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The Child in Nature

As a child, I spent much of my time outdoors and discovered an early fascination with the nonhuman world. It became the site for rich imaginings and great adventures. And it was home to the animals who became my friends, my confidants, the creatures whose comings and goings showed me many truths about life and death.

Growing up in New Zealand, I lived with my grandparents on a 12 acre farm in the Waikato, central North Island. I was surrounded by farm animals – sheep and cattle, pigs, chooks, rabbits, cats and dogs. It was a simultaneously beautiful and brutal environment where life and death danced their eternal jig.

I remember how the farm animals loved music. I often stood upon an old tree stump near the fence atop the hill of a large cow paddock. I would spread my arms wide and sing songs from the Sound of Music. Before long, the cows would gather on the hilltop to lie in the grass and listen to me sing as they chewed their cud. The dogs would take rest by my side. And birds would join in a chorus from the nearby trees.

As a small child, I helped my grandfather kill roosters for our food. I held the bird on the chopping block while my Poppa wielded the axe and struck the fatal blow. The chook’s head would bounce about madly as if trying to find its way back to its body. I always dreaded these moments, the macabre comedy of it, and the constant reminder that life is fleeting, and we have little say in how our own life will end.

My best friend was a Maori girl called Anita whose father abused her almost daily. She sought refuge on my grandparents’ farm and together we went on many adventures in the fields and forests that abounded at that time. We swam in the creek behind the field of elephant grass. We climbed the Kauri pines near the orchard. And we rode our bikes to the edge of a dark forest of giant pongas (silver ferns) and tall stands of kauri, rimu and northern rata. We were scared to venture into the forest. It was home to Patu-paiarehe (fairy-like people). Some said the iwi-atua lived there, supernatural beings with marvellous powers. One day we heard music floating from the dark forest. We screamed and ran away, riding our bicycles as fast as they would carry us, terrified that the forest people were trying to lure us to our graves.

I have been thinking a lot lately about my childhood memories of nature. It is said that our childhood is where the seeds are planted for our lifelong relationship with the Earth.

When was the last time you recalled a childhood memory of the natural world?

Can you remember feeling joy? Curiosity? Wonder? Awe?

What’s a special memory that takes you back to being a child in the woods, the desert, the grassland or ocean?

What did it feel like? And what would it take to feel that again?

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