The Youngest Have The Oldest Way Of Knowing

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

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.”


10 thoughts on “The Youngest Have The Oldest Way Of Knowing

  1. Pingback: GeekMom » Blog Archive » This Week With the GeekMoms

  2. If you are a ninny for connecting animals with human faces, then I am a ninny too. When I was small, and still occasionally today, I saw most everyone as a flower. I was yarrow, and sometimes imagined my name was yarrow.


  3. So glad you’re a fellow member in the Secret Society of Ninnies!

    Have you read anything by Stephen Harrod Buhner? His books about plant intelligence are amazing. Redundant and dense at times, but still amazing. A yarrow like you would have no problem understanding what he’s saying.


  4. Pingback: Carnival of Healing #234: Awareness « Wild Reiki and Shamanic Healing Blog

  5. I think the disconnection many modern children, and their parents, have from the natural world is the root cause of many of our problems. The earthy feel of soil between ones fingers, the smell of rain on the grass and so on these are things which connect us to ourselves. The Hare and I have literally been just standing outside listening to the dawn chorus, but often in big cities you don’t have bird-song.
    I am certainly more connected and aware of my body these days and am really benefiting from being in that state.
    Great post, I can see I’m going to have to make some time to look around more of this blog Laura.


    • Totally agree Karyn. Disconnection from the natural world also disconnects us from ourselves. Your children are so lucky to have a mother who understands how compelling it is to listen to the dawn chorus.


  6. That’s really interesting: that you saw animals in people and your friend saw flowers! When I taught at a Free Progress school called mirambika in New Delhi over 2 decades ago, we did a bird project with the 4 year olds. The German lady facilitating asked each child which bird they were. I was amazed how each was exactly that bird, so clear to me all of a sudden. I composed the music according to what I saw and felt of each child-bird, and they moved, flew, perched, fluttered and pecked so perfectly true to the bird they each were.

    Karyn’s observation reminds me of when I was under 7, living in Mumbai, which was then, Bombay, surrounded by buildings. There was a pocket sized garden in which we played. We climbed the lone frangipani tree. In the small apartment I would play a record of ‘Concerto de Aranjuez’ and disappear into the forest picture on the jacket cover. I didn’t have a dog, but I’ walk around with a balloon on a string pretending it was a dog, talking to it… It’s almost like me, the child, had to ‘make’ nature where there was none.

    Brings to mind Cat Stevens’ song, “…where will the children pla…a…a….aa…y…”


    • Cat Stevens! I bought all his albums with my babysitting money. I’d lie on my bedroom floor trying to climb inside his lyrics. His are the songs I often sing to our cows and chickens and bees. I still adore his music, now recorded as Yusef Islam.

      What a fascinating project to ask children what bird they are and find they each were that bird. How much richer that project for your original music. What lucky children.

      I know what you mean by “disappearing into the forest picture.” I still miss the all powerful imagination we all had as children, summoning what we needed into our waking lives so vividly that it was real to us. I’m particularly entranced that you made nature when you needed it. A wise friend tells me that our true identity is easily found when we look at the what we pretended in our earliest years, what picture book lingers in our minds from our pre-reading days, and in what ways life has broken us.


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