Posts Tagged ‘sense of wonder’

What children’s books say about the human-nature relationship

My mother loves children’s books. She collects them, really. Ever since I was little – and even now that I am not so little – she often will come home from the bookstore with a new Caldecott winner, a collection of children’s Christmas stories, or a treasury of children’s classics for a friend who’s having a baby. From beautifully illustrated read-to-me storybooks to beautifully written chapter books, there is no end to her love of children’s literature. In her retirement, she says, she wants to write children’s books.

So it’s only natural that I should inherit from her the same love of children’s books. However, for the longest time, I laughed at her every time she brought home a new book, saying that we, her children, had grown too old for this. We were too old for her to read us stories, too old to look at the pictures, too old to listen to the rhymes of children’s poetry. And yet, a year ago, I fell in love with children’s books all over again.

It started in a college course I took from the education department. In this course, the professor read to us several familiar children’s books that spoke of nature and the environment. He read Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, of course, but he also read Barbara Cooney’s Miss Rumpius, and showed an animated interpretation of the French children’s story, The Man Who Planted Trees, by Jean Giono. It was these titles that got me thinking about the books I remembered and loved from my childhood. I thought of Bill Peet’s The Wump World and Cristina Bjork’s Linnea in Monet’s Garden. This summer, while working at a local bookstore, I also discovered a wonderful new children’s book by Peter Brown, called The Curious Garden, and it is now one of my favorites. And I re-discovered Frances Hamerstrom’s touching Walk When the Moon is Full while visiting my parents’ cabin in northern Wisconsin.

These were my favorites as a child – or have since become my new favorites – but also, or perhaps because of this, they influenced the way I think about the world. These books, as do all good books, say something about the way we as humans interpret and interact with the world. The more obvious messages to be found in The Lorax and The Wump World speak to our human pattern of overconsumption and destruction of nature – but also about nature’s resilience and ability to come back after humans have gone. Nature will always be there, and will always able to rebound, these books say. The Man Who Planted Trees, Miss Rumpius and The Curious Garden illustrate the power of one person to shape and change the world, to find and create beauty, and the ability of nature to influence people. Linnea in Monet’s Garden and Walk When the Moon is Full laud the redemptive and educative power of curiosity, particularly of the natural world.

The messages in these books are not lost on even their youngest readers. Inspired by The Curious Garden, the children to whom I gifted that book last spring started a garden in their mother’s backyard. And I can recall discussions about the need to “save the rainforest” motivated by readings of The Lorax in elementary school.

These on-the-surface meanings are not at all difficult to integrate into discussions both in the classroom and in the living room, because the fit nicely within the tenets of our modern worldview. The value of creativity to progress, the primacy of human influence on nature, the emphasis on the individual to affect change – these are all principals of our society in which progress is always good; bigger and more are always applauded; and individual effort is always better than group work.

But there are deeper messages between the pages of these books that are much harder to cultivate in either children or adult readers because they go against the grain of the modern paradigm. The Man Who Planted Trees presents an intriguing statement about the effect the condition of the natural world has on the human psyche and on human society. In the story,* there is a man who plants and cares for trees on a barren, human-created desert, ultimately resulting in the repopulation of the area with a community of people who live gently and in harmony with the land. Clearly, this is a much deeper sort of message than the superficial “power of one person to change the world.” This book cultivates ideas of stewardship of the land and repair of the human and natural environment, similar to Aldo Leopold’s idea of a “land ethic.” The true story behind The Man Who Planted Trees, I believe, is one that promotes an ideal relationship between humans and the land we live on that is healthy for both society and the environment.

The Man Who Planted Trees has a second message in its pages. The people who had lived in the desert prior to the growth of the man’s forest had been poor, miserly unhappy. But when people come to live in the valley where the man has planted trees, they are a happier people. They work, live and laugh together. This sentiment of happiness nearer to nature and greenness has been well-documented in the literature of preventative medicine, and much echoed by popular writers, such as Richard Louv in Last Child in the Woods, on the benefits of nature to personal health and well-being. The Man Who Planted Trees conveys this deeply rooted relationship beautifully and simply in story form.

The idea of living sustainably with the land is not a new concept, but it is far from becoming an ideal valued by mainstream society. It used to be, however. The Jeffersonian ideal of the agrarian man was part of the creation of our nation. Thomas Jefferson envisioned a nation of small farmers, where everyone cultivated the land sustainably. This agrarian ideal included principles of crop rotation, community collaboration, and living in balance with the land around you.

Somewhere in our society’s history, however, we lost our communitarian, agrarian ideal, and farming became the backward rustic’s job or the task of machine-wielding industrial farmers. People moved city-wards. We began working in factories and cubicles instead of fields. We lost our connection with the land and much of our knowledge of the workings of nature. We stopped being stewards of the land, and instead began to exploit it for profit, like the characters in The Lorax and The Wump World. We stopped being people who planted trees, and instead became makers of concrete and buildings, and consumers of “thneeds.”

Our modern worldview dictates that this was a change for the better. That no longer being directly dependent on the earth was a good thing. That going to the supermarket alone instead of the fields with each other for our food was progress. But there were always those who resisted. There have been counterculture movements since the beginning of industrialization that attempted to move society back towards nature. There were Utopian communities interwoven with the Populist movement of the 1890s. Intentional communities and co-ops sprung up in the 1960s and later, dedicated to self-sufficiency and a connection to nature and community. These movements questioned whether society’s movement away from nature was necessarily progress.

Children’s books and stories have always aimed to convey what society values in a simple, easily understood, often allegorical fashion for young readers. What our children’s books say about the way we as humans treat the natural world has an important affect on the way children grow up thinking about the world.
Nature, by instinct, I think, is intriguing to children. It is the world around us: the sky, the birds, the trees, the grass, the soil. The Lorax, The Curious Garden, The Man Who Planted Trees – these books have powerful messages, and can, perhaps, help endow our children with Aldo Leopold’s “land ethic,” or perhaps with Rachel Carson’s “sense of wonder” about the natural world. If we can use these books as a spring board for a discussion in living rooms and classrooms – to teach our children to be curious about the natural world, to teach them that a healthy environment means healthier and happier people, to teach them, ultimately, to be stewards of the land and the earth – then perhaps we can begin to shift in how society affects the environment. Perhaps we can stop wanting “thneeds” and instead be those who plant trees.

No one is too old for children’s books. As adults, we often have just as much to learn from them as children do. I reread The Wump World the other night. I had forgotten the ending of the story: after the “Pollutions” have finished turning the whole world to concrete and buildings, after they have used up all the green space, after they have dirtied the air and water, they leave. And through their cracked concrete streets, a small seedling emerges. Nature is still there, if we are willing to see it. Maybe we can plant a seed in our children, in hopes that someday, through a crack in the modern worldview, a land ethic will emerge.

*English translation, from Peter Doyle, available here. (This version lies in the public domain.)