Children are getting separated from the wild glory of the earth just as quickly as they are forgetting to read.
When I was nine years old, my family moved to the middle-of-nowhere, Texas and there I found a new best friend. The earth. Until then, I had brushed up against sky and trees and bugs in my big Tennessee back yard and in smidgens of park visits. But never had I gotten to know the earth on its own, away from the crowded room of streets and houses. In my new home, the chatter of the suburban world died away and I found myself able to get far enough into the hot quiet of a summer day that no voice could shatter the watching silence of the trees. And I began to know the earth.
My new house was a kindly, weatherbeaten, yellow rancher set on what we called “The Ranch.” This wildly creative name was the family’s affectionate title for two hundred scraggly acres of Texas hill country for which my grandmother had long ago abandoned Fort Worth society. It was pure Texas; crackly grassland with the click of grasshoppers, worn fields bristling with cedars and jeweled by two small lakes where a loose herd of cattle came to drink. Before I go all dewy-eyed about roaming the land, I must note that the first day we arrived, my dad was attacked by a copperhead snake, the second morning, we woke to a bathtub full of wolf spiders.
Despite these terrors, my inner picture of that first Texas summer is dreamlike in it’s loveliness. Girded with a few crackers and a notebook, I’d slip out the door in the early morning to roam the land until lunch. I followed old cattle trails and scraped for fossils in the shale and found the far corner of the orchard where the butterflies flocked the thickest. That summer was a dance, an open-armed, wide-eyed, little girl twirl into the wild music of the natural world, a music I had only faintly heard in my neighborhood-bound experience thus far. But it was also a season of epiphany.
I remember the day when the sky grew gray and autumn first descended over the sun-crisped fields. The wind, my balmy friend, grew restless and chill, and the earth seemed almost to step back from me. I roamed that day with timid feet and quiet eyes. The cold had a presence, the wind bore whispers of something I had not yet encountered. That night, I mulled the changed face of the land before I went to sleep. My bedroom door had been gently shut, a nightlight glimmered in the corner, but my eight year old eyes were wide with wakefulness. I squirmed under my quilts. To be stowed in bed and not ready for sleep is a torture. So I sat up and turned to the window behind my head. My grandmother’s shades covered the glass, but I lifted one, and stuck my head under it so that I was nose to nose with the glass.
Chill as ice, it stung my nose and the pane blushed with my breath. I stared through the mist of my breath into the wide black of empty Texas fields, darkness filling the flatlands as if with water. The rise of it came to my window, I felt dark lapping the ledge beneath my face and I pulled back. I looked up to the sky and my eyes were tangled in a net of stars. Cold, countless, spattering a blackness whose start and end I never could find, they stared hard at me until I drew my quilt tighter round me. It came then, a sense of my own smallness. The sense of being a thing so tiny I didn’t merit a glance from those proud stars or that enveloping dark.
Abruptly, the feeling that had simmered in my heart all day rose to a sudden boil that closed my throat. What I felt was fear. Not terror as of under-the-bed-monsters, but a wordless, choking awe at the realization that something lay behind the beauty of the earth I loved and it was far bigger than I had ever dreamed. I ran for my parents room and found my dad. It took him a good half hour of holding me close and telling me the the presence I felt was God and it was Love before I consented to get under my covers again. When he was gone, I lifted the shade an inch one more time.
I will never forget that night; it was my first brush with eternity, my first comeuppance against something so much bigger than myself that I must be terrified or thrilled. But I will also never forget it because it was the first time I understood with unmitigated clarity that nature speaks. That skies shout and trees write words into a wide-eyed sky. I realized that the black eternity of the sky and those high, proud stars were speaking with voices, meaning in every atom of their pulsing dark and bright. And all through the summer the wind had sung and the fields had shimmered with secrets, and the trees had bent to share their counsel.
That night, I learned a truth that haunts me still: to step out of my air-conditioned, insulated house into the wind and tumbling atoms of the atmosphere is to enter a world that daily tells a visible story.
I think it is a story we were meant to see and touch every day of our lives. One of the “issues” I write and speak about is the loss of story in our culture. I am a little terrified of the way that children are growing up without the riches of good books to shape their imaginations and form the eyes with which they perceive the world and their own tale within it. But the deeper I delve into the world of story and the impact that great narratives have on our view of ourselves, the more I find that there are different kinds of storytellers. Books are certainly one, and one I will fight for children to have. But nature is another. And children are getting separated from the wild glory of the earth just as quickly as they are forgetting to read.
I am bothered greatly right now by the realization of how technological and synthetic our daily worlds have become. I could go off for a whole blog post on the recent near-panic I feel at the ceaselessness of internet, iPhone, and constant technological presence in my life. But as I have examined my days, I’ve realized that I spend a lot of time in the car, with a regulated, air-conditioned atmosphere. I live in a modern house that keeps the outdoors entirely at bay. And while I know that these are “modern conveniences” that make life much more comfortable than it was in the past, I also am becoming aware that some things were lost in order to gain these gifts. Like a close knowledge of the seasons, a dependence on the bounty of the earth for food, a rhythm of life lived by the light and dark of the sky.
The reason this particularly concerns me is that I’ve been going back through Genesis, studying the patterns and forms by which we were originally made to live. I’m in a white hot blaze of fervor to figure out just how we were meant to live, to relate, to love, each other and God. I am dissatisfied with the forms of modern life which seem to me to mostly those of productivity at all costs, convenience, entertainment, and ceaseless activity. In my Scriptural search, the most basic forms of living I can find regard our relationship with God, our connection to family and community, and our charge to rule and subdue the earth.
In our modern age when few of us live anymore in the country, I think it is easy to forget that to intimately know and graciously rule the earth is one of our primary charges. And though a dozen more practical reasons for this charge could be named, I think one of the reasons is that it embodies and signifies the goodness of God. It speaks of his imagination, and sets us amidst his thought enfleshed. “In the beginning, God created,” and every atom came from his imagination. I believe He made the world in such a way that to tend it, to touch it, would be to know His heart. He told a story into the earth, and it is the tale of his bounteous heart. We were given the uplifted arms of pines, and the vibrance of a summer garden, the laden arms of apple trees, and the dark patience of mountains to keep us alive every day to all that God is and will continue to be. And I think this remains despite the fall.
So here’s my inner struggle: how can we in a modern age truly live out the original form of working with the earth? I’m not a farmer. I didn’t grow up working the land. I, and most of the people I know, live in suburban or city areas, with feet striking concrete or accelerator pedals most of the times we venture out. I go for walks on nature trails, I plant my little pot of flowers. But I have to work and plan hard to spend time seriously in the company of the earth. To dwell for more than a few cursory minutes in the outdoors or actually grow a living thing from the soil. More and more, I feel that the cultivation of the earth is something that is both desire and conviction for me. And I will admit that I am praying for land of my own someday.
But how do I reconcile this with my own technologically driven, concrete-framed time? How do I hold these ideals when most of the world is mired in their opposite? How do you interpret this tension in your own life, or do you feel it at all?
Sarah Clarkson is an author, blogger, and student of theology at the University of Oxford. She loves books, beauty, and imagination and wants everyone else to understand why they should too. She is the author of Read for the Heart (a guide to children’s literature) and Caught Up in a Story, an exploration of the way that narrative and imagination form a child’s sense of self. She wrote The Lifegiving Home with her mother, Sally Clarkson, and blogs about home, books, Oxford, and beauty at thoroughlyalive.com. When not chasing doctrinal mysteries down in the Bodleian, walking the meadows, or drinking another good cup of coffee, Sarah can be found at home with a good novel in the red-doored English house she shares with her husband, Thomas.