Despite a cornucopia of festive lights, consumer goods and the racing heartbeat of fellow shoppers, children often leave the mall with a cringing emptiness. "They don't shed tears as they leave the mall," states Andy Allen, his hip goatee adding character to his broad smile. Allen has seen children many of them street- wise urban children shed tears after a real experience. Allen, who lives in New Orleans, has led 5th grade children on week- long trips to the natural world, minus the glitz and transparency of our manufactured material world. The mall provides a "temporary fix" for those addicted to the urge of their purchasing power, yet the insatiable desire for fulfillment by buying happiness quickly dulls and the ache returns.
Allen, who refers to himself, as an "earth educator" has witnessed today's youths, with their shields of apparent impenetrable toughness and bravado, find rapture in wetlands and bottom wood forests. Where rap songs are replaced, by camp songs and coolness is left back at the bus. Five days in the forests of Louisiana along the Tshefuncte River nurtures the roots all children have with the environment. For many, television has replaced sunsets and headsets accentuate a complete disconnect with the natural world. Yet within two days in the woods and night hikes around the river, Allen observes a detoxification process, where laughter, learning and camaraderie, make talk of sitcoms and materialistic possession nearly taboo.
But the tears flow as the buses pull up to make the return trip back to the city. An indelible cast in these children has been concocted and the hugs and wet eyes are the proof.
Increasingly, our fast paced world promises spiritual satisfaction through the rituals of shopping. But the congregation of zealous consumers finds the temples of concrete void of lasting feelings. Despite our technology, virtual reality just doesn't match up to the real thing. The outdoor world has a texture, a scent, a conduit of bringing one's memory alive and establishing a sense of wonder. Today's children are simply viewed as pawns in a game of sensory surgery. Seemingly, they have no legs to walk to school and mini-vans provide ambulatory services. Mindful contemplation is being traded in for the blue haze of the "boob tube." Corporate powers seek to provide the prosthesis for an amputated spirit, but they can never severe the inherent kinship kids have to the real world.
Andy Allen is a teacher who plants the seeds of ecological experience, where students learn scientific data, but he stresses the need of focusing on the big picture. "Kids need to craft an ecologically harmonious lifestyle and consider their individual impact on resources." An avid bird watcher, he sharpens the observational skills of children, where those seeds sprout into a personal relationship with nature and those tactile senses are reborn. Learning is not a chore, but an experience to grow upon. Allen is part of the Institute for Earth Education (www.eartheducation.org) who's mission is to make positive ecological change and that comes from being grounded in how this planet functions.
Blue- collar folks, like the neighbors I grew up with in New Jersey and New York might signal that all this "woo-woo" talk is where they get off the environmental education bus. Deep ecological spirituality and the talk of "connections to nature" often bring a sigh of impatience from urban folk. But why did my grandmother, who cleaned railroad cars in the city, travel from the Bronx to the tip of Long Island to deep-sea fish? It was the salt air, the sun upon her face and the lull of the waves. In later years, when she bought a cabin in Maine, her favorite saying was, "do you smell the pines?"
My father raised pigeons high atop the tenement building he lived in. Despite their urban setting, a bond with the planet could be fostered. Why do apartment dwellers fill their domains with plants and pets? Why did my grandfather climb a laundry pole to catch a squirrel so it could be returned to St. Mary's park? This tough, old Polish immigrant indeed lived in the South Bronx, yet he saw that a city still had the components of nature that make life worth living.
55 million children are the prize for industry and corporate America to anesthetize and distract from the current ecological dilemmas they will inherit. The big green environmental groups have all but ignored environmental education. Often their desire to have pragmatic balance, fearful of being perceived as being too "radical." Radical means "roots" and outdoor experiences foster that ticket out of this environmental mess we are brewing. The World Wildlife Fund, a noble organization represented by their panda symbol, has allied themselves with Weyerhaeuser, architects of some four million acres of clear cuts. The Audubon Society funds the American Forest Foundation, a cartel of notorious timber companies that raze redwoods, silt rivers and combat environmental laws. Their pet curricula (Project Learning Tree) puts a happy face on mowing down native forests. How can these "ecological groups" be counted on to produce untainted environmental experiences for children? As Steve Van Matre of the Institute of Earth Education suggests, "Can't the public see through the transparency of corporate sponsored educational materials?" Disney has a Jiminy Cricket Environmental Contest for 5th graders in California. The prize: inject more consumption medicine into kids with an all expenses paid trip to Disney World! I say load them up in solar powered buses and take them to the woods of the Louisiana Bayou.
Teachers across this nation and planet must abandon hodge-podge and disconnected models of teaching science. They must be encouraged to venture outdoors, even in the most urban settings, for a natural world awaits them. They must make students fluent in ecological concepts, but allow them to revel and celebrate the outdoors. This will foster the children's vision of the connection between natural and human societies and that the ultimate measure of one's life is based on what you left behind or gave: not what you took or what you owned.
Those children who wept in Louisiana are signaling all of us that they are in need. Designer clothes or expensive sneakers can never provide them with peace they seek. The remedy for the aching they just cannot seem to squelch is only footsteps away. Its waiting for them right outside their own doors.
John F. Borowski is an Environmental and Marine Science Teacher (North Salem High)
and lives in Philomath, Oregon firstname.lastname@example.org