On The Trail of Potter & Carson

Cart path in Near Sawrey, Cumbria England leading to Hill Top Farm, the home of Beatrix Potter.

I am happiest when out wandering about in the world of nature. It is a time where I am most easily filled with a sense of wonder, bridging my immediate physical moment to all that is magical. A point within my inner landscape, or being, that bears resonant images of wild nature’s brilliance. Where the radiance embodied in her raiment draws me closer to that deep point within where I behold myself silent, still, and open.  It is this emotional sense of wonder that’s first noticed when some animal track or sign (aka spoor) first appears within my observable landscape when out wandering, tracking all the daily happenings worthy of the NEWS. Much like in Edwin Abbot’s 1884 classic novella Flatland, this sense of wonder enters my field of awareness like a gift from another dimension: fleeting in duration yet pure and inviting. An echo of the author, scientist Rachel Carson’s deep-seated wish, when asked at the dawn of the environmental movement what gift she would bestow upon children if she had influence with the good fairy:

“I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.”

A gift indicating the truth that it is not half so important to know as to feel, and why, as an educator, I see wonder as the essence of human interaction with the natural world. The elemental crux of human experience and entry point around which real magic weaves a plethora of possibilities within my present moment.  This feeling of wonder is something instantly recognizable, and immediately familiar I believe for it is the same emotion that moved our ancestors to build stone circles, monuments, and soaring cathedrals. Times and places where great and elemental things prevailed – places of meaning that reflect the mythic journey’s intricate weaving together of nature and culture. A true metabolic moment as lawful as the exchange between living cells and their surroundings where the vital breathing in and out, and the flux of water and nutrients, constitute a commingling of the outer world and inner flesh.

Rachel Carson’s favorite picture of herself in the woods by her Southport home, Maine.

Sadly, this loss of our cultural abandonment of any deeper sense of our physical and emotional connectedness to the natural world is characterized by the imperiling loneliness and increased isolation that defines our times. Knowledge of natural law has unfortunately become second hand; hypnotically conjured and peddled by the purveyors of media madness, while our emotional world has been commandeered by the soothsayers of fear. Reminiscent of the ancient wisdom that traced the journey of an impression in our mind’s eye from its impact to ‘interest’, ‘desire’, and ‘mania’ – those proverbial “7 deadly sins” or concomitant dispositions toward pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, sloth.  I ponder daily Carson’s injunction concerning the fairy’s gift alternatively taking us from impact to ‘wonder’, to ‘joy’, ‘beauty’, ‘gratitude’, and ‘reciprocity.’ A clear juxtaposition of process contrasting our western market economy with an indigenous view of nature’s gift economy, where a sense of wonder is the keystone state upon which a very different mindset can be birthed.

This was Henry David Thoreau’s innermost conviction, that wonder was the seed of higher emotional inspiration and archetypically connected to qualities connoted with the Divine Feminine principle in myth lore.

“Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has
been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed
there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.”

Largely evocative via feminine centered words like intuitive, heart-centered, compassionate, wise, accepting, forgiving, collaborative, and reflective; any harkening back to this keystone state within us may well represent a rebirth transcending the alienated world inhabited by human inadvertence coupled to a cold indifference toward levels, or nuances, of emotional meaning.

Always understood as the true nature of the educator’s task, it was with this wish toward cultivating wonder, through which I perceive my role as a sower of such seed. To help inspire, in the truest and deepest sense of that word, is very different from what schooling often requires. But seeing and understanding this in myself is always the first step before attempting to navigate help for others. So, catching glimpses of this ‘sense’ while witnessing all that is in play in these moments is fundamental for this will-of-the-wisp awareness invoking the mystery of something ‘other’ within my present moment. Something, as a Tracker, I have come to follow within the track of my own thinking that mirrors the outward ‘Box Stop’ track pattern an animal leaves when pausing to take stock of its immediate environment.

It is a state worth pondering if wishing to bring more formative thought and understanding within one’s purview, and clearly a survival strategy for me as much as it is for the animal. Learning to come “full stop” within my mental landscape helps me see the distinct difference between these two mindsets. Two very different tracks holding two very different possible outcomes or destinations. Where joy and beauty as opposed to desire, and gratitude and reciprocity opposed to mania and madness all too easily come into play. Truly a matter of human choice and gravitas for these thoughtless times!

Thus, when crafting educational offerings, whether taking students off for a week to Coastal Maine for a Zoology & Evolution block of study or further afield utilizing foreign travel, time and timing are key components for cultivating fertile soil. When standing knee-deep in the lilliputian world of a rocky tide pool, where fluctuating elemental forces define the nature of such a transitional zone between two different worlds, it is very easy to forget the hustle and bustle of our day-to-day affairs and to be magically transported into the ebb and flow of a miniature marine world and ecosystem. Much like it was for Rachel Carson, whose loving patience crafted her Sea Trilogy (The Sea Around Us, Under the Sea Wind, and The Edge of The Sea), bringing the nature, significance, and wonder of the living sea alive to the world at large.

Box Stop Track Pattern

A ‘box stop’ track pattern occurs when an alternating track pattern (hind feet directly registering atop of the front feet) becomes ‘broken’ by an animal stopping to assess a change within its immediate environment, where all four feet register separately thus breaking the straight-line pattern of an alternating direct register gait. This stopping to assess incoming impressions is a survival strategy important to the animal and one that could surely benefit the human as well.

It is a state worth pondering if wishing to bring more formative thought and understanding within one’s purview, and clearly a survival strategy for me as much as it is for the animal. Learning to come “full stop” within my mental landscape helps me see the distinct difference between these two mindsets. Two very different tracks holding two very different possible outcomes or destinations. Where joy and beauty as opposed to desire, and gratitude and reciprocity opposed to mania and madness all too easily come into play. Truly a matter of human choice and gravitas for these thoughtless times!

Thus, when crafting educational offerings, whether taking students off for a week to Coastal Maine for a Zoology & Evolution block of study or further afield utilizing foreign travel, time and timing are key components for cultivating fertile soil. When standing knee-deep in the lilliputian world of a rocky tide pool, where fluctuating elemental forces define the nature of such a transitional zone between two different worlds, it is very easy to forget the hustle and bustle of our day-to-day affairs and to be magically transported into the ebb and flow of a miniature marine world and ecosystem. Much like it was for Rachel Carson, whose loving patience crafted her Sea Trilogy (The Sea Around Us, Under the Sea Wind, and The Edge of The Sea), bringing the nature, significance, and wonder of the living sea alive to the world at large.

Rachel Carson’s favorite Tidepool was at New Harbor, Maine where much of her scientific research for the ‘Edge of the Sea’ was conducted.

It was this glorious sense of wonder that inspired Rachel Carson and lent purpose and direction to her life, and while adhering to this higher call, she ultimately gave to the world its clarion call toward environmental awareness and responsible behavior in her environmental classic Silent Spring.

 “What inspires you?” and “what can you give back?” were thus the two questions that my wife and I posed to a group of high school seniors and juniors before setting out one spring to walk and explore the Lake District of England as part of an immersive off-campus elective at our school. Our goal for this was to liberate our students (and ourselves) from the classroom, daily schedules, and non-stop activity of the school year, offering them a chance to slow down, hear their own voice, and allow wonder to give direction to their own lives. The location we chose to explore was England’s famed Lake District and the connection to the children’s book author, Beatrix Potter.

Inspired at an early age with the spirit of the natural world, time in nature, observing, drawing, and imagining the realm of Fairie, the young Beatrix forged a lasting connection to life and a deeper understanding and appreciation of it. Having found herself then quite by chance, or luck, placed within a childhood upbringing where solitude, nature, and being socially barred from educational institutions by virtue of being female, served the unlocking of her unique creative genius; creating a world of imagination that gave life to some of the world’s most unforgettable characters. Part of her gift was in being able to pursue her interests as well as the time to develop them. She was destined to become a woman very much ahead of her time, personifying what has come to be considered in our times, the environmentally conscious and responsible citizen. She later used her “Peter Rabbit” fortune to safeguard and preserve the land that became almost an extension of her, setting aside over 26 working farms, and donating upon her death over 4,500 acres of land to the National Trust – what would become the emerging nucleus of the Lakes District National Park.

The theme for our study became “Pottering About: From Inspiration to Action” and what we found in the Lake District, both in the life of Beatrix Potter and in our adventures through the countryside, was the new inspiration for ourselves as teachers and for the youth in our care. And a little magic as well! As most of our group was six weeks away from high school graduation, these questions were particularly timely and relevant to what was on their minds.

Pottering About (as opposed to puttering – “keeping busy in a rather useless way”) evolved into a specific style of travel for us, characterized by getting to know at an intimate level the places people call home, or those places that we travel to, to make those appreciations of home felt more deeply. It is very much in line with and akin to the “Slow” movement, slow food, slow schools, slow travel, and just plain slow living. The guiding principles, or hallmarks, to proper Pottering, may thus be stated as 1) immersions into nature, 2) time richness, 3) being “unschooled,” and 4) life at 3 mph. All of it is based upon a more relaxed rhythm where one is allowed the luxury of time to delve deeply into the phenomena of nature with eyes of wonder. It is a way of journeying, of going on adventures, being time rich, and breaking away from all that has placed boundaries of thought around and within us. Constraints of time, deadlines, quotas, and “results” are held at bay (brought to a STOP), and a more relaxed space envelops the journey’s participant where an actively engaged mind meets the delightful wonders of any given day, time, or place. Beatrix Potter – the woman who delighted the world with her magical, and near-mythical, stories of nature’s enchantment – defined and deepened this term for us when she relocated from suburban London to the Lake District and found herself gifted with this opportunity to discover in this way, not only a “sense of place”, but a “sense of self”.

Hawkshead Church & Village in the heart of Beatrix Potter Country, and boyhood home to William Wordsworth.

We see this as the very heart or essence of journeying. Being on an adventure, wherever one travels to, for it fosters an attentive mind within the moment, where one is in that moment as opposed to being of it or caught in the swirling constraints often imposed by our social times where life is lived in the fast lane. We travel much more humanely when moving at 3 mph as Rebecca Solnit tells us in her seminal book Wanderlust: A History of Walking. In this, she addresses the reality of our culture living in a series of interiors. The picture, or structure, of the day, that she vividly paints is that of going from our homes to our cars, to our offices or schools, to our cars again, and to a myriad of other places where we pass our days engaged in an activity. We transport ourselves to these activities, or events, via multiple means of conveyances to maximize time, and efficiently orchestrate our journeys through space to where we participate in those events and activities that give our days meaning. Yet, it is to the point where we find ourselves mostly inside or within structured areas (or interiors) and seldom connected to these places where the events occur; reminding us of those dot diagrams you’d do as a kid where once you connect all the dots on a page, a picture then emerges to the delight of our senses. We have all these “dots” or events within the days of our lives, but the picture, or story, connecting them into any meaningful whole never materializes. It is difficult to generate a sense of a place when the context within which that sense must sit in null and void. Kind of like a quantum world experience where we just appear and disappear into events never having to transcribe a line of time through space.

Pottering About was a way of walking and journeying, which changed the way we think. Neuroscientists now know from research that idleness frees the brain and provides for more creativity and inspiration. In an article in Scientific American, Ferris Jabr reports on the study of Mary Helen Immordino-Yang of the University of Southern California and her co-authors on the Default Mode Network (DMN). Jabr says that the researchers “argue that when we are resting (a stop) the brain is anything but idle and that, far from being purposeless or unproductive, downtime is, in fact, essential to mental processes that affirm our identities, develop our understanding of human behavior and instill an internal code of ethics – processes that depend on the DMN.” As teachers, we didn’t set out to necessarily put this type of research to the test with our students. Rather in our overall years of teaching and leading youth on walking adventures, we recognized what visionaries like Henry David Thoreau already knew, that when our students were allowed time to slow down, wander, and wonder this often led to new insights for themselves and a feeling that they were now overseeing their own lives. For juniors and seniors about to step out of the safety net of family and high school, this seems particularly necessary to finding one’s private track in life.

Allowing for a more relaxed rhythm to experience the landscape, and not having a product in mind, is not the typical experience for most high school students. Walking, travel, and time in Nature lend themselves well, but Pottering About doesn’t necessarily mean the journeyer needs to go far. We walked a short loop around the village of Grasmere and Rydal Water where William Wordsworth, the Lake District poet, walked daily, yet that simple route lent itself most adequately to producing some of the world’s greatest poetry. He didn’t refer to his daily wanderings as Pottering About, yet he did reveal that his “aimless as a cloud” walks through the Lakes District created the experience or inspirational creative opening within which he called a “spot of time” moment, where the ways being described were crucial to unlocking his creative genius. As we walked through areas of the Lake District that were favorites of Beatrix Potter, we couldn’t help but appreciate even more what she accomplished during her life in nature. Beatrix not only created some of the most popular children’s books of all time she also became a keen scientific observer whose artwork included not only Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny but more than 400 fungi water-colored paintings that to this day are considered some of the best mycological illustrations to be done ever. Although Beatrix, along with, and above and beyond such an impressive body of scientific illustration, put forth to the British Botanical Society a scientific theory concerning the symbiotic nature of Lichens – 50 years ahead of the theory’s time. She was rejected due to the singular fact of being female, and never having been formally schooled. She remarked upon her lack of formal schooling with gratitude for, as she was often want to say, “I was never sent to school, thank goodness, as it would have rubbed off some of the originality”. Thankfully, she did in 1997, receive posthumously an official apology from the Linnaean Society for her treatment

As we wandered the country footpaths where Beatrix and her husband William Heelis once rambled and explored the natural beauty spots preserved by her efforts to save the countryside and its traditional ways of life, our students recognized a life well lived and were inspired by it to the point where they began to imagine their own futures. The guiding questions of “what inspires me”, and “what do I want to give back” began to take on a living process within them. We watched as our students relaxed into the questions and began to be touched by the landscape and each other. For many it was a very moving experience, feeling touched deeply in ways they couldn’t yet explain. “I don’t know how,” one young woman told us, “but I know I am a different person.” Upon our return to school, another student found herself crying and she told us she wasn’t sad, only changed and somehow reborn and renewed. For adolescents taking charge of their own futures, this time to wander in nature, to wonder, and to imagine their life seems vital to themselves and the world. Albert Einstein is often quoted saying, “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used to create them,” and our thought, as educators, is that we are not only in dire need of new thinking but renewed emotional depth. New pathways enabling us to not only think new thoughts but to sense emotional depths where we recognize the necessity of being true citizens of the Earth. Slowing down and becoming part of nature offers up one way to open us to these new possibilities.

 Students on Tarn Hows; one of the numerous beauty spots protected by Beatrix Potter.

In the past, and to some extent today, the inspiration for life emanated from and out of our cultural mythology, the language of the spirit, and clues to our most profound human possibilities. As such they are likewise intimations of what awaits the sojourner who hears the call to life’s adventure. For Beatrix Potter, that call was from the land she came to love and through which she created not only a unique sense of place but also a unique sense of herself. Our youth today deserve no less, and a fair share of that magical time where a sense of wonder can bring them a different sense of themselves, and of their times, which is all too quickly becoming “senseless” within these virtual times.

To that end, educational journeys to places of natural wonder, whether close at hand or to faraway places, provide a destination as well as a purpose, becoming holidays for the Soul. The need of having both knowledge and experiences in order that learning can take place can be acknowledged by the seemingly mystical abilities of Carson & Potter which rested on the keen edge of intimate knowledge born out of wonder. Sadly, there is a corresponding decrease in this intimate knowledge as technology becomes more sophisticated and complex, while the childlike gift of wonder gets edged out by societal agendas. If the greatest promise of western science is its ability to reveal wisdom to us, I am increasingly coming to see that this leading passive force of wonder, so resonant within the Wise Woman female archetype, becomes the crucial precursor toward any fusion involving greater depth of meaning amid our increasing meaningless activity in nature. A life-sustaining convergence of thought with heartfelt sympathies that ushers in a more open and acceptive tradition of conservation, land stewardship, and environmental ethics. A rebirth born out of a sense of wonder!

The heart, soul, and voices of Beatrix Potter and Rachel Carson reverberate loudly for me, as do the contemporary voices of Wise Women like Jane Goodall, Terry Tempest Williams, and Robin Wall Kimmerer. Voices that call us to stop, listen and wonder in a most profound and timely way.

The author’s wife at Salt Pond Preserve & Tide Pool, New Harbor, Maine where Rachel Carson did much of her scientific study when writing ‘The Edge of The Sea’.

3 thoughts on “On The Trail of Potter & Carson

    1. I would love to be back on the trail of Beatrix Potter; so much to still discover in the Lakes. Had to cancel a planned walk through Yorkshire this past Fall. Hoping things have settled down a bit by this coming September. Hope you are well and walking!

      Liked by 1 person

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