The Boy With No Toys

why toys are bad for kids, overstimulated kids,

Image courtesy of eyeofboa.deviantart.com

Before he was born, his mother decided her son would have no toys. Abandoned by the father, she was already a single parent. She made a living cleaning for other people. Most days she took the bus to affluent streets where children never seemed to play outside. As she vacuumed and scrubbed beautiful homes overfilled with possessions she paid close attention to what children did all day. Often they were gone at lessons, after school programs, or playdates. When they were home they usually sat staring at screens. Toys in their carefully decorated rooms appeared to be tossed around as if the small owners had no idea how to play, only how to root restlessly for entertainment.

She thought about it, talked to the oldest people she knew, and read everything she could. Then she informed anyone who cared to listen that her child would not have toys. Not a single purchased plaything.

Will (name changed) and his mother live in a small mobile home park. By most standards they are poor. Their income is well below the poverty line. They don’t have a TV or computer (although Will uses the computer at the library and watches the occasional TV program at babysitters’ homes). But their lives are rich in what matters. Together Will and his mom grow food on several shares of a community garden, bartering when they have extra produce. They make all their meals from scratch. These routines activate a whole array of learning opportunities for Will, quite naturally.

They are close to most of their neighbors in proximity as well as in friendliness. While his mother is working Will is cared for by several different seniors in their trailer park. He not only likes to help his mother garden, cook, and take care of their small home but he also likes to take part in helping his neighbors with small tasks. He carries groceries for certain ladies, helps an older gentleman with a birdhouse building hobby, and sometimes gets to assist another neighbor in automotive repairs.  He gets a lot out of these meaningful tasks.  Children long to take on real responsibility and make useful contributions. Giving them these opportunities promotes their development in important ways.

Sounds nice. But what about play?

natural play best for kids, free play, no toys,

Image courtesy of karenelrick.deviantart.com

When Will was a baby his mother made all sorts of toys. Most took no time at all. Food containers became stacking toys, a small water bottle with beans inside became a rattle, a sock stuffed with drier fuzz and tied in knots became a soft animal.

Will is now six years old. He plays as any child naturally does. He makes up games and turns all sorts of objects into toys. His mother saves money by not owning a car, so Will has commandeered a large portion of the shed that would normally be used as a garage. Mostly he uses it to stockpile his own resources. He has scrap wood, a few tools, and cans of nails. He likes to straighten bent nails for future projects, working carefully now that he recently discovered what smacking his fingers with a hammer feels like. Recently he found a discarded lawn mower tire, so he’s looking for three more tires to make a go-cart. In the evenings he likes to draw elaborate pictures of this upcoming project. He particularly enjoys playing in the soft dirt along the side of the shed where “robot men” he makes out of kitchen utensils use their potato peeler and wisk limbs to churn through the soil, leaving tracks as they clink. When he visits friends he happily plays with their toys, although he doesn’t always “get” that certain TV or movie-themed toys are limited to the plot-related storylines. So far he seems to have no urge to possess the same toys.

What about birthdays and holidays? Will’s mother does give him gifts. But she limits her gifts to useful items—crayons, clothes, tools, a compass. Each weekend her folk band practices at their mobile home. Will quickly mastered the harmonica and begged for time on the fiddle, so her big gift to him this year was a used child-sized fiddle. She urges the other adults in his life to gift him with experiences—a trip to the beach, a day of horseback riding, a visit to a museum. Out-of-town relatives now renew a children’s magazine subscription and send him regular snail mail letters, both of which are helping him learn to read with very little prompting.

natural child development,

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Will’s childhood has a lot in common with the way children have learned and grown throughout history. As historian Howard Chudacoff notes in Children at Play: An American History, play is vital to development. It’s has everything to do with autonomy, exploration, imagination, and fun. It has very little to do with purchased playthings. In fact, structured programs and commercial toys actually tend to co-opt play.

Studies with rodents show those raised in enriched environments (toys and changing items in cage) have enhanced brain development compared to rats raised in a standard environment (plain cage, unchanging). We’ve misinterpreted these results. Rats don’t naturally live in boring, unchanging cages. They live in nature, which is by definition a challenging often constantly changing environment. In nature rats have far more complex lives than they ever might in a cage. Such an interesting life IS an enriched environment. It’s the same for children.

Sure there are devices that will “read” to a child. These are not more enriching than being read to by a responsive adult. And there are all sorts of adult-designed games. They’re not more fun or enticing than games kids make up on their own or with friends.

In fact, the overstimulation of blinking, beeping, passive entertainment isn’t beneficial for children. Joseph Chilton Pearce wrote in Evolution’s End: Claiming the Potential of Our Intelligence that the overload of television, electronics, and too many toys dooms children to limited sensory awareness. Their brains and nervous systems accommodate intense bursts of sound, light, and color during their earliest years. Rather than developing the subtle awareness fostered by time spent in nature, in conversation, and in play they instead are wired to expect overstimulation. Without they’re bored.

And yet, so many people are amused when tiny children are clearly pushed to the limits by a toy too overwhelming for them

The children Will’s mother cleans for, who are kept busy in adult-run programs and spend their spare time with electronic distractions, don’t have Will’s advantages. As he plays and innovates he’s actually promoting the kind of learning that translates to a lifetime of passionate interests. Studies show that children who are free to explore their interests without adult pressure and interference  are more autonomous, eagerly pursuing excellence through healthy engagement rather than heavy-handed adult pressure.

Ask the oldest person you know to share some memories about play from his or her childhood. Chances are you’ll hear about pick-up games, handmade toys, and free time that spun long summer days into marvels of imagination. That’s what Will’s mother wants for her child.

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Published in Natural Life Magazine Nov/Dec 2011

7 Ways To Access Your Body’s Unique “Knowing”

developing body based awareness, raising consciousness, paying attention,

Ever notice that the smallest children seem to be one with their bodies? Unlike us, they don’t value their thoughts over their senses. They also don’t get caught up in ruminating about what isn’t directly part of the moment. Past or future: irrelevant. Other people’s opinions of their appearance: irrelevant. They are tuned to the sensory world around and within them.

This state of awareness may be similar to the state that was essential for our earliest ancestors, whose attention to the here-and-now ensured survival. Eons ago, hunter-gatherers had to be alert for scents, sights, and sounds of potential food or danger. Chances are this alertness included respect for the body’s way of knowing—unease felt in the belly, anticipation in the throat, restlessness in the limbs—signaling awareness transcending overt indicators. And they had to be able to respond appropriately and meaningfully in an instant. Pausing to consider their options would have let the antelope get away or given the bear time to attack. The people who were most attuned to their body’s perceptions (inner as well as outer) were more likely to live, passing along those abilities to the next generation. We have the same capacities today although typically they’re pushed well below our awareness.

Powerful nerves connect our brains with our digestive system, heart, lungs, and other organs. And this communication is sensory. It isn’t top down, with our brains bossing around our bodies. Instead 90 percent of the information goes the other way, with the gut informing the brain.  The network of nerves along our digestive system is so significant that researchers call it the enteric brain.

Our impulses and emotions are influenced (perhaps generated) by the nerves in our gut. Our brains then work to logically explain the emotion, as Candace Pert explains in her groundbreaking book, Molecules Of Emotion.

Our intuition and reasoning is also influenced by our enteric brain. This ability to know without thinking about it is what Malcolm Gladwell termed “adaptive unconscious” in his bestseller Blink. We constantly process data from all around us (as well as within us) below the level of conscious awareness. Accessing and understanding this information is part of what makes us safe and happy.  What we call feeling good is a sense of accord with this innate bodily knowing, transmitted to us directly as a visceral sensation.

We drive ourselves and our children away from this awareness when we emphasize head over body, when we value thoughts but dismiss that knowing  in our very cells. We worsen the problem when we adopt the standard practice of valuing one hemisphere of the brain over the other.

So what are some ways to tune ourselves to this bodily knowing? 

1. Notice how the youngest children perceive reality. They have an innate ability to assign unique meanings and interpret creatively. They haven’t yet learned the boundaries of acceptable/unacceptable forms of knowing. Simply watching, listening to, and living within the reality of a very young child can stretch your perceptions and re-awaken your awareness.

2. Avoid the distraction of multitasking. This fractures your attention into tiny (often useless) pieces.

3. Devote time each day to simple practices which cultivate awareness. Daydream. Contemplate a flame, or the evening sky, or a tree. Meditate. Take a walk that’s focused entirely on sensation—-the feeling of your feet as they touch and push away from the ground with each step, the whoosh of air in and out of your lungs, the temperature of the outdoor air as it contacts your exposed skin. Eat slowly. Look into a loved one’s eyes.

4. Practice using your intuition. With regular use, your gut sense and intuitive hunches will become more reliable. Try using the classic Intuition Workout by Nancy Rosanoff.

5. Check out what Eugene Gendlin calls focusing.   We’ve been talking about the feeling of knowing that lies deep in us, related to the way our bodies carry concerns or life situations. According to Gendlin’s book Focusing, these perceptions can be accessed using specific steps of clear bodily attention. This opens up knowingness as it is “felt” and garners direct information that comes from the center of one’s being.

6. Pay attention to your dreams. When you waken, spend a few moments relishing the feelings and images you just experienced in the dreamworld. Let them enter your waking body and waking consciousness. They are specific to you, and have unique purpose that transcends analysis. They are another form of direct knowing.

7. Ask your body questions and “listen” as answers arrive in the form of images, physical sensations, memories, or emotions. You may want to ask a headache why it’s occurring or ask your throat why it feels tight. Learn to recognize metaphors in your body’s answers.

“My belief is in the blood and flesh as being wiser than the intellect. The body-unconscious is where life bubbles up in us. It is how we know that we are alive, alive to the depths of our souls and in touch somewhere with the vivid reaches of the cosmos.” D.H. Lawrence 


We Are One Being

all people are one, all life is connected,

Wikimedia Commons: Dan Groover

We are one being, linked in profound and essential ways even though we rarely pause to consider them.

The surface of Earth is seventy percent water just as we are made up of seventy percent water. This is the same water that has been on Earth for four and a half billion years. It flows in and out of each one of us. In cycles too infinite to imagine this water has been drawn up in plant cells, swirled in oceans, circulated in bloodstreams, sweated, excreted, wept out tearfully and drunk up thirstily, formed into new life, risen into vapor, and locked into ice. The saliva in your mouth is made of water molecules intimately shared with beings that lived long ago and will be shared with all who come after us.

We breathe about 600 million breaths in a lifetime. The air we rely on is a balance of nitrogen, oxygen, argon, carbon dioxide, and a dozen or so other gases perfect suited to our existence. It circulates through endless forms and uses, moved by the wind of our planet and by each exhale of living beings—-trees, crows, humpback whales, and newborn babies. It recycles just as the calcium in your jawbone may well have been quicklime poured on a criminal’s grave, a garnet on a nobleman’s finger, cheese carried by a nomadic herder, and a coral reef in a tropical ocean.

Nothing about our bodies is separate from what’s around us. We are nourished by what has grown from the sun’s energy and we remake ourselves constantly, replacing millions of cells every second using only the materials that have been on this planet for millennia.

Quantum physics tells us that a principle called entanglement explains how particles, once linked, can remain connected even when physically separated by vast distances, possibly even by time. Entanglement occurs between living beings as well, both human and animal, indicating a greater connection same call a morphic field and others call a holographic universe.

On this planet we are linked to every particle and every life form so intimately that science is beginning to echo what poets and sages have been saying for thousands of years. We are one.

all people are one, all life on the planet is connected,

Wikimedia Commons: Dan Groover

Each person is truly your kin. Our human connection begins with common ancestors. Genealogist Gary Boyd Roberts estimates that everyone on the planet is at least a 40th cousin. That’s because the family tree expands as each generation traces back. You have eight great-grandparents. Their parents had 16 parents. Go back 40 generations and you’d find a trillion grandparents at a time when there were fewer than 15 million people on the planet. That means we share 40th great-grandparents. In that way you are connected to eighty percent of the people on this planet. That includes the guy driving the delivery truck right outside your window and the woman thousands of miles away struggling to find water to drink.

The smallest children seem to recognize that existence is an “alive poem.” They find kinship with rocks, animals, as well as people. Our human family, built on kindness and cooperation, seems to be getting closer. We are helping one another heroically. We are waking to the ways our Earth sustains us, working harder than ever to restore justice and ecological balance. We are reaching out to share, laugh, explain, argue, and find kinship with people whose nationality, religion, race, and political affiliation don’t matter as much as their friendship. Perhaps we are entangled in a universe so holographic that we are now beginning to feel, really feel the oneness that has been there all along.

life on Earth connected, all people are one,

Wikimedia Commons: Dan Groover

Mine Is The Wrong Kind Of Lust

don't make me travel, why I stay put,

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Let me explain.

My schoolteacher father had summers off, so my parents made the best use of that time. That meant teaching their children geography and history through travel. Each winter my mother started planning our frugal summer trips. She sat at the kitchen table with maps and guidebooks arrayed in front of her as she carefully plotted a route that maximized educational stops along the way. Old battlegrounds, restored villages, and scenic natural wonders were her priority. The other priority? No admission fees.

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why I don't travel,

One summer we traveled over 6,000 miles. Most days we had an early breakfast, drove for six hours, spent the late afternoon sightseeing in the steamy heat, then went on to a trailer park where our 15 foot Scotty was invariably the smallest trailer around. Other folks in these places looked like there were staying a few days. They sat in lawn chairs and chatted around campfires. My parents meant business. Ours was a carefully planned agenda which meant we kids showered soon after supper in those ubiquitous cement block restrooms and went to bed early, usually lying awake in the hot metal trailer listening to other families laugh and talk under the trees.

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why I don't travel,

Our trips were strictly no-frills in every way. My parents spent as little as possible on food—we never had fast food or restaurant meals while we traveled. I ate a peanut butter minus jelly sandwich chased by Tang every day at lunchtime. They scouted out the cheapest gas and took only the most carefully considered photos in those pre-digital days. Miraculously they maintained family peace in very close proximity for weeks on end, although we kids found minor parental spats over directions and mileage calculations secretly hilarious.

Don’t get me wrong, my parents had wonderful motives. They piled three kids in a small car and showed us the country. But I was a lethargic and grumpy traveler. Hurtling down the highway with windows open (air conditioning allegedly reduced fuel economy) only aggravated my asthma and hay fever, plus I suffered with relentless headaches and nausea from car sickness. Yet I wasn’t sufficiently self-aware to let anyone know that I felt dizzy, woozy, and short of breath. I longed for the comforts of home: library books, a familiar bathtub, my trusty bike, and some control over my own life. As soon as my mother got out the maps to start planning I felt nothing but dread, which I masked with a facade of eager anticipation lest I be called “ungrateful.” But every minute our car headed farther away from home seemed wrong somewhere in the center of my being. Until we returned I felt suspended from my own completeness—a weary, one-dimensional version of myself.

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I refuse to travel,

Perhaps these long yearly trips, taken when I was unwell and unwilling, served to inoculate me against travel. As an adult I still struggle to feel wholly myself when I’m away. That marks me as seriously maladjusted. Wanderlust, or at least the urge to get away, is the norm. All sorts of well-meaning people mock non-travelers as people with no sense of adventure.

Oh sure, I long to go places. I’ve even traveled of my own volition. But I rail against the backward century in which I’ve been born, or perhaps the backward planet I’ve been born on, because I can’t adjust to the concept that it’s not possible to mosey over to Belarus or Uruguay or Finland this afternoon, have a wonderful lunch, meet some new friends and assure them that I’ll stop by next Friday. The problem isn’t the destination, it’s getting there. I know poets and sages say it’s all about the journey. I’ve journeyed, believe me. I say all of life is a journey, every single moment that we’re wide awake and fully participating in the process of living.

hermit's rationale, staying home, peace in place,

Besides, aren’t poets and sages all about being true to oneself? Being true to myself means giving in to the lust to stay rooted.

I experience a kind of delicious completion as I perform the simple rituals of life right here every day. I make cheese from our cow’s milk, walk the dogs, chop vegetables, work at my desk—-all in view of the fields and trees that sustain me season after season with their subtle, incremental changes.

I hope those of us who are truly rooted have something to offer this ever faster world. Our insights may be simple. I pay attention to the vegetable gardens, the beehives, to blackbirds convening in a clamor across the treetops. Changes I see are those that take place slowly and noticing them is part of the pleasure I find in being fully here. To me there’s soul-drenching nourishment that comes of contemplation, quiet, and service. Thank goodness we can fulfill the desires we choose, leaning eagerly toward the excitement of travel or to answering longings that serve a quieter nature.

You know where to find me. I’m right here.

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The Youngest Have The Oldest Way Of Knowing

children as deep ecologists, seeing people as animals, older ways of wisdom, living the Gaia theory,

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I had a translation problem when I was very small. Like any other reasonable preschooler, I knew full well that people had names just as I had a name. But I saw people’s faces as having their own animal faces too. I wasn’t sure why everyone else couldn’t see this. Many of the animals I saw flickering right under the surface of outward human appearances were creatures I didn’t recognize. Some kind of deer or antelope on one face, an unusual hound on another. This was fascinating and distracting. It also meant I had to translate in my head from what I saw as a person’s animal identity into their given name. I never slipped, never called my kindergarten teacher a hawk or referred to the boy down the street as a dolphin. I was polite enough to realize this would have been rude, although I couldn’t understand why animals were so much lower on the scale of importance.  I grew out of it by the time I was five or six.

I’m probably making my childhood self sound like a complete ninny. (And I’m still a ninny in other ways.) But I still remember “seeing” animal identities in people.

Young children have a very creative sense of reality. That’s exactly the way they’re supposed to be. Adults may teach children that the night’s dreams have nothing to do with the next day, that the wind doesn’t have a voice, that a beloved toy can’t feel their adoration. Still, children know what they experience. They sense potent meaning in everything.

We forget that human-centered reasoning is a cultural thing. A recent study compared children who live in direct contact with nature to urban children who have somewhat limited contact with the natural world. Researchers found striking differences in outlook. Children who are raised close to nature, and who are sensitive to certain beliefs, are more likely to call animal communication talking and to see water as alive. They seem to grasp what ecophilosopher Arne Naess termed deep ecology. The deep ecology worldview recognizes the intrinsic value of all beings and the complex interdependence of all natural systems.

This affirms what our species long understood and only recently forgot. We are inextricably connected to the natural world for sustenance, meaning, learning, and perhaps most intimately, for our sense of self. Looking at the whole swath of human existence, we are barely out of the hunter-gatherer era. Each of us is tuned to nature’s wavelength. Yet we conduct our lives as if we are separate. The youngest children among us may sense how wrong this is.

In one of the last books by ecologist Paul Shepard, Nature and Madness, he speculates that what ails civilization is a kind of arrested development. From birth each of us is cued toward greater wholeness through deep interconnection with one another and the natural world.  We require elders who understand this and guide us. But these days, Shepard writes, we’re not likely to grow to maturity in this way.

“Adults, weaned to the wrong music, cut short from their own potential, are not the best of mentors. The problem may be more difficult to understand than to solve. Beneath the veneer of civilization, in the trite phrase of humanism, lies not the barbarian and the animal, but the human in us who knows what is right and necessary for becoming fully human: birth in gentle surroundings, a rich nonhuman environment, juvenile tasks with simple tools, the discipline of natural history, play at being animals, the expressive arts of receiving food as a spiritual gift rather than as a product, the cultivation of metaphorical significance of natural phenomena of all kinds, clan membership and small-group life, and the profound claims and liberation of ritual initiation and subsequent stages of adult mentorship. There is a secret person undamaged in each of us, aware of the validity of these conditions, sensitive to their right moments in our lives.”

I think we can still raise children this way, pushing back against our rushed and fragmented world. More and more people seek natural birth, attachment parenting, child rearing balanced between freedom and responsibility, and free range learning. Nature-based living isn’t out of the equation, no matter where we live. It is restorative to spend time in wild places, but it takes only a shift in awareness to to immerse ourselves in nature wherever we are. As adults, we model for children how to treat all life with respect. In turn, children model for us many ways to find awe, metaphor, magic, and oneness in what we long ago learned to disregard. That is, if we pay attention.

Some might dispute that paying attention to such wonderment remains relevant in today’s world. Some may want to know what’s to be gained by dreams, imagination, watchfulness, and nature-centered thinking. Acknowledging the primacy of these wonders doesn’t point away from the path of achieving one’s potential. If we need an individual example, look to Lilian “Na’ia Alessa, a cell biologist who advances science by incorporating Western and traditional ways of knowing in her work.

Or wider examples. When psychologist Abraham Maslow developed his well-known hierarchy of needs he placed self-actualizers at the pinnacle. He defined such people as reaching “the full use and exploitation of talents, capacities, potentialities, etc.” Among those Maslow considered to be self-actualizers:  Spinoza, Goethe, Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert Schweitzer, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Joseph Haydn. These people didn’t “unlearn” older ways of knowing. In fact, the characteristics of self-actualizers sound quite a bit like children who aren’t limited to human-centered reasoning. Self-actualizers are spontaneous, they see things in fresh and often unconventional ways, they are interested in the unknown, they aren’t limited by other’s perceptions, they transcend cultural rigidity, and they feel compassion for all life. Some self-actualizers have what Maslow called “peak experiences.” A defining characteristic of a peak experience is a sense of unity with everything and everyone, a complete oneness. This too sounds like the children we’ve been discussing, those who haven’t yet been taught to stop seeing vibrant meaning around them.

So much is to be gained by a wider way of knowing. Let’s not unlearn all that we knew as children. Let’s see everything for what it can teach us. As poet Joy Harjo tells us, “Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them, listen to them. They are alive poems.”

 


Mom Knows Nothing

open to questions, don't know answers, kid's questions, being a mom,

“Why don’t you know any answers?” my then three-year-old asked me.

He was exaggerating. I always gave him a straight answer when he asked what we could have for dinner or when we were going to the library. But it was true, sometimes I had to look things up. That’s because I really didn’t know answers to questions he posed like, “Do bees have intestines?”

Still, I knew what he meant. I tended to respond to his questions with inquiries of my own. “What do you think?” or “Let’s find out.” Of course I was intentionally vague in order to spark the process of discovery. I didn’t know such a tactic might annoy a toddler who sometimes just wanted to know. Yes, I modified my approach, although he’ll tell you today that I’m just as annoying in other ways.

However the habit of putting questions where answers might be continues, at least in my head. The more I experience the sorrows and delights of life the more I recognize that answers aren’t the aim. So much is better understood as a question.

Today I walk out back with a pail of vegetable peelings and leftover oatmeal for the chickens on our little farm. Chickens look perpetually quizzical, perhaps that’s one reason I like them so much.

Our cows graze in the sunny part of the pasture. I can’t get past marveling at the mystery of plants eating sunlight, cows converting grass to milk, and milk transforming into cheese on my stove. I simply stand watching the cows in wonderment.

While I stand here I know that what we call gravity bonds me and everything I see to the planet. Without this force all of us would drop into the darkness of space. Earth holds us. Yet here on this perfect sphere we humans find reasons to hurt one another and harm the Earth. I hear humanity’s questions asked over and over in songs, poetry and the scriptures of many faiths, and I am comforted by our common quest for understanding.

There’s peace to be found right beyond the need for answers. This sense of calm I find puts the emphasis on love, not on what’s right. (It doesn’t hurt to recognize that those who have all the answers actually don’t.) I walk back to the house, taking in the way the water flows along the creek and the mud squelches around my boots. I’m glad to live with people who are astonished daily by this world’s wonders. Even if they continue to ask me what’s for dinner and expect an answer.

inchworm, questioning everything, appreciating the moment,

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Question tree photo courtesy of Type Zero

How to Make Spiders Your Teachers, Trees Your Guides

amateur naturalist, spiders, mindfulness, nature, paying attention, field guide, children,

Pay close attention to anything. In it you’ll find wonders.

Consider the spider.

We appreciate spiders in our family. A large orb weaver lives just outside the front door. Every night when we take the dogs out before going to bed we pause to appreciate the intricate web she’s rewoven. It has a lot to teach us about strength, symmetry, impermanence and beauty.

I probably shouldn’t admit it, but a spider also hangs out on the ceiling of our pantry. Its continued presence means there are enough insects in the vicinity to keep it fed, which logically means there are that many fewer beasties getting into our potatoes, dry beans, oats and other stored foods. It has a lot to teach us about interdependence. I’m actually cheered to see it up there, a quiet brown chap making a life for itself high above my canning jars.

When we find the occasional spider elsewhere in the house we move it gently outdoors, unless it’s winter in which case we move it to a large potted plant. (I prefer spiders be relocated to basement plants but I suspect my family members free them in more conveniently located houseplants.)

No, our home isn’t teeming with creepy crawlies. It’s the same as your house. We’re all part of an ecosystem beyond our awareness. Our fellow Earth inhabitants proceed with lives of purpose everywhere around us whether we know it or not. As an example, beneficial bacteria reside in your gastrointestinal tract, contributing not only to digestion but overall health. These microbes outnumber the cells in your body 10 to 1, their types varying widely from person to person—perhaps accounting for major differences in weight, energy and wellness.

No amount of clean living sets us apart from the wider ecosystem we’re in.

It’s easier to think of nature as “out there” in the pristine wilderness. But we’re a part of nature every moment. It is air we breathe, plants we eat, birdsong we hear, weather slowing this morning’s traffic, our very cells dividing and yes, that high pitched whine signifying a mosquito is hovering nearby.

Tiny creeping and flying things around us are the creatures we’re most likely to encounter, reminders that we share our ecosystem with others. It’s even possible to notice them with pleasure.

My kids particularly appreciate spiders so we pay closer attention to these creatures. I don’t know much about arachnids, but what I learn through my offspring helps me to see more complexity, beauty and worth that I could have imagined.

I think it’s easier to pay attention when we keep the joyous curiosity we’re born with but it’s possible to recapture it, to expand it into awe at the wonders everywhere around us.

Consider making a nature study of a something nearby. A tree’s lifecycle through the seasons, the activity around a wasp nest in the eaves, the behavior of birds at a feeder. We’ve learned some techniques for the amateur naturalist from Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s wonderful book Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness.

  1. Learn names, proper as well as colloquial. Learn details about habitat, health and interdependence with other life forms.
  2. Have patience. The practice of seeing, really seeing, takes more than time. It also takes cultivated watchfulness.
  3. Respect wildness.
  4. Cultivate an obsession. Let questions unfold into more questions and whenever possible, find a community of fellow enthusiasts.
  5. Keep a notebook. Writing observations and making drawings are wonderfully wider ways to learn.
  6. Maintain a field trip mentality. Keep up your observations wherever you go.
  7. Make time for solitude.
  8. Stand in the lineage. Vital knowledge has been gained by a long history of people no different than you, people who let the world around them teach its wonders to those whose eyes are open.

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Epidemic of Nearsightedness Has Startling Cause

myopia, nature-deficit disorder, can't see forest for the trees, children's myopia,

We don’t mourn the loss of what we don’t see.

In fourth grade I had no idea that the equations I copied from the board were incorrect, I only knew that for the first time my math papers were handed back with poor marks. And my grades kept getting worse. Although I wrote neatly and rechecked my work the teacher scrawled “careless mistakes” on my papers. I’d decided I was a mathematical dunce by the time my parents realized I needed glasses.

It was a revelation the first time I put on those glasses. I could see individual leaves on trees! I could see the faces of people passing by! I thought what I’d seen before, blurry images that resolved close up, was what everyone saw.

Myopia has risen to epidemic levels. In the U.S. young adults are much more likely to be nearsighted than people in their grandparent’s generation. In 1996, sixty percent of 23 to 34-year-olds were nearsighted compared to twenty percent of those over 65. Some Asian countries are seeing an even more alarming increase, up to 80 percent of young adults.

Reading too long, watching TV too close, even going without sunglasses have been blamed for causing poor eyesight. But the answer is much more interesting and has resounding significance for the way we raise our children.

The startling cause uncovered by researchers in three separate studies in the U.S., Australia and Singapore?

It has to do with the amount of time a child spends outdoors.

Yes, genetics still plays a part. Children born to nearsighted parents are more likely to need corrective lenses.

But researchers noticed an intriguing outlier. Children who devoted more hours per week to sports or outdoor play were less likely to develop myopia. Perhaps, it was speculated, they spent less time on close activities like reading. But further studies didn’t make that connection.

Perhaps, it was speculated, that sports and other activities made them more physically fit, somehow benefitting their eyes. But indoor sports were found to have no correlation with better eyesight, only those played outdoors. In fact, even completely inactive time outdoors was helpful in reducing the incidence of myopia.

Look at these numbers. A study of six to seven year olds (only of Chinese ethnicity to simplify comparisons) living in Singapore and Australia found marked differences based on outdoor exposure. Children in Singapore spent an average of 3 weekly hours outdoors, thirty percent developed myopia. Australian youngsters spent 14 hours outside each week, only three percent developed myopia.

No one is sure exactly what factors lead to better eyesight when children spend time outside. It may be related to the greater intensity of light or the natural spectrum of light.  Perhaps it has something to do with nutrient absorption related to light, as in vitamin D metabolism.

Or it may relate to peripheral vision. Without the limitations of walls and windows our vision can range across open spaces. This corresponds to findings that urban children, whose vision is constrained by crowds and buildings, suffer a greater incidence of myopia than rural children.

Whatever the cause, today’s children spend more time indoors than their parent’s generation. Actually, about 90 percent of their young lives are spent shut away from the natural light and wider view of the outdoor world.

They can’t miss what they don’t see.

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Is Nature Somewhere Else?

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We tend to think of nature as separate. We imagine spending time “out there” hiking in some remote wilderness, drinking from mountain streams and observing creatures that have never faced highway traffic. There, in a place far from our busy lives, we might find peace, tranquility and some kind of deep connection to what is real.

If. We. Just. Found. Time. To. Get. There.

That’s part of the problem. Because we’re already there. We are nature, right down to the life processes of every cell. And what’s around us even in the smallest city apartment? Nature.

Nature is the food we eat, air we breathe, water we drink. It’s seedlings pushing up between cracks in the cement (and the cement itself, depending how you define it), birds lighting on utility poles, pollen making us sneeze, storm clouds swelling with rain. It’s a living planet in a universe of natural laws that continue to be revealed to the amazement of scientists like Harvard’s Dr. Randall and the awe of cosmologists like Dr. Swimme in The Hidden Heart of the Cosmos: Humanity and the New Story.

When we define nature as separate from us it’s easier to push it aside as something apart from our very life force.  This disconnect isn’t healthy for us or the planet.

In part it simply has to do with SEEING. I learned this when I helped conduct a psychology study in college.  We went to urban office buildings and asked people two questions. First, we asked each person to describe his or her mood. Second, we asked them to describe the current appearance of the sky. These people were in their offices or hallways when we talked to them and the windows in most buildings were shuttered with horizontal blinds ubiquitous during that decade, so the only way they could have described the sky is if they had paid attention on their way to work or during a break. Here’s the interesting part. The people who identified themselves as pessimistic, angry, depressed or in other negative terms were also the ones unable to describe the sky’s appearance. You guessed it. The happiest and most optimistic people either correctly described the sky or came very close.

That study was never published, but research these days now indicates that pausing to experience nature in our daily lives is powerfully positive. Just a few minutes of regular exposure has been shown to improve our emotional and physical health. It leads us to be more generous, to enhance relationships and value community. The effect of nature, even looking out a window at nearby trees, seems to lead us, as one researcher noted, to be “our best selves.”

So wherever we are, let’s pay attention. Let’s remind ourselves to look at the sky every day, not just for a moment but long enough to savor it (without declaring the weather good or bad). Let’s put our bodies into the experience by taking regular strolls and touching the bark of a tree, a flower’s soft petal, the texture of a rock. Let’s watch the habits of birds, squirrels, spiders and other creatures making their lives amongst ours. Let’s pick one tree near our homes and notice it as the seasons pass, as we would a quiet friend sharing the same neighborhood. It takes only a shift of awareness, but it can make a world of difference.

Nature is right here, moment to moment, in each breath we take. It connects us to what’s real and helps us be the people our planet needs right now.

On the Beating Death of a Snapping Turtle

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Our neighbor beat a snapping turtle to death. The life taken stays with me.

Every spring we see snapping turtles near our pond. We’re glad to see them return. Perhaps their presence reassures us that our farm is bountiful and feeds them well. Or perhaps their yearly return is a ritual of sorts, acknowledging as rituals do that some things stay the same in a world where so much changes.

The turtles are quite noticeable as they move with prehistoric dignity through the grass. If we pass by they slide into the water. Sometimes we’ve had to move them (very carefully) out of the way of a tractor. Other times we’ve had to caution children or guests away from them.

They linger for at least a few weeks in early spring. Then the turtles, following timing triggered by their own reptilian wisdom, trek across neighboring property toward a large lake several thousand feet away.

But this time that turtle journey happened at the same time my neighbor went outside with his two children. He saw the turtle as a danger and decided it had to be eliminated for the safety of his children.

First he shot it. Yes, shot it. (We live in a rural area where guns are common.) Somehow gunshots didn’t have the desired effort. Thankfully they also didn’t ricochet off the turtle’s shell, creating a far more serious hazard.

Then he got out a heavy implement and, slamming down over and over again, he beat the turtle to death.

Appallingly, my neighbor did what he assumed a good father does.

But this is what I can’t stop thinking about. There are pivotal moments in a child’s life when what we show them about the world stays with them. I mean more than the bloody sight of that turtle’s death, left to rot rather than killed for food. We can show them that nature is a part of us—-to experience with wonder, to treat with respect and to embrace as a unified whole. Or we can show them that nature is separate from us—-to use for our amusement, to treat with disdain, to attempt to control.

I realized this when my first child was a toddler, barely walking. He encountered an insect and paused before lifting his little white shoe to stomp on it. I showed him instead that we could squat down near the insect to watch it but not touch it. In those few minutes he looked carefully for the creature’s eyes, remarked on its feet and clapped in joyous astonishment when it unfolded wings and suddenly lifted away. After that he kept a careful watch for insects. His questions (What does it like for snacks? Does it go home to bed when it’s dark? How does it talk to other bugs?) showed he was thinking about what it might feel like to be an insect. He learned that some sting and bite, some hustle away on many legs, some wriggle into the ground. He learned awe tinged with caution.

That’s the moment my neighbor missed. He could have called his children to come look at the snapping turtle from a safe distance, his arm around the youngest, pointing out the its heavy shell and powerful jaws. He could have cautioned them to always tell an adult if they ever saw such a creature, and to never go anywhere near it. Snapping turtles can be dangerous. That’s why we teach our children to identify, avoid and respect those dangers. But we also need to weigh risk factors to put danger in perspective. A turtle crossing the yard offers good reason for caution. But there are greater dangers facing children in my neighborhood. Cars passing by on our 55 mph rural road. Guns in the home. Toxins released when garbage is burned in the backyard.

I’m sure we all have different opinions about what constitutes danger. Maybe the way we frame this says a lot about our worldview. *

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Snapping Turtle Sidenotes My husband and I have both stopped at the side of the road to move snapping turtles out of the street. This is best done without hands or feet, just the encouragement of a window scraper’s blunt edge. The turtles snap grumpily, then lumber off to a shady drainage ditch. {Always move turtles in the direction they’re going. Migration urges them in that particular direction.) We do this because we’ve repeatedly seen drivers intentionally speed up to hit these slow-moving creatures. We’ve also seen drivers do the same to vultures, hawks and crows—-nature’s blessed carrion eaters who clean up our roadsides when a carcass lies in sad repose after meeting with a car.

I tried to find out why turtles might be traveling on roadways far from ponds and streams. Looking up the Common Snapping Turtle  (Chelydra serpentina) led to me find out more than I expected.

These long-lived turtles are important to the eco-system. They eat plant and animal matter, often scavenging. Docile in the water, they’re more aggressive on land. Food scarcity, pollution and habitat destruction may be forcing them to travel overland more than before.

Center for Biological Diversity is concerned about a massive increase in hunting and exporting turtles. These creatures, so integral to healthy aquatic ecosystems, are being sold to Asian countries, primarily China. Consumption of turtle meat there has driven many native species of turtles to extinction.

Eight states—Arkansas, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Ohio, South Carolina, and Tennessee— permit unlimited harvesting of all turtle sizes, using lethal hoopnets and box traps in public and private waters. These devices box traps also capture, maim, kill, and drown protected turtle species, non-target fish, mammals and birds.

In our state, the Department of Natural Resources doesn’t monitor health or population trends of wild turtle populations. *