- Green Worlds for Children
. . . My babe so beautiful! it thrills my heart With tender gladness, thus to look at thee, And think that thou shalt learn far other lore, And in far other scenes! For I was reared In the great city, pent ‘mid cloisters dim, And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars. But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds, Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hear The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible Of that eternal language, which thy God Utters, who from eternity doth teach Himself in all, and all things in himself. Great universal Teacher! he shall mould Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask. Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee, Whether the summer clothe the general earth With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall Heard only in the trances of the blast, Or if the secret ministry of frost Shall hang them up in silent icicles, Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.
Nearly two hundred years after Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote “Frost at Midnight,” the connection between children and the natural world still seems natural to us. Whether or not we believe, as the Romantics did, that the natural world makes intelligible the voice of God, we still feel that it is somehow “good for” children to get in touch with grass, trees, streams, [End Page 149] ocean waves, tall mountains, and furry animals. At the same time, we cannot promise them the green world with the simple confidence of Coleridge. We are aware that it is farther from us than it used to be; today’s children may never get the chance to wander by a lake alone, or hear a bird sing in an apple tree. 1 And even as we reach out to the green world, we sense its vulnerability, and fear that it may soon not be there to find. What if the singing bird fails to return? It is now more than 30 years since Rachel Carson first forced us to imagine the possibility of a silent spring.
As the knowledge of our environmental crisis has grown and deepened, so the perception of possible solutions has changed as well. Clearly, legislation to curb pollution, protect endangered species, and create national parks will not stop the destruction of the natural world. Laws can always be changed. The paper-drawn boundaries of a park give it no real protection from those who live outside them, unless they themselves care enough to protect it. Degraded ecosystems and creatures on the brink of extinction are more difficult to rescue than we realized 30 years ago. Today, what conservationists look for are not ways to seal off the natural world, but ways for human societies to coexist with it—which means, first of all, ways of seeing and feeling about nature that encourage coexistence rather than exploitation and destruction. 2
This quest for a less adversarial relationship with nature has no simple solutions either. In the late 1960s, it was a commonplace to blame the environmental crisis on the Judeo-Christian tradition, with its built-in assumption of “man’s” superiority and right to dominate the rest of creation. “Non-Western” traditions—whether Zen Buddhist or American Indian—were believed to result in an ideal harmony between humans and the natural world; one strand of the counterculture was a genuine attempt to recreate that lost harmony through an “alternative lifestyle.” Today, we find it harder to believe that any cultural tradition holds the answer. Countries whose traditions are Buddhist, communist, or agrarian have proved scarcely less likely to abuse the natural environment than those whose cultures are Judeo-Christian, capitalist, or industrial. The new field of environmental history has uncovered proof of ecologically destructive practices around the globe and older than civilization. Increasing evidence, for example, suggests that the ancestors of the American...