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.”