Community, then, is an indispensable term in any discussion of the connection between people and land. A healthy community is a form that includes all the local things that are connected by the larger, ultimately mysterious form of the Creation. In speaking of community, then, we are speaking of a complex connection not only among human beings or between humans and their homeland but also between human economy and nature, between forest or prairie and field or orchard, and between troublesome creatures and pleasant ones. All neighbors are included.
– Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays
We poured out of our cars, decked with wide-brimmed hats and sandals, eager to visit the Monovale Vlei for our nature study outing. Across the way from a stack-brick wall (an Englishman built it, probably remembering the marshes of his home country) and on the edge of a golf club, this ‘model’ wetland area teams with wildlife. The early morning fog was just rising as we started our walk. Our enthusiastic guide took a sponge out of his pocket and explained that the wetlands soak up excess water, purifying and filtering it, providing a biodiverse habitat. We tramped behind him, mud squelching through our toes, as he told us of some of its inhabitants: otters, servals, duiker, bush babies, tortoises, frogs, and snakes. We ambled with reverence through Monovale, its birds singing an ode to a time long gone by when all our wetlands were once filled with such beauty.
This is a far cry from the other vlei areas in our town! Building projects, rubble, and urban agriculture have changed the landscape. Sun-scorched soils that are filled, like dumps, with plastic, rusty cans and glass, where squawking crows are now the only creatures in sight. The Acacia trees are under threat because of the Viscum parasite, which slowly sucks the life out of this indigenous beauty. Human inhabitants no longer remember why these spaces were once so fiercely protected. Meanwhile elsewhere, larger neighbourhood homes are built, pristine lawns are pursued with passionate zeal and the biodiversity decreases.
A dear friend desires to see the wetlands restored in her suburb: to have them once more filled with flora and fauna and for the community to be actively involved in the pursuit of this dream. It’s not so easy though; the apathy and lack of interest is overwhelming.
What happened? Why is there such a disinterest in the nature surrounding us?
Our perfectly curated social media feeds are inundated with panoramic views of mountain ranges, seascapes, close-up shots of iridescent insects, blooming flowers and fantastic beasts — we are enthralled. But, as Wendell Berry writes, we have become “viewers of views”.
How Much Do We Care?
At every turn, I am confronted with the truth of this statement. How much does the youth care? How much do we all care?
Our curricula are filled with the weighty concerns of the natural world. We have a greater awareness of the issues of conservation, our environmental footprints and our current peskiest concern: waste management. We recycle our garbage, try to combat global warming, ‘say no to plastic’ by using plastic free products, disposable ‘biodegradable’ plates, cups and straws, the list goes on. And yet we are still disconnected.
If educators are to help heal the broken bond between the young and the natural world, they and the rest of us must confront the unintended educational consequences of an overly abstract science education: ecophobia [a fear of ecological deterioration … In its older, more poetic meaning, the word “ecophobia” is the fear of home] and the death of natural history studies. Equally important, the wave of test-based education reform that became dominant in the late 1990s leaves little room for hands-on experience in nature. (Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv)
Our student doesn’t learn to care about the ecological issues by giving him abstract knowledge of the natural world. When he is young he learns empathy and connection for the creation by being responsible for a pet, making mud pies, building forts, collecting messy mulberries, playing in rain puddles and being enraptured by the spider web orbs on the lavender blooms.
Nature streaming into [the youth], wooingly teaching her wonderful glowing lessons … Young hearts, young leaves, flowers, animals, the winds and the streams and the sparkling lake, all wildly, gladly rejoicing together! (John Muir)
A concern for the ‘mother nature’ begins at home.
Forest and nature schools, with place-based education, have become very popular in the last few years. It is a step forward to helping children “bond” with the nature in their neighbourhoods. Charlotte Mason encourages us to spend long hours out of doors, it is there that we find a ‘feast of nature’ laid out before us. We can spread out a picnic blanket and eat our meals in the shade of the trees, go on ‘exploring expeditions’, observe the butterflies flitting in the golden dew-drop flowers, bird-watch, make mental pictures of scenery and walks, learn of local field crops and plant life-cycles and study a tree as it changes through the seasons. In this way a ‘Child Naturalist’ is born.
Shifting Our View
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod
And for all this, nature is never spent …
God’s Grandeur by Gerard Manley Hopkins
In a Parents Review article, D. Avery writes about two very different aims of education:
The value of any particular subject in education will be determined by the aim of education itself. If the aim of education is the efficient tradesman, with trained ability to produce wealth, those subjects which offer the greatest utilitarian advantages will be selected, and that aspect which relates to the material service of man will be emphasised. If again the aim of education is to ‘broaden and strengthen our human sympathies, giving living interests in the world of men, of nature, and appreciation of the aesthetic joys of life,’ subjects will be chosen which offer the greatest cultural value, and their relation to the intellectual and spiritual will be important.
This was written nearly one hundred years ago and unfortunately, by and large, we still view the study of the sciences as a way to produce wealth — to look out for ‘number one’. The author goes on to say that,
Even in the Universities where culture and broad education should be enthroned, they have in many cases been sacrificed on the altars of apparent necessity. For example, in the ultra-specialised professional courses, science, engineering, medicine, the subjects are selected for their utility; their value is measured by the extent to which they will be useful afterwards in active business of life; there is no definite broad culture, no deliberate widening of the interests of life, no attempt to develop, in the true sense, a professional man, but rather a super-tradesman.
A utilitarian view of creation!
Super-tradesmen, focused on wealth and self, priorities that are never satisfied. They lust after the newest technologies, bigger houses, faster and sleeker cars, and holidays in beautiful far-away places. D. Avery says that the ‘beauty and uselessness of Nature’ bewilders us and if we cannot find a use for it we have a tendency to ignore it. And yet:
The Goddess of Science holds out many gifts to us. Greedily we have seized the gift of wealth, power and utility, and have ignored her other and better gifts. We have stripped the goddess of her royal robes and thrust upon her the garb of a slave to be a hewer of wood and drawer of water for mankind. Let us give her back again her robes of royalty and welcome her back to her kingdom — the kingdom that is rightly hers, and therefore, the kingdom that may be ours.
The discussion of belonging in a community cannot exclude the mysterious and harmonious connection between people, their land and the natural world.
A Celebration of Creation
Your visitations of glory bless the earth;
the rivers of God overflow and enrich it.
You paint the wheat fields golden as you provide rich harvests.
Every field is watered with the abundance of rain—
showers soaking the earth and softening its clods,
causing seeds to sprout throughout the land.
You crown the earth with its yearly harvest,
the fruits of your goodness.
Wherever you go the tracks of your chariot wheels drip with oil.
Luxuriant green pastures boast of your bounty
as you make every hillside blossom with joy.
The grazing meadows are covered with flocks,
and the fertile valleys are clothed with grain,
each one dancing and shouting for joy, creation’s celebration!
And they’re all singing their songs of praise to you!
Remember my friend who desires to see the wetlands restored in her area? She has a vision of the community working together to create a space that can be shared with a vibrant natural world. Where the land is restored to its original glory and the waters freely flow without being stopped up by housing and sustenance farming. I too envision families going for nature walks, children bent down observing the undergrowth, enraptured by the ‘wildlife’, while listening as all nature sings, declaring their Maker’s praise — in awe of our ‘Father’s World’. A dream of a land restored that speaks of His Glory, where every part of His creation belongs and all ‘neighbours are connected’. A faint, but beautiful, reflection of a place where the mountains and the hills will break out into songs of joy and the trees of the field will clap their hands.