Before encountering Chawla’s theory of ecstatic memory, I read Rachel Carson’s A Sense of Wonder, a short book about the importance of giving children the opportunity to experience wonder in the natural world. Although Carson died before Chawla published her work, I see now what Carson’s book really is: an instructional manual for cultivating ecstatic experience in kids. I’ve always seen it as a kind of parenting guide, written in the most beautiful, lyrical prose.
Even before I read either of them, though, I had an instinct to steep my son in the natural world. When he was nine months old, it was June, just as it is now, a time of unfolding summer. When I came home from work, I would load him into the Kelty kid pack and take him on what I called Touch Missions. We’d walk around our creek-bordered property, and I’d guide his little hands to whatever textures in nature I could find — tree bark, flower petals, pine needles, tree leaves still wet from the rain. His childhood got a bit more turbulent as it unfurled, but I’ve noticed that he can always focus, that he always slips into his own skin, in the outdoors. Electronics are effective numbing agents, but the natural world is an active healer.
It’s difficult to parent the way I’d really like to in the suburbs. Kids are very scheduled, natural places are scarce, and the kind of freedom that I think kids thrive under can get you a visit from DCS these days. I have to be more intentional in providing moments of freedom. So here we all are, having transported our children to a remote Adirondack lake to see what they do with the experience. What they did with it was to wake up, eat Pop Tarts, and abscond with the canoe. The lake was sternly chilly, but not chilly enough to keep them out of it. They got halfway across the lake and abandoned ship. I encouraged the wearing of a life jacket, but otherwise sat quietly back and photographed the proceedings with a “have at it, kids” kind of air. Really: experiment. Find out what hurts and what doesn’t. What scares you, and what doesn’t. Do some living. We’ll fish you out of the lake if we have to.