Recently on a car ride, my four-year-old asked my ecologically-minded fifth grader and me the question, ‘Why do trees grow?’ Eliot and I both took a shot at responding, talking about water and sunshine and soil and the evolutionary ways plants and animals compete to stay alive and survive in the short and long term. James, whose appetite for thoughtful querying doesn’t always match his age, says from the back seat, ‘I don’t want to know how they grow, I want to know why trees grow.’
We were admittedly stumped. I knew I didn’t want to stamp out his curiosity with a flat ‘because God made them that way’ answer, but I wasn’t sure what else to say. I think I tried something like ‘because they were created to grow and change’ and then, a little desperately, ‘what do you think?’ When we arrived at our destination across town I was both unsatisfied and delighted.
Yesterday, Easter Sunday, was John Muir’s birthday and today is Earth Day. John Muir, a pioneer in wilderness preservation and environmental stewardship in the United States (and likely beyond), kept journals filled with adventures, questions, and observations about the natural world. Most famous for his time spent in the Sierras, he influenced public policy around land conservation in the west and nationally. But maybe more important are the ways he inspires individuals simply to go outside.
‘The mountains are calling and I must go,’ Muir wrote in a letter to his sister in 1873. Then in a collection of his writings published in 1901 called Our National Parks he observed, ‘Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.’
It is easy to feel daunted by the greatness of John Muir or leaders and pioneers of any industry or cause. If I can’t visit Yosemite or afford a trip even to the closest national park near me, why bother?
Because the mountains, the stream across town, the playground around the block, the birds building a nest in the tree out your window, or the nature center in the next neighborhood are calling us as well and we must go.
Children are inherently and beautifully wild and are wired for curiosity. The greatest gift we can give them is to engage their wonderment. I cannot say enough about the invitation to wonder in the Godly Play curriculum. Although I’ve never been trained to teach it, I know enough to know it is brilliant in engaging children with the story or subject at hand.
In her heartwarming book The Sense of Wonder, scientist Rachel Carson (who also wrote Silent Spring) relays stories and reflections from a summer spent on the Maine coast with her preschool age nephew. She writes,
I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel.If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow.
And eco-theologian Sallie McFague reminds us that we must get to know and fall in love with whatever nature we have out our literal back door if we are to grow up to be advocates for environmental justice, serving and guarding God’s created world.
And so, whether it’s wondering alongside your children about the purpose of trees, planting some basil in a pot in your windowsill, turning over rocks looking for critters, snow play or bike riding, feeling wind on your faces, digging in the sand at the beach or in the desert, or exploring a local or national park, get outside and discover nature!
Lord knows we are tired, nerve-shaken, and over-civilized, and the antidote to such boredom and disenchantment is ‘a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life’ (Rachel Carson).