A five-year-old holds half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on very white bread to her ear and giggles: “My sandwich is calling me! It’s my cell phone!”
A group of seven-year-olds circles warily underneath towering redwoods older than any of our grandparents. I plop down on the soft, dry forest floor. “Come on,” I coax, “take a seat.”
“It’s dirty,” one finally says. Now it comes clear why they’d been squatting instead of sitting on bales of clean golden straw earlier that afternoon.
At the end of the day, the trash bin is gloatingly full of Lunchable packaging and shiny silver wrappers while the compost bucket has swallowed a dozen untouched cherry red apples.
Leaning towards Luddite myself, I question how technology is changing our species. Does it divide us from our connection with the earth or is it a fabulous tool to help us live lightly and in balance with all of creation?
I spent my younger years almost totally outside—and I was almost always dirty. I climbed high into the branches of my favorite trees, dug in the ground, waded into ponds, and relished the feeling of muck squelching up between bare toes. I can trace my interest in the natural world to the connection I’ve had with the earth throughout my life. I didn’t grow up in a city with its own delights to explore.
We stand around a wheelbarrow filled with water and use “natural washcloths,” peach sage leaves picked a few feet away that smell pleasant and whose soft, sticky texture helps rub away dirt, glue, and worm slime. The kids love it. A precocious seven-year-old girl giggles, “It’s like we’re homeless people, and we have to use leaves to wash our hands!”
At the Children’s Garden—part of the San Francisco Botanical Gardens—we get a different group of children every day, and I see kids learn to appreciate or enjoy some new facet of being outside. But I worry that they don’t get enough of these moments to add up to a deep appreciation. How many moments does it take?
We play a game in which they employ other senses besides sight to discover a particular herb or leaf of unusual texture that I’ve placed in their open palms. Sight is overexploited: too often a two-dimensional screen, be it a computer or TV, is the only connection young minds have to the wild. They experience a particular animal or place only through its technological interpretation. How does that influence their experience of the real thing—or does it replace real encounters altogether?
I remember the face of a girl who tasted mint for the first time and suddenly understood where that flavor in her gum comes from, or the boy who could not get enough of the raw zucchini he had picked with his bare hands. Cities can be packed with sustainable systems and ideas, but what inspirations will arise if we are distanced from experiencing the earth we live on?