I have read three books this past year that I consider to be game-changers; books that subtly shifted and guided the path I want to walk in life. These were books that caused me to stop to examine and clarify exactly what sort of person, what sort of parent, I want to be.
The first was Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which redefined the way I look at food and moved me to live a more sustainable lifestyle. The second, Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods, opened my eyes to the importance of unstructured nature play on the human psyche. The third was Rick Van Noy’s A Natural Sense of Wonder: Connecting Kids with Nature through the Seasons.
While Last Child in the Woods is broad, an issue-based philosophical and intellectual work, A Natural Sense of Wonder is a personal compilation of essays touchingly recounting one father’s attempts to cultivate a love of nature in his children. An essay, Van Noy says, “is an attempt. This book is a collection of essays about our attempts to get outside.”
The essays are loosely based on the seasons, moving from walking to school to thwarted attempts to find a frozen pond suitable for skating upon, to swimming holes, tree houses, and tide pools. (My personal favorite dealt with vultures, birds every bit as fascinating as they are creepy.) They are a pleasure to read; humorous, beautifully written and clearly influenced by passionate naturalists such as Rachel Carson, Henry David Thoreau, and E.O. Wilson. Each essay rings with wonder and awe, both for the world around him and the children beside him, and the tone never veers toward preachy or sanctimonious.
Van Noy makes it clear from the outset that he falls prey to the same difficulties and frustrations as any parent. The most difficult part of a hike, he complains, is getting the kids out the door (keep shoes close, he advises). He admits that his children are watching a movie on television as he finishes his writing; he thinks his son would play video games forever if his parents would only let him. He curses. He gets lost. He forgets the tents. He feels old.
I can identify with this man.
Rick Van Noy finds the time to camp with his kids, to hike, to canoe, to splash through creeks and hunt for salamanders. To him, these shared moments in nature “shine like jewels within the casings of our lives, giving us meaningful images; an internalized core of calm; and a sense of integration with nature.” And he tells his stories in such a thoughtful, lyrical, wistful sort of way that I want desperately to share in these experiences, with my own children.
Van Noy ends one essay, “Scorched Earth”, with a line that really resonated with me as a parent:
I cherish the sacredness of these outings. They return me to the father I want to be rather than the one I sometimes am.
Isn’t that what we all want? To make room for sacred time and space with our children, to step outside of the frenzied pace of our day-to-day lives and return to the parent that we want to be. A Natural Sense of Wonder plants a seed of inspiration to do it, and is a poetic handbook of sorts, to be guided by on our journey.