When I was growing up, it’s a wonder my skin didn’t turn green because I spent so much time in the green world. Now, when I visit schools, children say to me, “There’s a lot of nature in your books.“ Knowing my young life, and my history since, I think Of course. But when I was growing up, I didn’t separate what was outside and call it “nature.” Nature was just a part of the life I inhabited.
Every green place was my familiar. If, to start, there was mostly a ring of yard, soon there was as well the schoolground at recess and the strip of grass and weeds and trees shading roads. There was a surround of woods, rock ledges, and–beyond front yards–walled gardens. There were the special precincts of nature I visited; my earliest vocabulary included U.S. Forest Service, National Park, State Park, and Picnic Area Ahead (though who, I wondered, needed a sign to find one). And there were always, too, the backsides and edges of known places–the secrets of the neighborhood that only children know–and, anywhere, some wild margin beyond the world that adults lived in.
I wasn’t a young naturalist. If anything, I was a collector of favorite places–places to go to, places to be at, or in. We all had them then: places we hid in, pulled around us, stood on top of, gave a name to, waded into, read in, watched from, and called our own. Some of those places everyone else knew; some only we had claimed or found. But always they were ours by the way we knew them.
In each of these, there was some predictable experience–as there were, too, the mysteries one met there. I came to play, to wonder, and just to be. I came for solace and ground and surprise. This was where I went when I needed to get away. And where I found communion with some Other–and with myself.
Some days were spent in discovery and roaming. Some days there were plans to return to. Some days were for being alone. Some included a friend or cousins or sister or parents or grown-ups of various sorts. But, in whatever way, it was in all this that, early, I began to know who I was and where I was and what the world was about.
When, some years ago, dairy farming in New England was losing more ground, neighbors in a town where I used to live sold their cows and converted a barn to an ice cream stand. Sometimes I go back there. It’s a popular place. There are always families, always children. But I notice again and again that the big attraction isn’t, for children, the ice cream. It’s a rock, an outcrop of granite near the barn. Children are pulled to it. They’re clambering up it. Immediately it flexes their imagination, as it also becomes a physical test. They stand on top and say things like “I am Queen of the World” or “I am King of the Mountain.” It empowers them. “Look at me.” “Look where I am.” “Look what I can do.” Though they’ve come for ice cream, it’s The Big Rock that occupies them. They would stay there for hours.
Many of these children, it’s clear, aren’t usually climbing on rocks. But it’s as if they’ve suddenly discovered a child’s natural identification with “nature.” And it makes me wonder what they would discover if they were allowed more exposure.
I know it was a different world, a different era, that I grew up in. Yet there were, then, strange neighbors. There was danger. There were risks. There were sharp edges. There were centipedes and ticks and tarantulas and polio and poison ivy. There were bad decisions, poor choices. There were consequences. We weren’t protected from everything and ourselves. But it was all that exploring, of every kind, that we learned from–and, because of it, grew more richly into ourselves.
Rachel Carson wrote the book she called A Sense of Wonder to encourage, she said, the nurturing of “a child’s delight in the natural world” so it would “last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.” She wasn’t concerned with explaining or teaching; the book was just an invitation to walks in the woods, to nights beside the dark ocean–listening to waves and looking at stars, noticing, touching, smelling shells, rocks, tides, dirt, leaves, sticks, flowers and the great turns of years and seasons. “I sincerely believe,” she wrote, “that for the child it is not half so important to know as to feel.”
A poignant note precedes the text: “Rachel Carson intended to expand [this book] but time ran out before she could.” The book feels complete. We can only guess what she would have added. Yet I like to think the small stories I’m writing may, along with stories by so many others, become part of that expansion.
Someone is always asking me, “Where do you get your ideas?” The truth is that I don’t usually begin with an about. Instead, something that seems to have story around it pulls me in, attaching then to something else and something else and something else. Even as I feel a familiar electricity build, it’s not often I know, when I start to write, what a story is about or where it is going or how it will get there. I have to find out as it grows. Nor do I want to use a picture book to covertly preach or teach. My niece reported on her first week at daycare: “I don’t mind going to school, but I don’t like being teached.” I try to remember that. Still, the stories I write grow around what I’ve lived and what matters to me. So again and again they return to those mysteries I first met as a child, loose in the natural world. They’re not confined to that. But I’ve noticed that something of that is so often in them: something that may, I hope, be an invitation to a child now to explore there, too.