Two images have struck me of late. One, a sign at the entrance to a children’s playgarden at The Northwest Flower and Garden Show which read “Go Play Outside.” I can’t remember whether it was punctuated with an exclamation point, but it very well may have been. That age-old admonition to go outside and play being almost extraordinary in our day.
The second image was a recurring scene in the film “The Cure” which I recently viewed in which two neighboring boys in the small town of Stillwater, Minnesota play imaginatively in a garden. Despite the fact that their play was bent on violence utilizing action figures and staging mock attacks and wars, I found it remarkably reassuring and I knew just why. Hey, it wasn’t a computer game.
One boy in “The Cure” was infected with the AIDS virus. The mother of the other boy forbid her son to associate with him. But by being engaged in the natural world the boys forged a remarkable relationship. They worked with what they had: dirt, rocks, water and plants. Digging, sculpting, imagining and creating they found that they could forget all their troubles. There isn’t a gardener on earth who hasn’t had that experience.
“I started to understand something about plants by handling them,” noted landscape designer Russell Banks in his memoir, The Education of a Gardener. “It was on one summer holiday when I was perhaps fourteen that, bored with the riding and jumping competitions at a local agricultural show, I wandered off to the flower-tent… (Thereafter) all my pocket money went on rock plants. All my holidays were given to my own personal corner of the garden. I would bicycle for miles to get a basket of leaf-soil, I would steal grit, sand or gravel from roadside heaps and I would borrow a horse and cart to collect stones which were hard to come by in our stoneless countryside… I was seventeen when I was given a grass slope, a few cartloads of the local ironstone, a few bags of cement, some plants and a piped water supply with which to make a small rock and stream garden. For three months I really lived in and with this miniature world as I struggled with my pocket landscape. Each stone represented the possibilities of a cliff or a mountain top, my dribble of water could be a lake or river or cascade and three pigmy junipers were a forest. A few moist and shady inches on the north side of a stone were a Himalayan bog… a handful of grit on the sunny side of the same stone stood for a hot stony hillside… a six inch fall of water was a Niagara and my friends who came to visit me at work I saw only as giant feet and legs, so immersed was I with my Lilliputian problems.”
It is interesting to note that the boys in “The Cure” were approximately the age of Russell Banks when he began shaping his surroundings. The important point here is that for all of them the contact was physical, the experience was real, and they all saw themselves as part of the natural world. It is in going outside to play that we first bond with our environment, and this is essential. Children who are taught first that the rainforests are endangered, global warming is upon us, and the environment disastrous before they have had a chance to engage with it and enjoy it can hardly be expected to become the earth’s stewards. My guess is these children will stay firmly wired to the television and computer. We are far more inclined to love and protect what we know to be ours.