Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Wednesdays with Words :: Esolen on Nature Study

Taking a break from the holiday posting to share some really lovely words on nature study from Anthony Esolen's Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child.  This book has been on my bedside table for six months, and I dip into it section by section between other readings--not because it can't sustain my attention, but because it's rich and funny and just the kind of book I like to savor rather than devour.  I was struck again recently by his thoughts on time outdoors, so I flipped back to them again last night and want to quote a longish bit here.  (And look, a double-whammy: Hopkins and Esolen in one!)
But it is not only the floods, and earthquakes, and electric storms that make natures strange to us.  It is all wondrous and strange.  When Elijah sought the Lord, he was not in the tempest, nor the earthquake, nor the fire, but in 'a still, small voice,' that made the prophet hide his eyes in reverence.  The poet Hopkins saw it his special calling to see what he called the 'inscape' in things, what makes them particularly what they are.  We might think an ordinary flower just that; but to the mind made attentive to the works of nature, the most ordinary things are steeped in their own peculiar ways of being, and are mysterious.  Here we find Hopkins describing bluebells:
'The bluebells in your hand baffle you with their inscape, made to every sense: if you draw your fingers through them, they are lodged and struggle with a shock of wet heads; the long stalks rub and click and flatten to a fan on one another like your fingers themselves would when you passed the palms hard across one another, making a brittle rub and jostle like the noise of a hurdle strained by  leaning against; then there is the faint honey small and in the mouth the sweet gum when you bite them.  But this is easy, it is the eye they baffle.'
Not everyone is a poet, yet children come uneasily near to it in their natural fascination with anything at all.  A child might take a stick to poke around a large mound of red ants, thousands and thousands of them, scurrying about their formicative business, without benefit of schooling, crawling up your shoes and socks if you step too near, to nip your ankles.
One way to neutralize this fascination with the natural world is to cordon it off in parks and zoos, and then to act as if only the parks and zoos were worth seeing.  Persuade a child that a giraffe he sees once every couple of years is really impressive, but the wren on the fence post is only a drab little bird--though he warbles out a love song in the morning, cocking his stubby tail, and is in general one of the bravest and most cheerful of birds.  Persuade the child that the Grand Canyon is worth seeing, or Yellowstone Park, or Mount Rushmore, or the breakers of the ocean on the Florida coast.  But ignore the variations of hill and valley, river and pond, bare rock and rich bottom soil, in your own neighborhood.  Children should be encouraged to think they have 'done' rivers, or bird sanctuaries, or botanical gardens, in the way that weary tourists are proud to have done Belgium. (37-8)
(In case you're not familiar with this book, that's a bit of sarcasm shining through there at the end.)  

If those words doesn't make you bound and determined to include at least a weekly trek through the outdoors with your littles, then I'm afraid nothing else will.  Spread a feast of even the "ordinary," and over time, that natural fascination will work its magic.


  1. This is yet another book on my list to read....along with The Living Page and Desiring the Kingdom and CM Vol. 3....maybe sometime next year? :) Thanks for the sneak peak.

    1. I'm *really* hoping to get The Living Page for Christmas. :)

  2. I had seen the part about the drab little wren quoted before from this book, but I'm glad you included much more context. I have had this book on my wishlist for a couple of years, I think its time to get it. :) And with everyone talking about The Living Page, I might have to get that one too; its so hard to wait when it's talked about everywhere.