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A Wilderness of Thought

Childhood and the poetic imagination

By Richard Lewis

Published in the July/August 2013 issue of Orion magazine



The blur of light
conquers the dark.
I awake dazzled.

—David, age 11


THE WIND WAS SCURRYING across the streets of New York, and the children had just arrived at school. I’d recently begun working with children in poetry and drama, and that morning I had the good fortune of beginning my day in a large open space of a room with a group of ten-year-olds. We gathered ourselves in a small circle and spoke of the rush and impatience of the autumn air that seemed to have brought us there. I asked everyone to take their arms and imitate the wind’s movement, and it was instantly clear that we needed more elbow room—so I suggested we get up and move like the wind. What I thought might turn into bedlam was suddenly a wonderfully expressive dance in which each child’s arms and legs, hands and feet were turning and moving in individual ways, as if they had found something in the wind that they already knew.

When it seemed appropriate to slow down, I asked everyone to find a space on the floor and, if the image of the wind was still clear to them, to write down what they had seen and felt. Afterward, a boy named David came up to show me what he had written:

To Be Alive

It was there
Something—happened
What was it
A bird
A fish
A lizard
Was it the girl
Listen.
I hear it again
It is the wind
Wind.
It created me
I am its friend
The wind lives
in a secret garden
far away from me
It comes and I sleep
Sleep and the wind and I
drift to air.

Certain pieces of writing, certain gestures of thought that children share with us can become emblematic—they are entryways to understanding the power of a child’s way of gathering insights. In many instances, the child is not even aware of what he has said and will simply shrug if one tries to praise or compliment him. David’s writing provided, for me, one of those emblematic moments. What he verified and illustrated was the act of imagining, particularly for children, as a bodily experience—as well as the ways that language, both spoken and written, thought and dreamt, is nurtured and embedded in the imagination. We are creators of images and caretakers of the images we perceive and communicate; it is the play of our imagining that allows us to inhabit aspects of the world seemingly distant from ourselves. Certainly David demonstrated this when he wrote without hesitation, “Sleep and the wind and I / drift to air.”

This ability of children to easily enter into the life of something other than themselves—to exchange their own mind for the mind of another—grows not only out of their innate playfulness, but out of a fluidity and plasticity of thought that is, in many ways, an inborn poetic gift. It is, perhaps, a way of seeing in which the seer does not distinguish between herself and the nature outside of her, an imaginative grasping of the whole of life before it becomes separated into subject matters and academic disciplines. One might think of it as a wilderness of thought that encompasses a multitude of growing worlds, each connected and dependent on the other—a truly ecological means of thinking and perceiving.

Here is ten-year-old Arlanda from New York:


It looks very bad to be an old tree trunk. You are all broke up. And little animals coming into me making homes.

And eight-year-old Philmore from Liberia:


I saw the road. It was sitting down. It was brown and rocky.


When one looks at what Arlanda and Philmore wrote, it is clear how the mind of the child and an event or object from outside of the child are subtly and gently brought together. This means of expressing and interpreting the world is not something that was taught, but a spontaneous way of explaining that what is of me is also what is happening around me.

Certainly this is true of Marilyn from New Zealand, who wrote lyrically and suggestively, when she was seven years old, of this shared mind between an insect and herself:

Nothing is better than the song the cricket sings. The sound of the cricket brightens my feelings and makes me sing too. My mind is the cricket’s mind and I wish I was a cricket. Hop, hop the black cricket. The cricket pokes out his feelers and I can hold them and the song of the cricket is my mind.

And it is true of Adrian, who, after I had handed a stone to each child in his fifth grade class, wrote:

The things in my stone want to speak. But they try by the way they build their things, the way they act, the way they react to each other, by their movement, by their joy.

So much of this childhood ease with both the visible and invisible, what we know and don’t know—the pure sense of expectation and delight in the mystery of what is happening and about to happen—is not only a function of our mind’s ability to balance opposites through the equipoise that is our imagination, but also a way of experiencing the world poetically. I don’t mean a poetry of verse and poems, but a poetic understanding that allows us to stand, for instance, in the middle of a stream and say nothing, and yet to feel, if only fleetingly, a sense of how we and the flowing water are of one being. Or to walk down a city street and accidently walk through the shadow of a tree that seems to move with us, to want to follow us—an expectation, an incandescent moment of which we are suddenly made aware. Each is only an instant, but an instant that carries with it a form of knowledge accessible to children and adults alike, one we rarely include in our current estimates of intelligence or achievement. This awareness should not be seen as a lack of development or a passing innocence, but as a container of thought that we carry with us over a lifetime. Within it, we, the stream, the tree, and the tree’s shadow share the same language.

 

OVER FIFTY YEARS AGO, in an essay titled “The Mind as Nature,” the noted anthropologist Loren Eiseley wrote, “If the mind is indigenous and integral to nature itself in its unfolding, and operates in nature’s ways and under nature’s laws, we must seek to understand this creative aspect of nature in its implications for the human mind.” His challenge has certainly been taken up, especially in recent research on the cellular and chemical pathways of our thoughts and actions. What I believe Eiseley was also hinting at was the nature of the imagination—in particular the biology of the imagination—not only in terms of its functioning but as a natural process directly related to our own growth and understanding.

Much of children’s art and writing shows that there is a process of “unfolding” in their thoughts and feelings that lucidly mirrors the interlocking molecular structures of biology, the mind that is nature. For many children, it is not uncomfortable or unusual to see the wind or a stone as alive, the grass as dancing, or the rain as having a face, like four-year-old Adrian observed:

The rain screws up its face
and falls to bits.
Then it makes itself again.
Only the rain can make itself again.

This is not simply a matter of anthropomorphizing or cartooning but of truly experiencing the processes of nature as part of oneself. It is the same innate poetic and mythic instinct that allows a Bushman in South Africa to sing:

New moon, come out, give water for us,
New moon, thunder down water for us,
New moon shake down water for us.

Or an Inuit woman in the Arctic to sing:


Day arises
From its sleep
Day wakes up
With the dawning light
Also you must arise
Also you must awake
Together with the day which comes.

Or this seven-year-old child, writing on the back of his drawing of the sun:


The sun
warms
me so
much.

Each joins the human with the outer world—the natural phenomena of ourselves with the phenomena of nature outside of us—and creates an interchange, a melding of one nature into another.


HOW OFTEN DO WE REMEMBER, or still hear, one child asking another child: “Can you be the mountain, and I’ll be the bird?” Or a child playing by herself in the corner of a room, becoming all the parts of her inward story—a cat, the thunder, a sudden rainbow, maybe even someone calling from an open door. While one could argue that this kind of play is fast disappearing because of the distractions of television and digital devices, most children still have a yearning for it—to enter this theater of possibilities and the intimacy of its dreaming and wondering.

How many times have I gone into classrooms that are equipped with the best and latest of technologies and quietly taken from my small wooden box a robin’s feather, a broken twig, a spiraled seashell, a leaf just fallen from a tree, and held each of them up, each a singular species of being, asking how might we feel if we were that twig, that leaf, that feather or shell? And how many times have I been showered with responses that are always urgent and playful, seeking to find the life of a seemingly inert object through the child’s own inward imagining? In some improvised gathering of thoughts, the children and I have found together this other kind of poetry, a conversation of sorts that shapes its own way of meaning—different, perhaps, from the everyday instructions of learning, but equally pertinent to the nature of who and what we are and the nature in which we exist.

One such experience took place with a sixth grade class in Queens, New York. Over a period of ten weekly sessions, I asked the children to enter a memory of an actual meadow, one I myself had walked through the previous summer. Part of my challenge was to see how, particularly as children of the inner city, they might be able to imagine the meadow I had experienced and incorporate it into their own imagined meadows. As I told them the story of walking through the mountains of Colorado and finding myself in a large, green meadow surrounded by hills, I also spoke of how, through those meadowlike spaces of our own imagining, we are able to see not only with our outward eyes, but with our amazing inner sight as well.

A pivotal moment in our conversation came when I began to speak of the ominous storm clouds I saw coming toward me as I walked in the meadow. Perhaps it was the mention of the storm, or the way my voice reflected this change of weather, but it was suddenly apparent from the children’s eyes and the way they were following the curves and gestures of my telling that they too were also seeing, also remembering, also becoming a part of the landscape and weather I was encountering. I spoke of my fear, my feeling of getting lost—and at a certain point, I asked them what they thought I was afraid of. They quickly responded, as if they were in the meadow, months earlier, with me:

“You were lost in the mountain . . .”

“It was getting dark and you were so scared of like your imagination about the bear or something and everything. Yup, you were scared of that. About your imagination.”

“Thunder and lightning . . .”

I realized then, as they spoke up, that we had crossed a boundary. They were no longer bound to an empirical, textbook way of thinking but had begun to trust what, in effect, was the fertile language of their inward seeing—their ability to find this playful part of themselves that could enter into the nature of both their own imaginations and mine. And from there we could begin to explore the innate poetry of this nature—its earth and sky, its growing and changing, its beginnings and endings, its ability to gather and sustain the thoughts that linger and sustain us.

Over the remaining sessions, using writing, drama, and art as our means of expression, the children began to inhabit their own meadows. I gave each child a small dried flower to hold, touch, and smell. And it wasn’t long before wind and air, moons and suns, light and darkness, grass and trees, insects and birds—yes, even clouds and storms—became the living poetry that is their meadow, this nature that is themselves and that they so generously acknowledged and shared with each other.


My meadow is beautiful.
It has doves,
Morning Dew
And my laughter.

—Aisha


Mmm . . . I smell that smell. I feel like
a reindeer ready to rest in a free world,
waiting for my mother to feed me so I can
rest.

—Baholoame


My meadow feels like
The gala of all meadows.
There are roses blooming,
Buttercups growing,
Daisies smiling,
Pansies swaying in the wind,
Black-eyed susans growing . . .

—Dwayne

The slither of light is very beautiful.
As I look through it I can see the world.

—Jennifer

 


I am the grass.
I am the still.
I am the sleepy.
I am the quiet.
Oh, yes, I am the grass . . .
and the still . . .
and the sleepy . . .
and the quiet . . .
Oh yes, I am the grass
And with this I say goodnight.

—George

 

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Richard Lewis is the founder of The Touchstone Center for Children, an organization exploring the relationship between imagination and the natural world. His recent books include the essay collection Taking Flight, Standing Still and a collection of poems, Shaking the Grass for Dew.

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