Saturday, May 21, 2011

In Our Nature

 "...the splendid things of life are few, after all, and so very easy to miss."

These words are from, "The Song of the Lark."  They are Willa Cather's words in a book that may be the best of all American writing about a really American story:  the making of something out of almost nothing; the making of an artist.  Cather's heroine is Thea Kronborg, daughter of a Swedish minister in late 1880's fictional Moonstone, Nebraska.  Thea's people are pioneers in a frontier town built up out of the dust at the foot of the great Nebraska sand hills.  Moonstone exists, tenuously, because the railroad exists.  But the shining hills of sand, the moon and the arid plain have a much longer claim on existence, one that Cather is constantly reminding the reader of.  Indeed, when Thea boards the train for Chicago, off to make make her way in the world of music, she does not cry until she watches the sand hills disappear from her sight.  The shimmering hills are hard to miss.

Ever notice how much of our best art is directly inspired by nature?  How literature, painting, sculpture, architecture, books and music are so much about what the naysayers call "atmospherics?"  Even in the great cities, as artists make their way, they have been inspired by the nature of the city.  When O'Keefe came in off the Texas plains to New York, she painted the new skyscrapers against the night sky.  The skyscrapers themselves don't exist without that sky. Falling Water is considered Frank Lloyd Wright's greatest achievement and what is it but a human interpretation of an element?  Brancusi's most beautiful polished metal and wood sculptures combine and then transcend their medium to evoke the exultant mystery of birds in flight.  In her own writings about her writing, Cather has said that the title of her book is not really an allusion to the sound of a lark (a forgivable assumption, seeing how the book charts the rise of an opera star), but rather "The Song of the Lark," is a reference to Jules Breton's painting of the same name.  In his work, a young peasant woman, sickle in hand, walks through a field at dusk, her face and posture registering the sudden sound of the bird she surprises.  I think that what Cather meant is that her book is about the mystery of creativity and creation in general.  It takes people, and perhaps more than people, place to create the artist Thea Kronborg.  It is her memory and love of the place where she grew up that sustains her, and propels her forward.  Such an American idea!  Manifest Destiny, really.

What does this have to do with a nature preschool and children?  Well, I'll tell you.  I had to read my favorite book again to understand this:

"the splendid things of life are few, after all, and so very easy to miss." 

We spend our days here at Dodge trying to get kids to "stop and smell the roses."  Our whole enterprise is about connecting with the world around us, realizing, if only for a moment, that we are part of a bigger system.  Cather, like her heroine, was created by her environment.  And so are these kids we spend our days with on the trail.  The preschoolers leave Dodge at such a tender age, and most, if not all, will not actively remember their time here in the way that we adults like to think of the past.  But their bodies were there in the woods, looking, listening, touching, smelling, tasting and as they did so, their brains were actually growing, their grey matter forming new kinks of intelligence.  Today, for these children, the worms are wriggling in their palms and the apple blossoms are tickling their noses.  This afternoon, or tomorrow, or next week, all the kids that visit Dodge, will leave Dodge.  They'll be on the bus, graduating to kindergarten or leaving camp.  But somewhere, back there, in their nature, is the wriggling worm, the tiny green apple, the stinky barn, the shimmering pond and the sound of the wind in the trees.

Don't blink.

More to Explore:

The Song of the Lark Cather
O Pioneers! Cather
Pioneers, O Pioneers!  Whitman
My Name is Georgia by Jeanette Winter (great kid's book about O'Keefe)
The Divide by Michael Bedard and Emily Arnold McCully (terrific children's book about Cather)