living in national parks, in exotic lands, in truly rural country side, I’ve hankered to get back to the old ditch whenever I could …
Even if they don’t know “my ditch,” most people I speak with seem to have a ditch somewhere—or a creek, meadow, wood lot or marsh—that they hold in similar regard. These are places of initiation, where the borders between ourselves and other creatures break down, where the earth gets under our nails and a sense of place gets under our skin…. It is through close and intimate contact with a particular patch of ground that we learn to respond to the earth, to see that it really matters… Everyone has a ditch, or ought to. For only the ditches—and the fields, the woods, the ravines—can teach us to care enough for the land.” (Pyle, 1993)
One problem, of course, is that every child doesn’t have a ditch, or even if they do, they’re not allowed access to it. As more than half of the world’s children live in urban settings, the availability of ditches, or just urban parklands, is shrinking. Even in rural and suburban settings where patches of woods and ponds are available, parents’ concerns about pollution and abduction make these places unavailable. And so the task of providing access to semi-wild places with the tutelage of caring adults often falls to environmental educators. But as environmental educators seek to professionalize their endeavors and work more closely with schools, they become assimilated into the world of standards, curriculum frameworks and high stakes tests. Learning about the environment becomes ingesting a sequence of facts and concepts that create environmental knowledge. The underlying assumption is that knowledge leads to the creation of attitudes that eventually lead to thoughtful environmental behaviors.
For instance, California’s curriculum guidelines for Understanding the Local Environment starts out with the healthy notion that, “Direct experience in the environment also helps foster the awareness and appreciation that motivate learners to further questioning, better understanding and appropriate concern and action.” This is followed by content guidelines for different grade levels. Here’s an example of a set of related guidelines through the curriculum.
Grades K-4: Identify basic types of habitats (e.g.. forests, wetlands, or lakes). Create a short list of plants and animals found in each.
Grades 5-8: Classify local ecosystems (e.g.. oak-hickory forest or sedge meadow). Create food webs to show, or describe their function in terms of, the interaction of specific plant and animal species.
Grades 9-12: Identify several plants and animals common to local ecosystems. Describe concepts such as succession, competition, predator/prey relationships and parasitism.
This is a developmentally appropriate sequence of knowledge objectives, but there’s an inherent problem. Because these curriculum guidelines are connected to state assessments, the focus often collapses into making sure the students can recite the information. They follow the old Dragnet maxim: “Just the facts, m’am.” As a result, providing the direct experience falls to the wayside. The opportunity to explore the ditch gets replaced by memorizing lists.
Go back to Pyle’s description above to see where the problem lies. From exploring the ditch, he became interested in natural history and then became an advocate for preservation. Sounds like knowledge to attitudes to behavior. My contention, however, is that the crux element in his description is, “These are places of initiation, where the borders between ourselves and other creatures break down, where the earth gets under our nails and a sense of place gets under our skin.” What gets lost, when we focus on facts, are the initiation experiences, the moments of transcendence when the borders between the natural world and ourselves break down. It’s like Dylan Thomas describing “I was aware of myself in the exact middle of a living story, and my body was my adventure and my name.” It’s these experiences that provide the essential glue, the deep motivational attitude and commitment, the sense of place. These in turn fuel the pursuit of knowledge that leads to conservation behavior. John Burroughs puts it simply when he says, “Knowledge without love will not stick. But if love comes first, knowledge is sure to follow.”
Which leads me to my controversial hypothesis. “One transcendent experience in nature is worth 1000 nature facts.” Stated in a slightly more positive form, it may be that one transcendent experience in the landscape has the potential for leading to 1000 nature facts. Maybe even to infinity and beyond. So the question becomes: How do we design family outings, school curriculum, and environmental learning opportunities with an eye towards optimizing the possibility of creating transcendent experiences? Of course, first we have to get a sense of what these transcendent experiences are and if they really make a difference before we can decide that they’re important to pursue.
Writing at the beginning of the 19th century, William Wordsworth was the one of first poets to identify the significance of children’s nature experiences. In his Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood, Woodsworth recalls his boyhood wanderings saying,
There was a time when meadow, grove and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Appareled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
Wordsworth contended that children perceived nature differently from adults and that this mode of perception was a gift rather than a delusion. Their experiences were transcendent in that the individual often felt connected to or merged with the natural world in some highly compelling fashion.
Following Wordsworth’s lead, anthropologist Edith Cobb reviewed the autobiographies of 300 European geniuses and found that many of them described similar kinds of experiences in childhood.
“My position is based upon the fact that the study of the child in nature, culture and society reveals that there is a special period, the little understood, pre pubertal, halcyon, middle age of childhood, approximately from five or six to eleven or twelve, between the strivings of animal infancy and the storms of adolescence—when the natural world is experienced in some highly evocative way, producing in the child a sense of some profound continuity with natural processes….”
It is principally to this middle-age range in their early life that these writers say they return in memory in order to renew the power and impulse to create at its very source, a source which they describe as the experience of emerging not only into the light of consciousness but into a living sense of a dynamic relationship with the outer world. In these memories the child appears to experience a sense of discontinuity, an awareness of his own unique separateness and identity, and also a continuity, a renewal of relationship with nature as process.
Cobb’s description, (a renewal of relationship with nature as process) is surprisingly ecological in character, especially when you recognize that she was writing in the mid 1950’s, well before any ecological theory had developed.
It turns out, however, that these experiences are not limited to geniuses. Two similar, but unconnected studies, document the widespread occurrence of spiritual experiences in nature during childhood. The Original Vision: A Study of the Religious Experience of Childhood by Edward Robinson was conducted by the Religious Experience Research Unit at Oxford University in England in 1977. Visions of Innocence: Spiritual and Inspirational Experiences of Childhood is a study completed by Edward Hoffman in 1992, a practicing psychologist and university professor who solicited descriptions of childhood experiences from adults in the United States and around the world. Hoffman does not reference Robinson’s study, so they appear to be quite independent, though their findings are absolutely resonant.
Robinson’s British study was based on adult responses to a published query in newspapers asking people if they had ever “felt that their lives had in any way been affected by some power beyond themselves.” Of 4000 responses, about 15% described childhood experiences and a significant proportion of these occurred in nature. Robinson analyzes these is a chapter entitled Nature Mysticism. Hoffman’s study similarly requested respondents, “Can you recall any experiences from your childhood—before the age of fourteen—that could be called mystical or intensely spiritual?” Again, though no mention was made of nature, a significant proportion of the experiences described are nature-based.
Both authors describe that these are accounts written by adults of childhood experiences. Many of the writers suggest that though the childhood experience was monumental in significance, they had no way of describing the experience in childhood. They were swept up in a wave of awe, but had no way to tell their parents what they had felt. Robinson and Hoffman both acknowledge the possibility of the experience being reshaped by years of memory, but the similarity of the descriptions suggests an integrity to the original experience. Let’s dip into some of the experiences.
“Through the spring, summer and autumn days from about the age of seven, I would sit alone in my little house in the tree tops observing nature around me and the sky overhead at night. I was too young to be able to think and reason in the true sense, but with the open receptive mind of a young, healthy boy I slowly became aware of vague, mysterious laws in everything around me. I must have become attuned to nature. I felt these laws of life and movement so deeply they seemed to saturate my whole mind and body, yet they always remained just beyond my grasp and understanding.”
(68 year old male)
“When I was about eleven years old, I spent part of a summer holiday in the Wye Valley. Waking up very early one bring morning, before any of the household was about, I left my bed and went to kneel on the window-seat, to look out over the curve which the river took just below the house…The morning sunlight shimmered on the leaves of the trees and on the rippling surface of the river. The scene was very beautiful, and quite suddenly I felt myself on the verge of a great revelation. It was if I had stumbled unwittingly on a place where I was not expected, and was about to be initiated into some wonderful mystery, something of indescribable significance. Then, just as suddenly, the feeling faded. But for the brief seconds while it lasted, I had known that in some strange way I, the essential ‘me’, was a part of the trees, of the sunshine, and the river, that we all belonged to some great unity. I was left filled with exhilaration and exultation of spirit. This is one of the most memorable experiences of my life, of a quite different quality and greater intensity than the sudden lift of the spirit one may often feel when confronted with beauty in Nature.”
The comments of the woman above illustrate Edith Cobb’s notion of discontinuity or unique separateness and continuity or oneness with nature. The woman sitting at the window describes “the essential me” (her unique separateness) being unified with the trees, the sunshine and the river, (continuity with nature). I contend that this sense of deep empathy, of being saturated with nature, yet unique and separate, is one of the core gifts of middle childhood. The sense of continuity provides the foundation for an empathic relationship with the natural world and the sense of separateness provides a sense of agency, of being able to take responsible action for the natural world. The deep bond creates a commitment to lifelong protection. The next question then might be: Are these experiences really specific to childhood? These next two recollections suggest the narrowness of the developmental window of opportunity.
“The only aspect in which I think my childhood experience was more vivid than in later life was in my contact with nature. I seemed to have a more direct relationship with flowers, trees and animals, and there are certain particular occasions which I can still remember in which I was overcome by a great joy as I saw the first irises opening or picked daisies in the dew-covered lawn before breakfast. There seemed to be no barrier between the flowers and myself, and this was a source of unutterable delight. As I grew older, I still had a great love of nature and like to spend holidays in solitary places, particularly in the mountains, but this direct contact seemed to fade, and I was sad about it. I was not quite able to grasp something which was precious.”
From a thirty-three year old German woman who grew up an urban setting.
“Our home was in the city, but fortunately we lived only a few minutes away from a beautiful park with many kinds of flower….On Sundays, we made trips regardless of the weather to the nearby Harz Mountains…
I can’t remember if my parents ever told me that nature is alive or has a certain spirit. But I always felt that nature had a definite soul. In our backyard an old maple tree stood, and I used to climb up it and spend many hours amid its branches. I would hug this old tree, and I always felt that it spoke to me. Its branches and leaves were like arms hugging and touching me, especially on windy days.
Not only the trees could speak to me, but also all the plants, streams and even the stones…When I would find an especially beautiful rock on the road, I would take it, feel it, observe it, smell it, taste it and then listen to its voice. Afterward, I would return happily to my parents and relate what the trees or flowers, rocks or brook had told me. They would find this amusing, and were proud of their daughter’s imagination…
Then school began, and everything changed. Because of my intense involvement with nature, I couldn’t relate well to other children who seemed silly and babyish to me. They found me strange and funny. But even harder was the change at home. Now (my parents) denied everything. ‘What nonsense! The rocks can’t talk! Don’t let anybody hear this, because they’ll think you’re crazy.’ How right my parents were. I found out one day when my classmates saw me talking to a big chestnut tree in front of the schoolyard. Not only did they ridicule me, but they told the teacher, who requested a meeting with my parents the next day…
My parents recounted the conversation to me and clearly showed how ashamed they were ‘to have such a crazy child.’ From that day onward, my magic was systemically ruined or destroyed… So it happened, that I started believing that nature was mute and couldn’t speak to me.”
The window of opportunity is both developmental and cultural. The account of the first woman parallels the account of the 14 year old in the previous chapter describing how, at adolescence, she was just no longer able to capture the sense of transcendence after a certain age. The account of the German woman suggests that even when a child has a particular disposition towards transcendent experiences, the cultural context only tolerates this kind of magical thinking up through the end of early childhood. It’s like imaginary friends—up till about seven they’re cute, after seven they become indicative of a child’s avoidance of reality.
Both Robinson’s and Hoffman’s studies are filled with similar descriptions. They become almost boring in their similarity, but that’s the interesting part. They seem to reveal a reasonably common propensity towards transcendent experiences during middle childhood. Now, no longitudinal studies have been done to assess whether these people behave in a more ecologically responsible fashion in adulthood than the general population. My speculation, however, is that once you’ve felt continuous, and at one with the natural world, it will powerfully compel you to environmental ethics and behavior. Therefore, it follows, that if we want to develop environmental values, we should try to optimize the opportunity for transcendent nature experiences in middle childhood. Tall order? That’s where the children and nature design principles come in handy.
David Sobel is a Senior Faculty in the Education Department at Antioch University New England. He also coordinates Antioch’s new Nature-based Early Childhood program. Through his writing, speaking, and teaching, Through his writing, speaking, and teaching, David plays a major role in what has become a national movement promoting place-based education, an approach that has blossomed—from studying biology in the school yard to creating mapping businesses, and other neighborhood services. Each is an exercise in changing the way students learn about the environment and their place in it. David advocates using students’ home turf to study topics and issues related to sustainability, not just ecology but also local history, culture, and the economy. David is the author of a number of books including Children’s Special Places and Beyond Ecophobia.
Photo by Erin Hensel Schneider, Anchorage, Alaska.
A Pedagogy for Ecology
by Ann Pelo
s a teacher, I want to foster in children an ecological identity. I believe this identity, born in a particular place, opens children to a broader connection with the Earth; love for a specific place makes possible love for other places. An ecological identity allows us to experience the Earth as our home ground, and leaves us determined to live in honorable relationship with our planet.
We live in a culture that dismisses the significance of an ecological identity, a culture that encourages us to move around from place to place and that posits that we make home by the simple fact of habitation, rather than by intimate connection to the land, the sky, the air. Any place can become home, we’re told. Which means, really, that no place is home.
This is a dangerous view. It leads to a way of living on the Earth that is exploitative and destructive. When no place is home, we don’t mind so much when roads are bulldozed into wilderness forests to make logging easy. When no place is home, a dammed river is regrettable, but not a devastating blow to the heart. When no place is home, eating food grown thousands of miles away is normal, and it is easier to ignore the cost to the planet of processing and shipping it.
Finding a Place
Our work as teachers is to help children to braid their identities together with the place where they live by calling their attention to the air, the sky, the cracks in the sidewalk where the Earth bursts out of its cement cage. For me, teaching in a childcare program in Seattle located next to a canal that links Lake Union and Puget Sound, “place” means the smell of just-fallen cedar boughs and salty, piquant air, the sweet tartness of blackberries (and the scratch of blackberry thorns), the light gray of near-constant clouds, the rough-voiced calls of seagulls, and the rumble of boat engines. It is exhilarating to offer children this place as home ground.
Other places are less compelling as home ground. What does it mean to do this work of connecting children to place when the immediate environment numbs rather than delights the senses? What can we embrace in a school neighborhood dominated by concrete, cars, and convenience stores?
Children’s worlds are small, detailed places—the crack in the sidewalk receives their full attention, as does the earthworm flipping over and over on the pavement after rainfall. Children have access to elements of the natural world that many adults don’t acknowledge. When we, like the children, tune ourselves more finely, we find the natural world waiting for us: cycles of light and dark, the feel and scent of the air, the particularities of the sky—these are elements of the natural world that can begin to anchor us in a place.
Rather than contribute to a sense of disconnection from place by writing off the environments around our most urban schools as unsalvageable or not worth knowing, teachers can instill in children an attitude of attention to the natural world in their neighborhoods. The sense of care for and connection to place becomes the foundation for a critical examination of how that place has been degraded. Rick Bass, in The Book of Yaak, describes his experience of the interplay between love of place and willingness to see the human damage done to that place: “As it became my home, the wounds that were being inflicted upon it—the insults—became my own.”
Every child lives someplace. And that someplace begins to matter when we invite children to know where they are and to participate in the unfolding life of that place—they come to know the changes in the light and the feel of the air, and participate in a community of people who speak of such things.
Cultivating an Ecological Identity
Children know how to live intimately in place; they allow themselves to be imprinted by place. They give themselves over to the natural world, throwing endless rocks into a river, digging holes that go on forever, poking sticks into slivers of dirt in pavement, finding their way up the orneriest tree. They learn about place with their bodies and hearts. We can underscore that intuited, sensual, experiential knowledge by fostering a conscious knowledge of place.
How do we cultivate a love of place in young children’s hearts and minds, moving beyond the tenets of recycling to intimate connection with their home ground? From my experiences as a childcare teacher, I’ve distilled a handful of principles.
• Walk the land.
• Learn the names.
• Embrace sensuality.
• Explore new perspectives.
• Learn the stories.
• Tell the stories.
My primary work is as a teacher in a full-day, year-round childcare program in an urban Seattle neighborhood that serves families privileged by race, class, and education. I’ve also worked closely with teachers and children in urban Head Start programs. The principles I suggest resonate in these widely varying contexts; all children deserve home ground.
Walk the Land
Contemporary U.S. culture is about novelty and fast-moving entertainment: a million television channels to surf, and news stories that flash bright and burn out fast. This disposition to move quickly and look superficially translates to a lack of authentic engagement with the Earth: Get to as many national parks as we can in a two-week vacation, drive to a scenic view, take some photos, and drive to the next place.
As teachers, we must be mindful of this cultural disposition to superficial knowledge. It’s easy to fall into the habit of aiming for novelty, offering children many brief encounters with places, experiences that leave them familiar with the surface, but not the depths. Instead, we ought to invite children to look below the surface, to move slowly, to know a place deeply.
For many years, my emphasis in planning summer field trips was to get to as many city parks and beaches as I could. Each week, we’d head out to two or three different places, so that by the end of the summer we’d taken a grand tour of the city. I thought that by visiting a range of places in Seattle, the children would come to know their city. We had a hoot on those trips, but each place was a first encounter, and offered novelty rather than intimacy. The children came away from those summers not so much with a sense of place as with confusion about how these various places fit together to make up their home ground. We’d skimmed the surface of Seattle, but didn’t know its depths.
Now, my emphasis has shifted. I plan regular visits to the same two or three places over the course of a year. Spending time at the same park and the same beach, we see it change throughout the year. I point out landmarks on the beach to help the children track the tide’s movement up and down the beach. At the park, we choose a couple of trees that we visit regularly; we take photos and sketch them to help us notice the nuances of their seasonal cycles. From the top of a big rock at the park, the children play with their shadows on the ground below, noticing how shadow and light change over the year. The children greet the rhododendron bushes like dear old friends, and know the best places to find beetles and slugs.
My commitment to walking the land consciously with children has changed how I walk with them to the park in our neighborhood. I used to focus our walk on getting there efficiently and safely, and chose our route accordingly. Now, I’ve charted a longer route, one that takes us past a neighbor’s yard full of rosemary and lavender and tall wild grasses. We take our time walking past this plot of earth, and I coach the children to point out what they notice about this familiar place. I worried that the children would become bored, walking the same path every day, or would stop seeing the land, so I developed several rituals for our walk. We pause at the rosemary to monitor changes in its fragrance, buds, and foliage, and to watch for the arrival of spit bugs, whose foamy nests delight the children. We pause at the wild grass to compare its growth to the children’s growth, an inexact but joyfully chaotic measurement.
Learn the Names
When we talk about the natural world, we often speak in generalities, using categorical names to describe what we see: “a bird,” “a butterfly,” “a tree.” We are unpracticed observers, clumsy in our seeing, quick to lump a wide range of individuals into broad, indistinct groups. These generalities are a barrier to intimacy: a bird is a bird is any bird, not this red-winged blackbird, here on the dogwood branch, singing its unique song.
Most of us don’t have much of a repertoire of plant, insect, animal, tree, or bird names; I sure don’t. For many years, I wasn’t particularly interested in learning the names of the flora and fauna, and imagined that learning the names would be a chore, a tedious exercise in memorization. When I turned 40 and visited Utah’s red rock desert, it awakened me to a passionate love, born in my eastern Washington childhood, which I’d forgotten, or never consciously acknowledged: love for a spacious, uncluttered horizon, love for dirt, rock, and sage, for heat and dust and stars, for open sky. Being there taught me that learning the names is an exercise in love. I was in an entirely unfamiliar place, and had only the clumsiest of generic names for what I encountered: a bush, a rock, a lizard. As I began to fall in love with the red rock desert, I wanted to know everything about it, including the names it holds. I bought a field guide and began to learn the names—the identities—of the plants, the creatures, the types of rock. Each name was a step closer into relationship. The names helped me locate myself in the desert.
I carry a field guide to the Pacific Northwest with me now, when I’m out with the children in my group. We take it with us when we walk to the school playground around the corner, and when we go farther afield. We turn to it when we encounter a bug we don’t recognize or find an unfamiliar creature revealed by a low tide. And I’ve created lotto and matching games from the field guide, photocopying images of familiar trees, birds, marine creatures. We use the images for matching games and bingo games: Together, we’re learning the names of this place that is our shared home ground.
In a culture that values intellect more than intuition or emotion, typical environmental education too often emphasizes facts and information in lieu of experience. Plenty of plastic animals, nature games, videos, and books for children invite them to intellectualize—and commodify—the natural world. Teacher resource catalogues offer activity books and games that teach about endangered species, rain forest destruction, pollution, and recycling. These books and games keep the natural world at a distance.
To foster a love for place, we must engage our bodies and our hearts—as well as our minds—in a specific place. Intellectual and critical knowledge needs a foundation of sensual awareness, and, for very young children, sensual awareness is the starting place for other learning. How does the air feel on your skin? What birds do you hear on the playground?
A friend of mine taught in a Head Start program in a housing development that had been the scene of several shootings, and that had more graffiti than green. She wrestled with how to stir children’s numbed senses awake in that harsh landscape where playing outdoors was dangerous. She decided to bring the sensual natural world into her classroom. She added cedar twigs to the sand table, and chestnuts, and stems of lavender. She included pinecones and seashells in the collection of play dough toys. She supplemented her drama area with baskets of rocks and shells, and included tree limbs, driftwood, stumps, and big rocks in her block area. She played CDs of birds native to the Northwest. And in early fall each year, she welcomed the children to her program with feasts of ripe blackberries, making jam and cobbler with the children, telling them about her adventures picking the blackberries in a wild bramble in the alley behind her apartment building.
Explore New Perspectives
Living in a place over time can breed a sense of familiarity, and familiarity can easily slip into a belief that we’ve got the land figured out. We stop expecting to be surprised, to be jolted into new ways of seeing; we become detached from the vitality of a place.
Our challenge is to see with new eyes, to look at the familiar as though we’re seeing it for the first time. When we look closely and allow ourselves to be surprised by unexpected details and new insights, we develop an authenticity and humility in our experience of place, and wake up to its mysteries and delights.
Several years ago, one of the 4-year-old children in my group posed a simple question: Why do the leaves change color? Her question startled me awake: I saw the transformation of color through her eyes, a phenomenon consciously witnessed only once or twice in her young life, and one full of mystery and magic. Her question deserved my full attention, not a recital of the muddled information that I remembered from my science classes in school, and not a quick glance at an encyclopedia. Madeline’s question launched our group on an in-depth study of the lives of leaves that carried us through the seasons.
My co-teacher, Sandra, and I took the children on a walk through the neighborhood to study the trees. Moving from one tree to the next, we began to see a pattern, and shared our observation with the children: the leaves on the outermost branches began to change color before the leaves in the center of the tree. The children built on our observation, adding what they’d noticed: The leaves first changed color on their outermost edges, while the center of the leaves remained green. I suggested that we gather leaves to bring back to our room, where we could study them up close and record what we observed, sketching the details that we saw and adding nuances of color with watercolor paint. As we sketched the lines of the leaves, children pointed out the resemblance between the skeletal lines of leaves—the “bones” of a leaf, the children called them—and the tendons and lines on our hands: “The lines of the leaf feel like human bones.” “The lines are like the lines on our hands.” Excited by the children’s observations, I suggested that we sketch our hands, just as we’d sketched the leaves, knowing that our sketching would help us see ourselves in new ways, as cousins to leaves.
As we sketched, I asked the children to reflect on why the leaves change color in the autumn. “What is it about autumn that makes leaves change from green to red, orange, brown?” The children generated several theories: “In the fall, it’s cold. Leaves huddle together on the ground to get warm. The trees are cold because they don’t have any leaves to keep them warm.” “The color is a coat to keep the leaves warm, because it’s cold in the fall.”
From this analysis, one child made a leap that deepened our conversation: “Leaves get sad when they start to die.” From this decidedly unscientific conjecture, the children forged a potent connection to the leaves: “Like we give comfort to others when they’re sad, the plant needs comfort.” “I think a hug would help a leaf, and being with the leaf.” “Maybe you could stay with it. You just give it comfort before it dies.” “When it drops on the ground, that’s when it needs you.”
At Hilltop, we use an emergent pedagogy, developing curriculum from the children’s questions and pursuits. In our study of the lives of leaves, I experienced the value of this pedagogy, as we lingered with questions, theories, and counter-theories, and with our not knowing. Our emergent curriculum framework allowed us to explore Madeline’s question in the spirit in which it was posed: a question about the meaning of change and the identity of leaves. Through our exploration, we became intimates of leaves, anchored in our place.
Learn the Stories
To foster an intimate relationship with place, we need to know the stories and histories that are linked to that place, just as we do in our intimate relationships with people. In our work with young children, our focus in gathering these stories is as much about the children’s imaginings as it is about scientific facts. We can invite their conjectures to complement the facts, opening the door to heartfelt connections.
Visiting a Head Start program one afternoon, I watched Natalie catch ants on the asphalt slab that served as the program’s playground. She hovered over a crack in the pavement, carefully picking up each ant that crawled from the crack and dropping it into a bucket. Curious about her intention, I asked what she was planning for the ants: “They’re bugs and we hafta kill them.” I imagined contexts in her life in which this could be true: Had her family dealt with invasive insects at home? Had she experienced the pain of bee stings and itch of mosquito bites? I wanted respectfully to acknowledge these sorts of experiences, yet I didn’t want them to become her only references for understanding and relating to the natural world. I said, “Sometimes, when bugs come into our houses, we have to kill them to keep ourselves healthy. And some bugs can bite us in painful ways. But sometimes we don’t have to worry so much about the bugs we find. I’m curious about these ants. Where do you suppose they come from?”
Natalie was quick to imagine the ants’ story: “The ants are in the hole talking. If they hear loud noises, they won’t come out. We have to be very quiet! If they see us, they stay in because they’re scared. When one ant wasn’t looking, I got him! I’m faster than them—that’s how I catch them.”
“What’s in the hole that the ants come from?” I asked.
“Maybe their family,” Natalie mused. I offered her a clipboard and a pen, and invited her to draw what she imagined was in the hole. She began to sketch, talking aloud as she worked: “They’re a family. They talk to each other and bring food to their baby. In the house, there’s food and a table and a bed and a seat.”
Natalie stopped drawing to look into her bucket: “There’s 15 ants in the bucket! That’s more than one family. That’s a lot of families. They share one house in the hole. The ants come not fast because they’re talking, saying their plan to come out to see what’s outside. They want to find their family that’s in the bucket. The ants in the bucket want to get out of the bucket and go to their family.”
Natalie abruptly dumped the bucket upside down next to the crack in the pavement, and tapped it on its bottom. “Go home, ants! Go to your home. Go to your family.”
When I invited Natalie to imagine the ants’ story it helped her see her bucket from the inside as well as from above, and shifted her relationships with the ants. She moved from a defensive posture to that of being a protector. Particularly for children living in places where the natural world is degraded or dangerous, imagining the stories of a place can inspire new possibilities; it casts children into an active role as people who care about and take action on behalf of a place.
Tell the Stories
We’re often encouraged to see the Earth as landscape, which is scenery—something to look at, but not to participate in. But when we collapse the distance between the land and ourselves and allow ourselves to become part of the story of a place, we give ourselves over to intimacy. This can be our work with young children—weaving them into the story of the place where they live.
One way I’ve begun trying to link the children to the land is by using observable markers anchored in place to measure our lives. “You’ll start kindergarten in the fall, when the blackberries are ripe.” “Christmas comes in the darkest part of winter, when the sun sets while we’re still at school, and the sun doesn’t rise until we’re back at school the next morning.”
And I’ve been playing a game with the children that I learned from Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods, “The Sound of a Creature Not Stirring.” We listen for the sounds we don’t hear (a leaf changing color, an earthworm moving through the soil, blackberries ripening)—a way to focus our attention on the Earth around us and to participate in what’s happening in it.
A Foundation for Action
In The Pine Island Paradox: Making Connections in a Disconnected World, Kathleen Dean Moore writes, “Loving isn’t just a state of being, it’s a way of acting in the world. Love isn’t a sort of bliss, it’s a kind of work. . . . Obligation grows from love. It is the natural shape of caring.” She writes: “To love a person or a place is to take responsibility for its well-being.”
From love grows action. In my work with young children, I share stories of local environmental activists who have used their love of place to fuel their action. For example, I tell the story of a group of children and their families who launched a campaign to save the cedar tree at the school playground where we often play.
Children have loved the cedar tree at Coe School for a long time; children played at this tree even before you were born. One year, a mom was at a community meeting and learned that the city park department was planning to cut down the tree because it was damaging the asphalt on the playground with its big roots. She told the children in her daughter’s kindergarten class, and those children and their families decided that they had to work to protect the cedar tree and to help the park department find another way to fix the problem of broken asphalt. The children and their families wrote letters to the city workers, telling them about how much they loved the cedar tree, and sharing their ideas for taking good care of the tree and the pavement on the playground. They had a meeting with the city workers, who hadn’t known that the tree was important to the children. After the meeting, the city workers decided not to cut down the tree; they made a plan with the children and their families and the other kids at Coe School about how they could work together to fix the asphalt and take care of the tree.
I watch for opportunities for the children to add their own chapters to the story of activism on behalf of beloved places. I want them to see themselves as part of a community of people anchored by fierce and determined love of place and who take responsibility for its well-being.
The poet Mary Oliver instructs us on how to open the natural world to children: “Teach the children. Show them daisies and the pale hepatica. Teach them the taste of sassafras and wintergreen. The lives of the blue sailors, mallow, sunbursts, the moccasin flowers. And the frisky ones—inkberry, lamb’s quarters, blueberries. And the aromatic ones—rosemary, oregano. Give them peppermint to put in their pockets as they go to school. Give them the fields and the woods and the possibility of the world salvaged from the lords of profit. Stand them in the stream, head them upstream, rejoice as they learn to love this green space they live in, its sticks and leaves and then the silent, beautiful blossoms. Attention is the beginning of devotion.”
And devotion is the beginning of action.
Ann Pelo is a teacher educator, program consultant, and author whose primary work focuses on reflective pedagogical practice, social justice and ecological teaching and learning, and the art of mentoring. She is the author of five books, including The Goodness of Rain: Developing an Ecological Identify in Young Children; Rethinking Early Childhood Education/ and The Language of Art: Inquiry-based Studio Practices in Early Childhood Settings.
This article is reprinted with permission from A People’s Curriculum for the Earth: Teaching Climate Change and the Environmental Crisis, edited by Bill Bigelow and Tim Swinehart. Available from www.rethinkingschools.org.