Part Two: The Power of Knowledge & Wisdom
By Michael Caduto
Children are natural artists who love to create things of beauty and make connections. Witness the earnestness and delight on a child’s face when creating a dandelion chain—symbol of love, hope and happiness.” Illustration: Michael J. Caduto.
As travelers through life, it is easy to perceive that we are discovering new truths along the way, but we are invariably encountering knowledge and wisdom that has existed for generations, and which is now simply being expressed in forms that speak to our current social and cultural perspectives. In a broader context, this phenomenon was eloquently expressed by the accomplished Ojibwe writer Louise Erdrich when she said, “Columbus only discovered that he was in some new place. He didn’t discover America.”
Today, as in the past, traditional peoples who live close to nature are subject to the vicissitudes of their environments. If they aren’t careful with how they treat the plants and animals around them, the water and air, then they can clearly see that they suffer the same consequences as an ailing, abused environment. While the stewardship practices that have enabled indigenous peoples to live sustainably with their environments are woven into the fabric of their social, cultural and spiritual lives, these traditions are also rooted in practicality: Take care of your environment and people will survive and live well, but abuse or destroy your environment, and everyone suffers.
It seems to me that we are living in a time of prophecy, a time of definitions and decisions. We are the generation with the responsibilities and the option to choose the Path of Life for the future of our children, or, the life and path which defies the Laws of Regeneration.
—Chief Oren Lyons, Onondaga
During more than three decades of working with indigenous peoples and learning their traditional stories, I have become acquainted with recurring themes that are essential for living in balance. The natural and cultural references in each story vary according to the local environment and culture, but one message is universal: Health and healthy relationships are equated with reciprocity and generosity of spirit.
Developing a relationship with the natural world lays the foundation for raising children who value and protect the health and wellbeing of the environment. Simply exposing children to nature for an extended period of time is an essential part of forming that bond. Research behind the psychological theory of Mere Exposure found that, the more frequently we experience something or someone, the more positively we feel about it or them.
Children need to let their imaginations roam, through stories, dramatizations, play and art. They must find the patterns of experience their questioning brains persistently seek—not just narratives in literature, but in history and geography, in physics and in biology—not only as readers or spectators, but as producers and participants.
—Frank Smith, What the Brain Does Well
Throughout history, care for Earth has been strong among children who grow up in families and cultures that place great importance on the natural world, that understand the connection between a healthy environment and the health of humankind and that raise young people to love and value the world around them. While science imparts knowledge that explains how the world works, stories convey wisdom that immerses children in life ways that nurture living in balance with the world around them.
“Stories are the secret reservoir of values: change the stories individuals and nations live by and tell themselves and you change the individuals and nations. Nations and peoples are largely the stories they feed themselves. If they tell themselves stories that are lies, they will suffer the future consequences of those lies. If they tell themselves stories that face their own truths, they will free their histories for future flowerings.”
— Ben Okri, Nigerian author & winner of the Booker Prize
Befriending the environment during the formative years, and experiencing the innate sense of connection between self and the natural world, have often become the inspiration and impetus for working to preserve local landscapes. Spurred on by a youthful passion and deep caring for nature, many environmental activists, educators and authors (including this writer) were compelled to fight for their local environment at an early age when an outside agent of change, such as pollution or development, posed an immediate threat.
How do we bring stewardship down to earth for children? How can we weave care for Earth into the warp and weft of a child’s inner life? Every child lives a unique story that unfolds within the context of family stories and the greater narratives of culture. Give children a sense of their story—help them to actively create the story of a life well-lived—and you literally offer children the gift of a lifetime. We can help children to see how the story of their own life relates in a healthy way with the natural world and the lives of others.
“The only myth that is going to be worth thinking about in the immediate future is the one that is talking about the planet.”
— Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth
This article adapted with permission from the author’s essay, “Children of the Wired World,” from the book The Quiet Earth (Massachusetts Audubon Society).