In the past two years I have spent an increasing amount of time on our farmland. After the regular work day as a math teacher I hurry to the farm to get the animals fed and other ongoing projects completed. The 2 or 3 hours that I spend on the farm each night affords me a great deal of mental therapy through physicality. My worries lift, my tense shoulders subside, and I am invigorated by the sights and sounds of the farm. In essence, I savor a taste of my childhood on each occasion that I am at the farm.
As youngsters, my siblings and I roamed every square foot of the acreage. No hayfield, brook, wood lot, road, garden, pasture, or hill was left untrodden. In many senses of the word, it was our classroom. We were free to explore the expanse of the farm with little worry. We felt empowered by our freedom to explore the natural world and thankfully we did not regress to the savagery of the children depicted in the Lord of the Flies. The wood lot helped us learn the difference between a rotten and a sturdy tree when we ran through the woods kicking down potentially decayed windfalls. The fibrous decay brought about by fungi gave us a visual lesson in forest pathology. We learned that the decaying log housed a myriad of insects. These insects inspired great curiosity about life below the soil. The hayfield offered us the opportunity to fall, roll, and hide amongst the perennial grasses. As we lay, in silence, chests heaving heavily from a high-stepping run, we would watch the field sparrows and other types of birds jump from timothy to orchard grass and then fly away while the breezes softly teased the hayfield’s mane. A love for wildlife was born. The brook teemed with life and sound. Amphibious salamanders caught our eye and were a chore to catch for closer inspection. But, we always returned them to the safety of their home in the brook after satisfying our piqued curiosity. Somehow, each of us knew, in our child like innocence, that to remove something from its home without due cause was wrong. No parental lesson needed. Such is the treasure of the natural world, we learn a great deal outside of the regimented classroom without any intention of acquiring knowledge. The pasture, as we came to know it, was one big playpen for the mainstay of the farm, cattle. We learned through oral history at an early age the names of the breeds that made up our line of cattle and through this process we became cattle lovers. We’re not afraid to say it either. Cattle are amazing social creatures. In walking the fenceline or through the pasture we would observe, firsthand, the pieces of vegetation that cattle preferred. Thistles and wild rose bushes were left untouched while wild apples provided a sweet treat. The mothering instincts of cattle are unparalleled in my opinion and, as we learned, the cows made their presence known by placing themselves between the calves and the bi-pedal onlookers while the bull nonchalantly chewed his cud in the background. We learned the safety of distance from animals in close proximity and how to jump fences, if need be. Every day we played our experiential knowledge grew significantly. We could often be found skipping along the farm roads, stopping to browse something colorful that caught our eye like a purple trillium or a plump wild raspberry. Interspersed with our scientific pursuits we talked sports, food, games, etc., always making sure that no one was left straggling behind. We knew their was safety in numbers and we cared about each others well-being. Something else, I suppose, that did not necessitate instruction.
Today, as a father of two, I find myself looking to provide these same experiences to my children. I want to foster an appreciation for the natural world in them that will hopefully inspire them, if their hearts desire it, to find joy in pursuits that involve the great outdoors. My son, Cameron, is the best helper. He rolls hay bales over, he carries wood, he helps measure boards to be cut, he collects eggs, he tends to the chickens, he runs errands, and most importantly he asks questions, which I answer to the best of my abilities. Sometimes he asks the question, “Can we go now?”, other times he inquires, “What does that mean daddy?” or “Can I do it?” or “Can we go for a walk to the woods/brook/hayfield?” Having my son with me (my daughter is only two so her chance will come soon) is a learning experience in itself. I have to learn to trust him and be mindful of his whereabouts at all times, I have to learn to give him freedom to explore the animal life on the farm and not place demands on him to stay continually by my side, and use opportunities to share my knowledge with him even if it means stopping the task that I am working on. He takes priority. I want him to know that when an important event takes place in his life that I will be there when he wants or needs me to be. Society can wait, work can wait, and leisure activities can wait.
Recently, I came across a quote by Margaret Mead, which reads, “Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.” Although I agree with the distinction between what and how, we can’t treat children as tabula rasa and just fill their blank slates with what we think and how we think, I do not think children necessarily must be taught everything. Although our experience in the natural world with others does not happen in a vacuum, it can happen free from parental or adult instruction where we learn a great deal through our curiosity without being taught how to ascertain those pieces of knowledge. I endorse those parents who see the importance of connecting their children to the real and natural world. There is permanence and retention of knowledge in self-discovery. It’s as though the mind says, “Aha! Now I get it!” Then we can begin to formulate our thought processes (how we learn) to assess the truth of the matter and formulate opinions on issues. I see this very process take place in my daughter as she learns how to use words. She is constantly receiving feedback from her environment, listening to us use words, correct her brother’s pronunciation, and suggest alternate descriptive words to him. It then appears as though suddenly she learned a new word when in fact her brain is processing how and when to employ the use of the word. You should see the smile on her face when she discovered how to propel herself on one of her little vehicles. It was nothing we ever taught her, it was self-discovery, it was priceless.
I feel very fortunate to have been raised on a rural small farm around animals, wildlife, and the natural landscape. The experience still permeates my thought processes to this day. It has given me a passion to share the experience with my wife and children. Most importantly, it has helped me realize that this is something to be shared with and protected for future generations. Everything I do on the farm is done so that one day my son or daughter, or neice or nephew, can do the same, if that is what speaks to their heart. Hopefully, it will. It’s the reason why the multi-generational representation of MacCurdy Farmers wears a shirt with the logo, “Faith. Family. Farming.”