Belonging. Nature, Childhood and Technology

At the far, wooded end of the school yard of a small New England elementary sits a very large rock. Its crevasses worn smooth by generations of small sticky fingers and motion-activated pink sneakers. Its surface reverberating with the shrill cries of scraped knees and the bubbling laughter of little voices, not yet bent to limitation. The ground around it a soft lake of bare earth surrounded by shorn weeds and prairie grasses that house spying crickets and grasshoppers in the spring, forever on the lookout for the next errant child. This rock, simple though it is, was my refuge, my safe space, and the main set in innumerable childhood daydreams.

Inside the rock, unseen to the naked eye, lived whole worlds of faeries that played out a saga over the months and years, stealing shiny objects from our classroom, leaving M&M trails or teeny tiny footprints on the window sills, glitter on bathroom counters. And every time that recess bell rang I went to them first, where I could sit and laugh or cry, warming myself on the rock. Where I could just be me, feeling into the mystery and wonder of my rapidly unfolding world.

Like so many children growing up in the generations proceeding technological accessibility, I was given a great gift - the permission and freedom to dive deep into the limitless world of imagination; sparked, heightened and enlivened in Nature’s open spaces and refuges of untouched growth. Free play that no adult, no playground and no video game or ipad app could ever offer or simulate.

What Nature calls from us at the earliest age is naked authenticity where the animal of our bodysoftens into the instinctual rhythm of who and what we are. It is here where we first learn to be our own little people, sometimes bravely under rolling thunder clouds, sometimes with lighthearted discovery of the new, sometimes with morbid fascination as we feel into our place in the great cycles of life and death, power and powerlessness, vulnerability and beauty. What those times for me initiated, and the many more that followed, has been a deep and everlasting understanding of my place in relation to all things. An anchor of belonging independent from turmoil at home or at school, material loss or gain, and now looking back I know that the bedrock of my foundation was not first laid by my parents, my teachers or even my spiritual influencers, but by the wind in the leaves and the open sky...the smell of wet earth and the little birds, full of secrets.

When I look at the youth of today, glued to glowing screens of various sizes, I will admit, a part of me panics. Our growing disconnect from Nature has become more and more clear as summer camps are replaced by children’s “Learn How to Be a CEO” camp, or “Computer Camp”. Open spaces are disappearing as population spurts strain the boundaries of the cities.Tragedies of resource; oil pipelines, polluted aquifers, and land degradation (not-to-mention the resulting genocide, land theft, and displacement) become the norm as we look the other way for short-term ‘conveniences’. Sciences like biology, zoology and natural history have become “lesser than” overnight, and in all these things we’re collectively robbing our future of environmentalists, naturalists, and inspired outdoors men and women by steering our youth to the ipod over the neighborhood pond.*

Grasping for external benchmarks, successes and tangibles, along with stifling fear in the face of our changing world, squeezes the life and the magic out of a child’s first contact with Nature. The good news in all this is that the world IS changing...all of it.This morning as I browsed through my Twitter feed I was pleasantly thrilled to see pages and pages of Nature-inspired feeds, anti-fracking campaigns, earth first groups, eco companies, environmentalist news links, and other conscious planet-loving initiatives. But as Richard Louv so clearly states in his book;“Last Child the Woods”, let’s not forget about our children’s need for not only intellectual stimulation and understanding, but hands-on, personal, and even solitary direct experience of their souls relationship to this planet and all things in it.

My life now has taken on a tendency to be physically uprooted as I travel all over the world, subletting homes one month here, one there. At times, the whole of me calls out for some semblance of regularity. Years after I said my last goodbye to the creatures of my invention living peacefully if not subversively in that little patch of wood and rock, I still think back to the feeling of that place. It felt like home. Like belonging. Like all is right in the world with me in it. 

For many many children now growing up, the gift of our inheritance, the earth’s open spaces and the personal freedom that comes from discovery in our own right, will provide an “off-the-grid” outlet, a tune-up, and a power-surge, in the face of whatever may come their way. It is my hope and my belief that we’ll soon equilibrate and hold the gift of technology in balance with the gift of Nature. If we’re not already, we will log off the internet, close down the office, turn off the TV and step outside to rub our toes in the grass...and at that moment, if we had forgotten, we will remember who we are and take comfort in that belonging.