Nature, Beauty and Being Human

“To be fully human we must participate in the natural world; to be fully alive, we must experience the living beauty of the natural world.”

This is how Sandra Lubarsky paraphrases Aldo Leopold’s idea of beauty (Keeping the Wild: Against the Domestication of the Earth). And this is also the Sacrament of Arts and Nature that I argue for in my book Seven Sacraments for Everyone. We need that experience of Nature very badly. Of course we can go through life shut up inside, watching our screens, waiting for the next device to hit the market, completely divorced from the nature world, forgetful of the fact that everything we consumers consume ultimately comes from the Earth and the sun. But if we live our lives in this way, that’s just existing–we’ll never be as human as we can be unless we get in touch with Beauty and one of the best ways to do that is through Nature.

Our experience of nature and beauty has to start when we are children. I was lucky enough to grow up in a house that was tucked up against the woods with a deep gully behind it, carved out of the shale by a creek that made sharp rectangular patterns as it scoured the streambed. That was our playground all year round. I grew up with my knees perpetually scraped and my pants covered with dirt. In the winter we got on our rubber boots and gingerly made our way down the icy creek or slid on our flying saucers down the slope where it wasn’t too steep, dodging trees and stumps.   I can’t imagine a better way to grow up and only hope the denizens of big cities can find some kind of substitute for this immersion into the natural world.

Schools have an important role to play to make sure that children not only learn about nature by watching video recordings, but by getting outside in all weathers and experiencing it. Waldorf Schools excel at this.   Daily walks are built into the curriculum in the early years, and there’s nothing more gratifying than seeing children bundled up from head to toe in January, playing on snowbanks, building things out of snow with their cheeks glowing from their exertions. In the spring, they are at a nearby creek, doing the same thing I did as a boy: making dams. Good teachers know that you don’t have to have a “lesson plan”: simply by being out in nature you are providing children the opportunity to “wonder at nature” — first cousin to acquiring a sense of beauty and realizing our most human potential.

When my son left the Waldorf School he was attending in the 6th grade and joined a class at the local public school, the thing he missed most was recess: there was none. These 6th graders were inside all day long, except perhaps for gym class which met twice a week. Teachers, educators! Get those kids outdoors!

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