Children in the woods
Wednesday, April 15, 2015
From "Children in the Woods" by Barry Lopez:
"My wife and I do not have children, but the children we know, or children whose parents we are close to, are often here. They always want to go into the woods. And I wonder what to tell them. In the beginning, years ago, I think I said too much. I spoke with an encyclopedic knowledge of the names of plants or the names of birds passing through the season. Gradually I came to say less....
"I remember once finding a fragment of a raccoon's jaw in an alder thicket. I sat down alongside the two children with me and encouraged them to find out who this thing was -- with only the three teeth still intact in a piece of the animal's maxilla to guide them. The teeth told by their shape and placement what this animal ate. By a kind of visual extrapolation its size became clear. There were other clues, immediately present, which told, with what I could add of climate and terrain, how its broken jaw came to be lying there. And tiny tooth marks along the jaw's broken bone edge told of a mouse's hunger for calcium. We set the jaw back and went on."
"I think that children know that nearly anyone can learn the names of things; the impression made on them at this level is fleeting. What takes a lifetime to learn, they comprehend, is the existence and substance of myriad relationships: it is the relationships, not the things themselves, that ultimately hold the human imagination.
"The brightest children, it has often struck me, are fascinated by metaphor -- with what is shown in the set of relationships bearing on the raccoon, for example, to lie quite beyond the raccoon. In the end you are trying to make clear to them that everything found at the edge of one's senses -- the high note of the winter wren, the thick perfume of propolis that drifts downward from the spring willows, the brightness of woodchips scattered by the beaver -- that all this fits together. The indestructibility of these associations conveys a sense of permanence that nurtures the heart, that cripples one of the most insidious of human anxieties, the one that says, you do not belong here, you are unnecessary.
"Whenever I walk with a child, I think how much I have seen disappear in my own life. What will there be for this person when he is my age? If he senses something ineffable in the landscape, will I know enough to encourage it? -- to somehow show him that, yes, when people talk about violent death, spiritual exhileration, compassion, futility, final causes, they are drawing on forty thousand years of human meditation on this -- as we embrace Douglas firs, or stand by a river across whose undulating back we skip stones, or dig out a camas bulb, biting down into a taste so much wilder than last night's potatoes.
"The most moving look I ever saw from a child in the woods was on a mud bar by the footprints of heron. We were on our knees making handprints beside the footprints. You could feel the creek vibrating in the silt and sand. The sun beat down heavily on our hair. Our shoes were soaking wet. The look said: I did not know until now that I needed someone much older to confirm this, the feeling I have of life here. I can now grow older, knowing it need never be lost."
You can read this lovely, insightful essay in full in Lopez's essay collection Crossing Open Ground.
Related posts: children in the woods from a folkloric perspective: "Wild Children," and Cornelia Funke on the importance of wilderness in children's lives: "The Gift of Wonder."