BOOK REVIEW: Companions in Wonder: Children and Adults Exploring Nature Together

I received this book to review earlier this year, and while wanting to post about it as soon as possible, I have restrained from mentioning it here until I was completely done reading it. Companions in Wonder: Children and Adults Exploring Nature Together, edited by Julie Dunlap and Stephen R. Kellert (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012), is a wonderful collection of essays from various authors about exploring nature, as children, as adults, as families. These are not mere descriptions of the act of exploring in nature, although you will find this in the book. These are thoughtful and engaging reminisces and hopeful thoughts about what it means to spend time outside, away from technology, with someone you love or admire.

There are thirty essays that, although sharing a common theme embracing Rachel Carson’s mantra “a sense of wonder,” all bring a unique perspective on parenting, relationships, environmental education, and knowing a sense of one’s place in the world. The editors, in a very detailed overview of the children and nature movement and some of the research that backs up the claim that spending time in nature is beneficial to one’s health, summarize this collection as part of an “increasingly significant literary genre” within the larger category of environmental literature. While recognizing the mounds of data that show the effects of lack of nature exposure, they note that the more difficult task is figuring out how to connect people to nature. One way, they argue, is through environmental literature, and they hope these essays “yield action as much as inspiration.” And their theme is looking at nature connection through generations. We are introduced to parents, children, aunts and uncles, grandparents, and even those who become part of another family without having any genetic connection (except perhaps, through long lines of shared descent from common ancestors). Dunlap and Kellert write in their introductiion, “Even as a walk in the woods can be an antidote for a child’s nature deficit disorder, sharing that walk between generations is a prescription against deforestation, dwindling biodiversity, climate change, and other ills afflicting our planet.”

Several barriers to nature connection are mentioned: daily routines, money, distance, computer games and other electronics (what Richard Louv refers to as “thieves of time”), and fear. These barriers conflict with the data that show the benefits of outdoor play and exposure to the natural world, but, the editors note, we cannot wait until science reaches a consensus on all issues to send out kids outside.

The essays comprising Companions in Wonder, including ones from notables Richard Louv and Robert Michael Pyle, but also from less known figures involved in researching and communicating about the environment, offer a multitude of perspectives from diverse geographic, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds. In “The Farm,” Rick Bass reflects on his relationships with both his own mother and his duaghters as seen through time on the family farm. In “My Child’s First Garden,” Michael P. Branch describes his mostly futile effort in starting a garden for his young daughter, much to the delight and cravings of an antelope squirrel. In “Tracking Our Way,” a father and son of the Abekani tribe share their thoughts on what it means to connect with Ndakinna, “our land,” and discuss the native tradition to educate youth about and in nature, noting that other cultures have “lost the way.” How the rhythms of nature coincide with the rhythms of life is explored in Susan A. Cohen’s essay “Tidal: Subtidal.” One’s identity is dependent on place, a “place that triggers one’s imagination has a better chance of setting into on’e identity.” Much to her pleasure, Cohen’s daughter shares her affinity with coastal environments. In “The Toad Not Taken,” Jeffrey S. Cramer decides what values are to be learned by rescuing an injured bird. The young starling was caught in a neighbor’s volleyball net, neighbor not at home. They decided to cut it free, and placed money in their mailbox to replace the net. Rather than let this animal die entangled in a net, it now has potential it would have lost. Cramer writes, “The thing we take with us today is gone for everyone else tomorrow. If it lives, the toad not taken is there for others to observe, for it to mate and give rise to more of its kind or to be eaten by a bird or animal or to return to the earth in an endless cycle. It is a cycle with which we should not interfere.”

Janine DeBaise’s “Of the Fittest” shares her family’s annual tradition of playing a Survivor-esque challenge at the family cabin. Pitting family members against each other, the lessons they learned were how hard it is to survive in nature and to not take for granted the simple amenities that some of humanity has everyday. In “A New England Childhood,” Alison Deming reflects on children having a sense of wonder about a natural world that war and militarism seemed to want to destroy, writing, “The cost of letting one’s appetite for the world’s beauty die, of failing to say what one had loved and why, of flagging in sharing one’s admiration [with children, especially] for amazing life would be the ultimate economic failure leaving the human spirit impoverished.” The next essay touches on race and privilege in one family’s experience of nature. Carolyn Finney discusses being able to explore aspects of nature as a child living on a large estate only because her black parents worked on the estate. She compares her experience then with that now of Obama’s daughters living similarly at the White House, yet very differently.  “Do they play outside?” she asks. She notes that although with different backgrounds, of different generations and in different geographic locations, the First Daughters will likewise come away with thoughts about their environment, especially with a mother (the First Lady) who is working to connect kids to nature through gardening and eating healthy.

The contribution from one of the editors, Stephen R. Kellert, is “The Naturalistic Necessity.” Here Kellert discusses the role of direct experience in nature as opposed to indirect experience and symbolic experience. Likening his “naturalistic necessity” to Louv’s “nature-deficit disorder” and Robert Michael Pyle’s “the extinction of experience,” Kellert challenges us to engage the real world, and not the virtual or artificiality of the indoors. “Whatever advances might be made in electronic technology and however creative the modern zoo or nature center have become,” he writes, “the naturalistic experience continues to be an unrivaled context for maturation and development.” In “Children in the Woods,” Barry Lopez gives a wonderful string of words: “In speaking with children who might one day take a permanent interest in natural history… I have sensed that an exploration from a single fragment of the whole is the most invigorating experience I can share with them. I think children know that nearly anyone can learn the names of things; the impression made on them at this level is fleeting. What takes a lifetime to learn, they comprehend, is the existence and substance of myriad relationships: it is these relationships, not the things themselves, that ultimately hold the human imagination.” Richard Louv, in “Fathers and Sons,” reminisces on time spent in nature with his sons, fishing. Why is it that mothers, not fathers, are expected to remember those little moments?

In “Moving through the Landscape of Healing,” Stephen J. Lyons shares how spending time in nature in the forests of Idaho helps him as a separated dad connect with his daughter. The life of Japanese Americans and World War II relocation camps is discussed in David Mas Masumoto’s “Belonging on the Land.” It does not matter what land one belongs to, as long one works the it, takes care of it, and uses what the land gives you. In “A Field Guide to Western Birds,” Kathleen Dean Moore explores field guides and the rationality of the natural world, noting: “It is important to me that my children can distinguish a vulture from a golden eagle by the cant of its wings. It reassures me to know that they can recognize the evening call of robins and the morning call of doves, that they know from its tracks whether a rabbit is coming or going, that they always know which way is west. I want them to go out into a rational world where order gives them pleasure and comfort, but also an improbable world, wild with sound and extravagant with color, where there is always a chance they will find something rare and very beautiful, something that is not in the book.” In “At Home with Belonging,” Danyelle O’Hara counters the sterotype that blacks are anti-outdoors. Brenda Peterson explores connecting children to nature through imagination in “Animal Allies.” Reverence for a bear in Glacier National Park and thinking about animal divinity comes also from Peterson, in “Grandmother, Grizzlies, and God.” Robert Michael Pyle, well known for his writings about children and nature, explores in “Parents without Children” what it is like being an uncle who instills a love of nature in children that are not his own. “Books, TV, Twitter, Google Earth, environmental ed. classes, and family vacations in national parks are all very fine,” he writes. “But there is no substitute for an elder who has been out there, knows a thing or two from direct experience, and is willing to share hard-earned knowledge with receptive and curious young minds.” In “Raising Silas,” Janisse Ray asks, how can a rural farm, filled with nature, compete with urbanity with all its movies, video games, and other children?

Plants as relatives, sharing kinship, is explored in “Grandma’s Bawena,” where Enrique Salmon shares that he was “introduced… not only to plant knowledge but also to a frame through which I place myself into my environment and universe,” where he is bound to everything in a reciprocal relationship. In “Mountain Music I,” Scott Russell Sanders describes an outing into nature with his son to discover the nature of their quarrels, noting that “Every once and awhile the land brought us together over discussions of the fate of the earth and having hope in a miserable world. Chiori Santiago describes a bowl of stones, gathered from beach collecting amid the “archaeology of domestic detritus” that usually cluttered the kitchen table. Given the opportunity by her mother to explore in a seemingly unattractive beach setting along the Bayshore Freeway in San Francisco, Santiago cherishes that her mother allowed her and her siblings “to gaze into an ordinary bowl of stone in order to glimpse grandeur, to see limitless possibility hidden with smoke and trash and concrete.” Lauret Savoy, in “Colored Memory,” explores landscapes as part of her life from California to Washington, D.C., and land as a refuge growing up during the racialized 1960s and 70s. “Metanarratives of the environmental movement and of nature writing seem to have atrophied to a frame primarily defined and limited by Anglo-America,” she writes. “Rock did not spit, that ocean, sky, and mountains did not hate.” Children with ADHD are brought in in Michael Shay’s “We Are Distracted,” while Sandra Steingraber thinks about talking to kids about climate change in “The Big Talk.” Margo Tamez’s “On Being ‘Indian,” Unsilent, and Contaminated along the U.S.-Mexico Border” reflects on how one’s identity is intertwined with the land of their ancestors, noting that indigenous peoples often equate destruction of the environment to colonialism, militarism, and violent death.

In “The Prophets of Place,” Stephen Trimble tells stories of his grandparents and father’s connection to lands in the west, noting that “these were the places that make us who we are.” Recounting annual huckleberry hunting trips with his parents and siblings is the subject of Michael Umphrey’s “Huckleberry Country,” noting that “it was wilderness to us, though we parked our car in the middle of it.” Umphrey continued this tradition with his own children. Rick van Noy, in “Scorched Earth,” describes the difficulty in getting out the door for a planned hike with his children and motivating them to go, bringing in some John Muir and offering that before nature becomes sacred, it must first be accessible and then “lain in and walked on, climbed up and run down. It must ooze between fingers and toes. It must be eaten, whole, and again.” And finally, in “Children in the River,” Gretel Van Wieren writes about the power of fishing with children: its “capacity for wonder formation” and the lessons it offers for understanding the life-death-life process. “Children are not always innocent when it comes to experience the natural world,” she writes. “Often they feel emotions more deeply and expansively than many adults, which is one reason they tend to be better wonderers. Children are open to being amazed, uncertain, uncomfortable, and mystified by the admixture of this tragic and beautiful life. When it comes to fishing, they can see and feel it for what it is – not just a pragmatic act of humans killing to eat but a serious engagement with the sacramental aspect inherent in life.”

In their Afterword, Dunlap and Kellert offer some advice to parents for connecting children to nature, such as the need for enthusiasm (“no need to master ecology or geology”), resisting over-involvement, and fostering boredom indoors (i.e., limiting technology). For educators, they suggest others, including the encouragement of biophilia, limiting homework, and restoring school grounds to include natural aspects (like gardens). They list a wealth of books and some online material. But most of all, they charge the reader to “Get outside.” This is not a book listing scores of activities one could utilize in teaching children about nature, for there are plenty of those. Companions in Wonder is a book about what nature can teach us, children and adults alike.

This entry was posted in "richard louv", books, rachel carson, robert michael pyle, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to BOOK REVIEW: Companions in Wonder: Children and Adults Exploring Nature Together

  1. Renee Crowell says:

    Great review, Michael, very well written.

  2. Mel says:

    This sounds like a really interesting book. I love the literature aspect of it. You’re right about there being so many “how-to” books out there, but if this is a new genre, I’m excited to see it.

  3. Thank you for sharing Michael, I will certainly be adding it to my book collection…can’t wait to read it!

  4. This looks like an inspiring read. Thanks for sharing the great review!

  5. Susan says:

    Wow wow. As soon as i can I am purchasing this. It will do more for my heart than another ekg. Thanks

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