At Home in Nature (Rev. Tom VandeStadt)
At Home in Nature
Earth is our home. Many of us realize this to be true. Or partially true. Some consider the cosmos our ultimate home. But since Earth is more tangible to our senses than the cosmos, it’s easier to think on that scale. As for me, my home is in the south by southwest region of North America, between hill country, dry plains and mountains one way, and flatland, woodlands and ocean the other way.
But what of those folks who don’t realize Earth is their home? Those whose sense-seeking bodies, hearts and minds, spirits and souls are largely separated from what we call nature? Those who live where there is little to no opportunity to see, hear, feel and smell fields of tall grass, woods packed tight with trees, swamps teeming with skunk cabbage, frogs and snakes, deserts carpeted with sage and prickly pear, mountains topped with snow in July, or the ocean and the night sky? Those who have no backyard in which to play, or park with grass, flowers and a pond?
What of those folks whose environment is dominated by asphalt, cement and brick? Who live where electric light prevents the night from getting dark? Where the sounds heard are traffic, car horns and sirens, subway rumble and jet engines, electronic media and other people? What of those who’re accustomed to the smell of bus exhaust, but have never caught a whiff of pine, seaweed or cow dung?
When I was just out of college, I spent the summer in Philadelphia volunteering at an inner-city summer camp for children. Home to them was deep within the economically poor and racially segregated urban core of a sprawling city. Much of the housing and infrastructure that dominated their surroundings was in serious disrepair. The children spent a lot of time outdoors playing on the sidewalk, in the streets and alleys, and in debris-strewn vacant lots.
In Philadelphia, the business and tourist districts show off big public fountains. Every afternoon, we loaded the children into two vans and drove them to the fountains so they could cool off. It was the highlight of their day, the poor urban child’s version of swimming at the lake or going to the beach. For two hours, they had splash fights, squirted water from their mouths, and bodysurfed the ripples in knee-deep water.
At summer’s end, we took the children on a field trip to a cabin in the woods. On the way, we drove through Valley Forge. The children pressed their noses against the van windows, oohing and awing at seemingly endless fields of grass they had never seen before. When we pulled over and let them loose to play, they rolled in the grass, marveling at how it felt against their skin and how green it was.
The evening was less fun. The children were scared of the dark. Really scared. Never in their lives had they been immersed completely in darkness. Never had they looked into darkness or disappeared into darkness. Where they lived, when the sun went out the artificial light came on. Their world was always lit to some degree. But here, on this cloudy night with no moon or stars, the absence of light scared them. As did the loud screeching from the dark, the pulsating rub and chatter of countless insects. “What’s that?” they cried, not with wonder but fear.
Seeing how these children reacted to the countryside and the woods, during the day and at night, had a profound impact on me. I grew up in a rural part of New England where I could routinely run through fields, explore the woods, play in the swamp, swim in the ocean, and see the night sky. In the summer, I hiked up and down mountains in New Hampshire and Maine, drinking water from streams, sleeping under stars on windy nights, and getting bit by mosquitoes. I’m eternally grateful that I could find places outside my door that were, for a child, wild. Places where I could run, climb, dig, roll around, and get dirty. Places safe from the watchful eye, listening ear, and prying questions of parents and other people. Places where I felt at home.
My childhood provided me the opportunity to be outdoors in ways that enabled me to explore and enjoy nature. And eventually, to realize that Earth is my home. All children have the right to explore, enjoy, and feel at home in nature. All children have the right to know Earth is their home. Unfortunately, Earth’s people deny this right to many of its children. Many children, too cut off and separated from nature, don’t feel at home in nature.
For the sake of children and the adults they’ll become, for the sake of Earth itself, let’s provide as many opportunities that we can for children to romp around in, explore, learn about, and feel at home in nature. As many possibilities that we can for children to realize that Earth is their home, a home they share with countless other living beings.