Acts of Enclosure
"There was a time when every meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore; --
Turn wheresoe'er I may,
By night or day.
The things which I have seen I now can see no more."
"Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing boy."
-- "Intimations of Immortality", William Wordsworth
I dimly remember learning about British enclosure laws. I believe it was during my last year at junior high school (all right, it was a pretty advanced class.) It had something to do with putting up fences to keep cows inside the farm, and prevent sheep (or was it goats?) from roaming over the "village commons". I think I got that confused at least once, because the lords of the manor wanted to graze their own sheep on the commons so they could make money off the wool?
But what did I know? There I was in New York City, and I'd never really been up-close-and-personal with sheep, goats, or bovines. A village commons? You mean there were parcels of land that were shared collectively, that made it possible for poor folks to keep a few animals for milk and meat without having them all fenced in? Did they once exist in my neighborhood? Who were the lords of our manor who had taken it away?
There was some kind of truth behind all of this stuff, but it wasn't apparent to me. Rather like the "Triangle Trade" where (as I wrote about in Homeschooling and the Voyage of Self-Discovery) the point was that the real business of the African slave trade was almost entirely an affair of the northern colonies. (To be as fair as I can to my teachers, I'm fairly certain it never clicked for them either.) Somehow, although there must have been something important going on with these enclosure laws (or they wouldn't be teaching it, right?) I seemed to be missing the fact that poor people with their goats were getting shafted, the goats would soon be gone, and the people would be off to work like sheep only worse in airless, soulless factories, and their kids would (ah-hem) be going to school.
My old friend John Taylor Gatto has analyzed what I might call a new set of "enclosure" acts that have taken place in the United States in the past half century or so. Basically, he argues, the expansion of schools into the suburban reaches was a great boon promoted by real estate developers, and remains so to this day, while increased school taxes - a 600% increase in less than three decades - and real estate taxes born of the school boom, drove a million small-farm families off their land. These families now joined the landless (and goatless) army of office workers and their ilk. Agricultural properties were dumped on the market to be broken up into tens of millions of housing plots, with individuals representing real estate interests sitting on thousands of school boards across the nation. Meanwhile, the goats, cows, sheep, pigs, and barnyard fowl of all varieties vanished, green space was swallowed up, tomatoes at the supermarket turned plastic, and whatever did happen to the village commons? (or sandlots, or park ponds, or even vacant lots?)
Gatto's main point is that the impact of the new enclosure acts (really much like the old ones) is that they took a class of independent-minded, self-reliant, creative, family-oriented folks, who did not define their self-worth by their net worth, and who relied on neither government nor big business interests for very much but who worked for themselves, and sent them (and the kids) off to the "workhouses". I concur with this view, but I would add what seems almost too obvious: millions and millions of people who lived much of our lives outdoors now find ourselves enclosed as well.
We really weren't bred for it. Like French Angora rabbits, it will probably take three or four hundred generations or so, or maybe a little extra genetic fine-tuning, before we are fully acclimatized. Until then, survival of the fittest has us attuned to the greens and yellows of trees and fields, our eyes and our body chemistry adapting to changes in the slant of light and fluctuating temperatures and the blue, black, gray, and azure of the expanse above our heads.
And until we adapt, it won't be surprising if we suffer for it. In case anyone hasn't noticed, as a culture we are getting noticeably larger. You recognize it most readily on airplanes, where the seats haven't shrunk (though since you, dear reader, have probably expanded as well, your picture of what that trip to Pittsburgh was like 20 years ago is likely to be somewhat distorted.) Our eating habits have changed radically - there is corn syrup and corn starch and corn fructose in most everything, and we don't grow much of what we eat, and most of what we do eat is barely within six degrees of separation. (In 1970, the average American ate half a pound of a high-fructose corn syrup a year; the 1997, it was up to 62 1/2 pounds and rising.) A walk around the neighborhood is for many a big event, if we walk at all, and we live somewhere that resembles a neighborhood. Our blood pressures are going up. Alzheimer's seems to be making its appearance at earlier and earlier ages (though, in the past, it may have been well undiagnosed.) We wake up a lot sorer than we used to, and, if psychological surveys and the radical increase in prescriptions for anti-depressants are any indication, our relative wealth betrays a distinctly acrid air of unhappiness.
Our kids, too. They are, to be polite, becoming wider than is thought to be healthy. More sedentary. Suffer from more allergies. More likely to suffer from depression than children virtually anywhere else in the world. And as the government steps up its invasion into our collective homes in the form of "homework" (wish it were covered by Department of Labor standards), they are less likely to be found playing ball in sandlots, fishing in local ponds, picking blackberries, or just messing around in "vacant" spaces, if they are lucky enough to be able to find any. The kids are just plain stressed out.
A set of recent studies conducted at the Human-Environment Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois-Urbana/Champaign suggests that that even small amounts of "green activities" - those that take place outdoors in at least semi-natural settings - substantially reduces ADHD symptoms (no, this is not going to be an ADHD rant, though I often think our children are "canaries in the coal mines", so we shouldn't be surprised when sometimes their behavior does not meet with general approval, like the canary who doesn't sing.) Green activities increase concentration, impulse inhibition, and self-discipline. Another study suggests that symptoms may even disappear entirely for boys who take a forty-minute walk with their fathers in a wooded setting before school (would this mean the disease is in remission, or didn't exist to begin with? Whoops, didn't I just say I wouldn't go there? This all assumes of course that there is a wooded setting, or a dad, to be found. Maybe we can find a way to put "green" in pill form? If a greener environment can play a role in putting ADHD into remission, what about the converse: could ADHD be a set of symptoms initiated or aggravated by lack of nature exposure?)
Several other studies demonstrated that school performance improved when children were placed next to windows and allowed to look at the green outside. Now that's quite a trick if you are in a school where there are no windows, or the windows are frosted (as they are in Hawaii), or you have one of those teachers who believes that staring out the window means you are not paying attention. (Maybe not paying attention improves performance?)
Wait: it gets better. In a follow-up experiment, it was found that children who spent 20 minute on a guided outdoor walk saw the greatest benefits when they sauntered in smaller groups or one-on-one, compared with those who walked in larger groups. The main author of the study, Dr. Frances Kuo, suggests this is because, within a smaller group, children are less likely to be competing for a teacher's attention, awaiting their turn, or resisting the distraction of other kids, and hence are more "relaxed". Why is it that I'm not surprised?
There is a disheartening aspect to the way all the research is reported, though. It all seems to boil down to whether a child can pay attention in school. But isn't what the research is demonstrating actually suggest that children shouldn't be in school at all? Duh! Might there be more value, more "to be learned", from a daily amble in the woods with dad? (Let's hear it for dads!) Or just a small group of children doing what it is children do, with no teacher competing for their attention at all? Why must children be forced to "burn off pent-up energy" rather than reveling in it? Has anyone bothered to compare the "marginal educational utility" of the new, local neighborhood school, and the great associated sucking impact on community resources, against that of the wooded area cut down to make way for it? Are we simply condemning the kids (as other research suggests), to a lifetime of higher levels of aggression, domestic violence, crime, mental fatigue, anger, frustration, and poor health? Is being allowed to look out the window at the last remaining tree going to be enough?
Can't a walk in the woods just be a walk in the woods?
* * * * *
After I drafted the first part of this essay above, I began to reflect on the proclivities of my older daughter Aliyah, and how they manifested themselves at an early age. We used to say about Aliyah that, for every hour of time with other people, she required two hours of time by herself, and that her favorite space for such time was in the woods near our home. When I look back at it, I think we were being overly glib. It was (and still remains) true that substantial amounts of time alone makes Aliyah a happier camper. My wife and I, both having been brought up as urbanites, perhaps overly naïvely chalked this up purely to an interesting personality trait (which we would still think it likely is), but without much regard to (or particular understanding of) the physical environment where that character trait found its happiest manifestation.
The thing about the woods (and even how it differs from a park or other outdoor setting) is that it is an open, non-directed field. There is nothing external in the field itself that directs attention over and above anything else. Physically, one can just as easily examine the play of sunlight on leaves, explore the roughness of tree bark, observe the wings of a beetle, watch the slithering of a snake or meanderings of a slug, monitor the activity of the honeybee as it collects pollen, survey the progress of a twig as it floats downstream, study the eddies in a puddle. There is no requirement as to which of the five senses is to be engaged: one may find oneself scrutinizing the movement of ants hurrying up and down a tree trunk, feeling the wave of wind upon high grasses or the close rush of owl wings, tasting the bitterness of miners lettuce or the sourness of salmonberries, smelling the slightly sweet decomposition of oak leaves underfoot, listening to the cackling of crows at twilight or the mumbling of a midsummer brook.
The woods provides a locus for the unfettered operations of virtually all of the natural intelligences, at whatever level a child can make use of them, with, in time, perhaps the heaviest stress upon the intrapersonal one. The very openness of the field allows for the uninhibited expression of asynchronous development, which is common to all children. The woods is a psychophysical space where a child can escape from scripts, important but limiting building blocks in the processes of development, to a place where she finds emerging opportunities to create her own; an escape from a world wholly created by others to one co-created by the child with Nature itself. Regardless of how richly we can populate a child's room with the cornucopia of contemporary educational possibility, it still remains an expression of poverty compared with the bounty that the natural world offers freely (or not, as it becomes more and more difficult to find.)
I have insisted on the unscripted, non-directed field that the natural environment offers as that which makes it so inviting to children, provided (and Aliyah insists this is key) we allow them to experience it alone and unmediated. But perhaps my claims for it are too modest, for the offering may, at its most profound, be that of the hidden scripts of Nature herself, both in the world itself and as she plays upon the heart. I am reminded of another poem of William Wordsworth, "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey", a nature poem which contains almost no images of nature after the first paragraph. Wordsworth first makes what he considers to be a lesser claim for the workings of the natural world,
…. feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man's life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love.
only to make a greater claim in the climax of the poem:
…. And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the live air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And so I am called to ask again: is being allowed to look out the window at the last remaining tree going to be enough?