from Dr. Clifford, our Upper Elementary guide:
A few years ago, a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary was published. In an effort to offer a product most relevant to its newest generation of child readers, Oxford University Press removed many words that were considered unnecessary, adding new ones to make up the difference. Among the lost words were acorn, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, dandelion, fern, heron, newt, otter, pasture, and willow. New words included blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3player, and voice-mail. In relating these changes in his new book of essays, Landmarks, Robert MacFarlane observed that "The substitutions made in the dictionary -- the outdoor and the natural being displaced by the indoor and the virtual -- are a small but significant symptom of the simulated life we increasingly live.... A basic literacy of landscape is falling away up and down the ages.... And what is lost along with this literacy is something precious: a kind of word magic, the power that certain terms possess to enchant our relations with nature and place."
I fear for the children of today, that they are losing vital opportunities to spend time in nature and engage meaningfully and creatively with the landscapes where they live. In another column, I will explore the concept of biophilia, an idea proposed by the ecologist E.O. Wilson that young people have an innate tendency to bond with the natural world. For my own part, I see that when I take children into the woods. This week, Upper Elementary began what will be a regular feature of our classroom in the months ahead: nature study. We set off into the woods of Serenbe, blank journals in hand. Our path led over a wooden bridge and along the banks of Cedar Creek. There, out of earshot of machinery and other evidence of human presence but well within range of the calls of northern cricket frogs, the children found spots by themselves, to sit quietly and draw and write about those moments. One student asked me to take a photograph of the stream to include in the journal; another found an intriguing flower and sketched it. Everyone agreed that our time there -- a scant 25 minutes -- was far too short. Next time, we will leave earlier, stay longer, perhaps even explore other places in the woods. And someday this spring, we will set out with picnic lunches for some distant spot, perhaps the grindstone the Native Americans once used, situated high on a stony hilltop above the stream.
Along the way back, I pointed out a few plants -- a flowering bluish-purple violet, an American beech tree still holding its withered leaves from last autumn. Next time, perhaps I will invite the children to sketch something we find. Or maybe I will ask them to close their eyes and listen, then make a sound map of everything they hear happening around them. Slowly, from one visit to the next, the woods will become more alive to us, as we greet particular trees, rocks, and spots along the stream as familiar presences. We will start to notice insects and birds, and tracks of deer and raccoons. We will learn a bit more of the language of the forest -- a domain of acorn and heron, beech and bluebell far removed from virtual landscapes of broadband and MP3player. In the words we write and carry, we will forge connections to nature -- ones that may well endure throughout our lives.