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The Nature of Childhood (or Why Biology Made Certain Aspects of Camping More Difficult for Six-Year-Old Me)

aphorisnt's picture

I wished with all my heart that I could pee in the woods. Honestly, that was the only thing that ever made me feel jealous of boys when I was growing up, that they could pee in the woods easily while I could not, at least not as comfortably. I was proud of my girlhood from a young age, preferring feminine clothing (as in that made for female-bodied people), joining Girl Scouts, riding a bike without the bar from seat to handles, etc, but out in nature, camping and on long hikes and places generally free from the normal facilities and peeing in the woods was sometimes the only option, I wished I could be a boy, even if only for five minutes.
    Nature had always been a part of my life growing up, whether in the form of my own backyard, the local playground, the beach, the mountains, anywhere natural things could grow and thrive. My education started at a very young age with Sea Squirts, a program in Newport Beach–right near my grandparents’ home–that taught young pre-school age children all about the ocean shore, from historical accounts of sailors and pirates, measuring tides, learning to sail, and getting to know all of the organisms that called Newport home. Granted I was unaware at the time that all I learned–where sandpipers made their nests, what part of a moon jelly could sting and which could not, what crabs did during high and low tide, where the pirates used to sail–consisted of ecology, biology, and environmental history, four-year-old me simply loved spending time at the beach and seeing all the creatures in person or listening to stories about and dressing up like pirates or getting in a boat and sailing to the very edge of the harbor to the jetty and seeing it up-close and personal. But learn ecology I did.
    My outdoorsy-ness only increased at I grew older, particularly in first grade when I joined the organization that had probably the largest impact on my appreciation for nature: Indian Princesses. Offensive name aside (that is a topic that deserves it’s own essay), this YMCA-created organization created nations, and within them tribes, modeled on a very loose (read largely inaccurate) interpretation of the structure of groups of first nation peoples and had two key goals: getting fathers and daughters to spend time together and encouraging people to get back out into nature. Once a month, we the Powhatan Tribe of the Friendly Spirit Nation went camping, just dads and daughters, for a whole weekend of hiking, campfires, and general fun. Hiking was always my favorite activity, especially when I had mountains to climb. My most vivd memory is me at seven years old with my friend, Summer, just one year older, hiking O’Neill park together. It was Saturday and most people chose to slept in, but something possessed us to get up and hike. All by ourselves we hiked the mountains of O’Neill from base to peak and, even though these were arguably small and safe mountains, couldn’t help but feel immensely proud upon reaching the summit.
    Of course, at the top of the mountain, one has difficulty finding a bathroom, hence the need to and difficulty surrounding peeing in the woods. Seven-year-old me became extremely jealous then of my cousin, Matt, in Indian Guides who I was sure never had this sort of problem and nothing I had learned to that point had prepared me for that moment. I could hike, I could climb trees, I could pitch a tent and maintain a fire, I could identify poison ivy and oak and sumac, I knew the names of and could recognize many local plants and animals, having seen them up close and in person frequently enough to tell. I could use a compass, tie knots, help make pancakes on a tiny Coleman stove, and build an amazing sandcastle. Also, I knew how to put on a fantastic skit. Unfortunately, that was where my knowledge stopped. I will not go into detail as to what happened next, but in short I decided that difficulty or not, if boys could do it so could I.
    For as long as I can remember, nature has had some sort of presence in my human existence and as such, I never felt like a separate piece or something inherently different from the rest of the animals and trees and flowers. I knew I was human and therefore lived in a house and wore close and ate McDonalds (in a dark time long ago, but no more), yet I attributed this difference to nothing more than what separated a dog from a rhinoceros. That is why a later memory, of being shocked at the idea of humans being scientifically animals, distresses me. I think that shock was a product of schooling, especially in the parochial system, that teaches the doctrine of human exceptionality. Without quoting the Bible directly I do remember Genesis saying somewhere that God made animals for humans to eat and humans were made in God’s image, so in the Catholic sense I suppose humans are separate and exceptional. I suppose maybe some part of me remembered this when I chose to exit the world of religion.
    As I gained an interest in science, I came to accept that humans, like animals, pertained to kingdom animalia and one could go down all the twists and turns of the evolutionary ladder to separate out each phylum, class, order, genus, species, and then back up to the ultimate point of intersection, but I lost that feeling of connectedness I used to cherish. I forgot about hiking as just a seven year old, roasting s’mores and telling stories around a campfire while burning some poor dad’s hat he too trustingly left on the table, forgot about building the Titanic and the Matterhorn out of sand and trying to build a swing out of chicken wire and bungee cords, forgot that I had learned to pee in the woods. It was not until I discovered environmental justice that my love and feeling of closeness to nature returned.
    Today, though to a lesser extent, I do feel like a part of nature. Working for environmental change from both behind a computer screen and on the frontlines and seeing the destruction and damage that might cost some current or future child the relationship with nature I so fortunately had resulted in rekindling my fierce love of nature. I do miss that same feeling of my childhood, a certain oneness with the sky and the earth and the plants and animals as opposed to an awareness of separation, and I believe I can learn to come back to nature and rediscover something that I thought I had lost but really just temporarily misplaced. When I head to West Virginia for Mountain Justice this spring break, maybe I’ll find more pieces of that oneness and closeness, rediscover the intense satisfaction of completing a several miles long hike, of construction a massive fire and teaching the masses how to properly construct a s’more, of conquering biology to successfully pee in the woods. Regardless, I do appreciate the fact that even if I can’t travel back in time, I know I don’t have to lose all the feelings and intimations I once had regarding nature, I just might have to reapply them in a different manner.


jccohen's picture

outdoorsyness, science, environmental change


Much like some of the naturalists described in Sobel’s chapter, you describe a childhood experience in which you “never felt like a separate piece or something inherently different from the rest of the animals and trees and flowers.”  Especially compelling for me are the specifics of that connectedness, which interestingly you describe in terms of what you “forgot”:  “I forgot about hiking as just a seven year old, roasting s’mores and telling stories around a campfire…, forgot about building the Titanic and the Matterhorn out of sand and trying to build a swing out of chicken wire and bungee cords, forgot that I had learned to pee in the woods.” 

The piece becomes more complicated as you contend with when/how/why you began to perceive separation, distance between “self” and the “natural world.”  So interesting the role that “schooling” and particularly religious schooling seems to play here…   

For me a key idea in this piece is that moment when you say you “rediscover(ed) something that I thought I had lost but really just temporarily misplaced.”  I’d love to hear more about this idea, which again relates to some of what Sobel is getting at.  And interestingly, it sounds like here again schooling/education is part of what re-ignites that relationship with “the environment”…  Keep thinking about this “rediscovery” and what it might mean for how we raise/educate young people as well as adults…