Shock and Awe: Nature's Reward

Yesterday I took my class to a well-known botanical garden in town. It was the estate of a famous opera singer that spent her life collecting exotic and rare plants from around the world. She was more into the structure of plants as a source of beauty than the flowers. The way the garden has been maintained, curated, and organized comes off as extremely intentional. The placement of plants, the water features, the rise and fall of the paths all felt in accord. Not to get too lofty, but I felt like the whole thing was very complete, very "whole."

They had us split the class up into five groups who each had a docent. They then all started taking the groups in different directions. I hope you can understand the terror I felt in this moment when I saw some of my crazies going off with into the jungle with an elderly lady who had no clue what those kids were capable of. I stifled the thoughts of disaster and tried to be present with my group. 

The docent said a few words to us by the bus, then we stepped into the garden. The effect was instantaneous magic. The Japanese garden we were walking through was shaded by hundred year old redwoods and eucalyptus. In the middle was a pond filled with lotus and koi. A family of ducks paddled silently around.

The students said nothing except for a whispered "woah." The path took us up and down through the dense fauna until we arrived at a bamboo shelter were we sat down and just watched. They didn't speak for a while, but when they did later, they were consumed with every think they saw. They kept telling me to take pictures of everything. They were picking up leaves to show me the veins. They were asking questions about how old things were, where they came from, why the leaves were shaped the way they were. What I am trying to describe was a stunned silence followed by a flurry of thought. 

What I believe I witnessed could be described as awe. My students experienced the state of being in awe. They were taken outside of themselves for a moment, consumed with beauty unlike anything many of them had ever seen. I don't believe they were conscious of themselves in those first moments after stepping into the garden. Their minds were on the world around them. Excitement and questions ensued out of a desire to more fully enjoy and understand the thing that made them feel that way. 

I want this for my students. I want awe. I want the joy and questions that awe brings. I want it because I believe the world is an awe-filled place that I hope they will grow to enjoy and find fullness in. Enjoyment of the world, fullness of life, happens when students have a truthful understanding of reality, as Paolo Freire notes. That seeing the world truthfully, or understanding it truthfully, however you want to say it, happens when we learn about a thing (or should be happening). Thats why education is important and why I chose this profession. 

Awe drives learning, I believe. When I made a cloud for my first and second graders last year out of water and a three liters of liquid nitrogen, they wanted to learn everything they could about clouds after they witnessed the magic of the explosion and ran through the resulting ice crystals. The classroom should be full of awe in interest of the relevant learning that usually ensues.

I don't want to miss a big take-away from this experience though. The thing that caused this awe in the first place needs to be noted. Nature.

Richard Louv gets at this in Last Child in the Woods. His studies for that book led him to regard nature as a necessary component of a child's development into a whole person for the very reasons I witnessed through my own students in the garden. Here's Emerson:

We return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite spaces, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson

Nature lead them to become little eyeballs in that moment. I believe there is something holistically valuable to our growth when we are taken outside of ourselves like that. In an age where video games, advertising, over-protective parents, and society would have us all believe we are the center of the world, we need to be grounded from time to time by the truth that we are a very small part of a much bigger picture. In my experience, nature facilitates humility unlike anything else and so deserves a place of greater significance in our educational philosophy.