By Darcy Dedoes Costello
When my now 26 year old son Jimmy was two, I made a trip back to Walled Lake, Michigan to visit the land I grew up on. I was excited to show him the special natural places I had enjoyed as a child and could not wait for him to explore the pond, to stare into the murky waters and see wiggly polliwogs, their tiny legs starting to protrude from their fat bodies, well on their way to becoming frogs. I imagined him running carefree through tall field grass to my secret reading spot, checking out my favorite climbing tree and visiting the old barns I had once played in. I expected things had changed a bit in the 15 years since I had been away, but what I didn’t anticipate was that everything would be gone.
Excitement was high that spring afternoon as I traveled down Ladd Road to West Maple, ready to share with my son the playground of my youth. But it was here that I was met with immediate confusion. Expecting to see the softness and beauty nature lends to an area, fields and ponds and clumps of trees, my eyes met with the sharp edge of ugly factories and parking lots, roads and manicured green grass instead. I shook my head in disbelief, tears welling up in my eyes. How could this be? The wetland area where I had found the baby frogs was filled in and a road choked with cars was built on top of it. The barns, my house, all of it vanished, a busy industrial park there instead.
Even today I cry with the memory.
Almost two years ago, I heard a similar story of loss. While attending a talk at Pendle Hill, Carl Big Heart, a spiritual teacher and medicine keeper in the Turtle Clan, told a story of losing his boyhood home next to Pendle Hill when the government seized his family’s land to build the Blue Route. Saddened at the fate of their beloved land, his family packed up and moved to Vermont.
Years later, Big Heart found himself back in the Philadelphia area for a family funeral. Traveling south along the Blue Route one dark and foggy night, he felt a deep longing within, causing him to start sobbing uncontrollably. As he tried to make sense of his emotions, blinking through his tears, Big Heart spotted alongside the highway, the beech tree he had formed a deep attachment to when he was a boy. His beloved tree! It was still standing! Spared from the destruction created when the highway was built. The longing, the connection Big Heart felt toward his tree and the land of his youth was unmistakable and he wondered if the land in turn remembered him. The cells of the soil, the tree, did they know he was there? Was there a reciprocity, a strongly felt connection between man and land, land and man? As he traveled over the ground of his youth, he vowed to come back one day and visit. To hug the beech tree and have it hug him.
These stories of loss show how connections to the natural world made early in life brings about a care for nature that runs deep to the core. So deep these connections are that there doesn’t appear to be a separation between oneself and the trees, ponds, fields, or living beings inhabiting the land one discovers and forms relationships with as a child. Unfortunately these kinds of connections to place, to Mother Earth, are not as prevalent today as we have moved away from raising our children on wild spaces and replaced them with groomed subdivisions. Filled their lives with images on a screen under the pretense of keeping them safe. Telling them about nature and the need to protect it, but not forging real life connections and experiences.
We need to get our children out into wild spaces again and allow them to form relationships with nature. Let the roots of the trees dig deep into their souls. Let the Great Mystery of life speak to them and bring about compassion and awareness. To revel in the beauty of the water that not only flows in creeks but also through their bodies. The air flowing through trees and also through their lungs. To feel in an experiential way that they are part of the web of life, wholly and totally connected and dependent upon Mother Nature. To understand that what we do to her, we also do to ourselves.