Nature Education

Growing up, I was lucky to be raised in a paradigm that promoted both nationalism and a love of nature. Israeli zionist ideology in the 1980s, when I went to school, was a perverse combination of reproducing, sacrificing and hiking our way into dominion of the land. Dividends for having more than two kids were accompanied by such slogans as “It is good to die for one’s country,” and ideas that where our feet walk, the trail belongs to us.

My family took the hiking ideology deeply to heart. Every Saturday we all piled into the car (for a long time, my father had a brown-and-tan VW van), and off we would go. We visited archaeological sites. We swam in waterholes and creeks. We hopped over basalt rocks in the Golan Heights and leaned over sandstone cliffs near the Arava. We wandered through fields of wildflowers. We crawled down steep dryfalls in the Negev and took photos of waterfalls teeming with icy water in the Galilee. We climbed steep mountain peaks to see the endemic Tavor iris or an ancient ruin which witnessed the destruction of our ancestors at the time of the Roman Empire. We ventured far and wide. We got to know, and claim, the country with our feet. And with witness knowledge, with sacred experience, my love of nature grew and matured into a lifelong passion that has never dimmed.

My children, born in the early years of the 21st century, live through interesting times. They have been raised in the United States, not in Israel, a country so large that much meaning disappears in sheer size. A single person’s vote can feel insignificant in its influence. A single person’s sacrifice fades away within a few degrees of separation from his or her family. A disaster such as September 11th impacts the country, but the smaller sacrifices of a soldier fighting in Iraq often pass unknown to the general population. At school, my children receive lessons on the history of humanity, the literature which humanity has produced, the experiments and discoveries humanity has made. They learn sports which humanity has invented and mathematics with which humanity had sought to order the world. It is an education in human supremacy, the world according to mankind viewed by the lens unique to mankind.

When my children learn about nature, most often they learn about its use to us. Thus, in first grade, the rainforest unit concentrated on cute animals and chocolate, vanilla, shampoo and other rain forest products that were relevant to the kids’ lives. In 7th grade, during the unit about animal adaptations, the students were asked to invent their own animal and its survival mechanisms. With the advent of genetics and genetic modification techniques, the creation of animals we humans fancy or need is right around the corner. Already our children grow up not knowing that a chick hatches from an egg laid (and nurtured) by a chicken. After all, in 2nd grade they learn that a chick hatches (and often doesn’t) from an egg in an aquarium watched over by infra-red lights.

I would like to see schools teach children of their place in the world, as one animal out of many. I would like to see schools teaching kids about the importance of being in the world with a light touch, of taking only what they need and no more, of the importance — the equal importance — of other species. But perhaps I am arguing a moot (and too late) point. Even with the best intentions, I wonder if schools, at this point, could overcome the influences of technology. My children, probably like most American children with similar economic backgrounds, live almost entirely inside their devices. They barely ever raise their eyes to look outside. There’s a rainbow? They can see a much clearer one on instagram. The weather? They don’t need to look out the window — it’s at their fingertips on an app.

Some years ago, long before I had children and when I was just a young adult myself, my family traveled to Yosemite with my grandmother. I have always loved Yosemite, the smell of pine and fir as you drive in, the clear, crisp air, the grey and white never-ending shapes of rocky surfaces. Perhaps it was the long drive, or frustration at the noise we teenagers were most likely making, but my grandmother exclaimed something which had stuck in my mind since. She said: “Why are we driving so far? We could see it all much better on the television screen.” Twenty plus years ago, when this happened, we all laughed. But my grandmother then as now was ahead of her time, a prophet to be attended, not ignored. My children — born to a mother who identifies most as a hiker, nature lover, backpacker — are not interested in seeing Yosemite even on the television screen. Their one redeeming connection to this unimaginably beautiful place is the snow. They don’t want to go hiking, and they plan to complain all the way there and back about the drive, but once in Yosemite Valley, they will play and play and play in the snow.

Sadness. Sorrow over the disappearing gifts of this world. A sense of loss, of fear of loss of these rare, fragile places which we so tenuously hold against the progress of human supremacy over the world, the fear that we have lost connection with nature of which we are a part. Then, I look outside. On my hillside green is sprouting. Much of it is non-native, mostly oats which were brought here from Europe in the early 19th century. But some, not a lot, will be plants that have grown on these hills for hundreds, thousands, or even millions of years, long before us humans decided to step on these hills, to build our homes here, to change the shape of the hills and their ecology with our tools and technology and desires. The history of these plants, could they tell it to us, will be a history of survival, strength and resiliency. They are heroes, have managed not to fall prey to axe and digger and shovel, to spray and exotic plants and hooves of cows and horses. They have seen the grizzly come and go, and some of them, perhaps, have seen the disappearance of the dinosaurs. The tales they could tells us! The cautionary tales!

And here I sit, staring at a screen and typing. I too looked at a screen before I checked the weather outside and was later surprised to find the app was wrong. There is no rain. The sun is peeking through the oaks, creating patches of sunlight on the new green and rain-dewed grass. Perhaps it is time to turn the computer off and go smell and luxuriate in the autumnal air which we can really only do when we’re outside. Perhaps the birds are singing, or I can spy the shadow of a migrating hawk. And perhaps, as the wind carries the clouds over my head, the promised rain will come, and I too can be nourished, with the oaks, from the much-needed bounty of our vanishing world.

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Sigal Tzoore (650) 815-5109