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Fine Arts Friday: Naturalists & Scolds

This post is a little ranty, which isn’t normally what I do for Fine Arts Friday, but it has to be said! Also, this post contains affiliated links.

animal tracks
Trackers in the making.

Sprite has had an affinity for sharks for as long as she’s known of their existence. When she was about eight, we had this conversation on the way to way to a softball game:

Sprite: I want to be a veterinarian.

Me: You know, sweetie, it’s marine biologists that work with sharks and other sea life.

Sprite: No, what Aunt Carrie is.

Me: Oh, you mean a vegetarian! Vegetarians don’t eat any meat — no hamburgers or anything.

Sprite: (Thinks for a minute.)  Maybe I’ll be a vegetarian who has Steak Tuesdays.

I could get behind that kind of vegetarianism, but I thought it merited further investigation. It turns out her latest shark book had the requisite section on humans are nature’s greatest threat, concentrating on the evils of shark-fin soup. In reaction to that crime, her eight-year-old reaction was to swear off all meat, except Steak Tuesdays.

Every juvenile book about animals — no matter how short — has a section on the evils humans have visited upon the animals. Some of them are reasonable explanations of the challenges of humans living harmoniously with all living things, but too often it’s over the top condemnations resulting in little girls feeling guilty about what’s on their dinner plates.

Of course, we can’t ignore the impact of man on nature, and I’m not suggesting that we do, but I wonder if scolding is the proper approach.  One of the most egregious is from a really wonderful series of books called Animals Head to Head that my boys are enjoying right now. Each book has a match-up of the abilities of two animals — tarantulas and scorpions, for example — and tells who would come out on top in a head to head match-up. They are really wonderful books, except for the last page of “But the real bad guy is MAN!!!11!” explaining all the evil ways we’re evil and hurting the poor scorpions. Evil.
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Obviously, man has done a lot of damage to animal habitats, driving some species to extinction. We recently studied the period in history where the American government, settlers, and railroad companies slaughtered millions American bison. We don’t sugar-coat the destruction or the wicked stupidity of those acts.

My philosophy of conservation and the environment — and the ethic I’m teaching my children — is that we are stewards of God’s earth. We’ve been given dominion over the earth and creatures in it, but not in order to do whatever we will with it. We are caretakers who are ultimately responsible to God for how we treat our earth. Of course, that means pointing out when we’ve fallen short in that responsibility, but the heavy-handed approach in almost every children’s science book is more likely to create misanthropy than a desire to be good stewards.

But how man’s relationship with nature is presented in books is only part of the problem. Nature books can foster interest in creation, but to really fall in love with it, you have to get your hands dirty. You have to explore empty lots and creek beds, sleep under the stars and tramp through the woods to truly become a naturalist.

Unfortunately, the prevailing atmosphere is “leave nothing but footprints.” This is not merely clean up after yourself and do your best not to harm the wildlife. This is “Look, but don’t touch. Don’t get too close. And above all else, don’t take.” It’s not too far removed from going to a zoo or aquarium: look at the wildlife from a safe distance, from the other side of the barrier that you are never allowed to cross.

The rationale is obvious, but the result is that we are no longer familiar with nature. Even if we take walks on paved paths through well-tended nature preserves, we aren’t comfortable with nature up close. In the (very highly recommended and important) book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv talks about how children are discouraged from making collections, from building forts or shelters or treehouses, and certainly from being alone in the woods. The result is that we fear nature and think that nature should fear us. How can there be love in such an atmosphere?

Right now, I’m reading Rascal to the children. The only way to describe it is delightful. It’s a coming of age/nature/history/bit of Americana story that everyone should read. But, it begins with Sterling and his friend kidnapping a baby raccoon from its mother. Not only that, but he and his father take a camping trip into the northern woods of Wisconsin, and Sterling is left to romp through the woods on his own while his father has business in a nearby town. AND he meets a strange man who has a cabin on the river and goes into his house! Never in a million years would this book be published today. In fact, I’m surprised it hasn’t been banned from libraries.

I want my kids (and your kids and adults, for that matter) to love nature. I want us to want to be good stewards and wise caretakers. But in order to do that, we’re going to have to get our hands messy. We’re going to have to abandon the idea that we are nature’s greatest enemy to be quarantined. We’re going to have to let them pick flowers, make rock collection, and catch bugs and fish and *gulp* snakes. To truly become nature lovers, we’ll have to embrace nature. And maybe leave more than a footprint.

One response to “Fine Arts Friday: Naturalists & Scolds”

  1. […] kids play in nature. See! I just said this a week and a half ago. Go pick the wildflowers, […]

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