Learning Life from Life

by Michael Rossman

        There are some things we trust our child will grow up receiving, like a love for words, and others we try hard to give him, as bulwarks of sanity and purpose in a crazy time and society. We never hassled our son Lorca about toilet training: he began his move to the pot at nineteen months under the free urge of emulation and took ten more to complete it with his peers in the play group. But we've worked hard to teach him to care for living things, as naturally as we can.

        For the bias of our culture is against life and needs purposeful opposing. Kids begin early to be indoctrinated in the anti-life mythology. The jingle that most offends me, even more than "snips and snails and puppy-dogs' tails," is the one about little Miss Muffet and her fear of the spider, symbol of all the evilly animate, crawly, creepy things. It's hard now to know what to take seriously and make politics of. But being for life has no arbitrary limit, and our need to learn humility as a species in the cosmos may be directly connected with the mundane atrocities we struggle against daily.

        In any case, Karen and I have learned to love spiders and have grown to cherish their co-inhabitation of our cottage and its delicate ecology. We know the ones who spin in the light and those who like dark and migrate at night. When their webs grow too dusty, we clear them from favored places to be built anew. Washing windows, we watch out for the tiny ones. They give us more service in pleasure than as flycatchers, for they can't keep up in summer, what with the dog-shit outside. And so our home is a school in this ecology, as Lorca grows into a set of relationships already begun as a condition of our own growth, and not assumed "for his benefit." Much of our "trying hard" consists only in our self-consciousness of how delighted we are to turn him on to what we love. For each relation with the spiders and other life is revealed anew as a ritual of our being, as we involve him in its performance.


        The environment is his teacher; we are its aides. As soon as his eyes could focus on pattern, he lost himself for hours in the hanging arabesques of the ferns. We took care often to hold him up so he could stroke them. When he began crawling around and grabbing things, he ripped off enough leaves to make us squirm in pious indignation each time he approached a plant. Unable to go with the natural flow, we blew it: his tugging at plants grew into a game to win our attention, and we got into slapping his hand before we realized what we were doing. We got out by letting go of our overreaction to his sacrilege and by accepting him for awhile as a natural predator.

        Meanwhile, we stroked the plants and cooed to them, sympathized with their ravages, admired the small lives they harbored -- making our feelings visible to Lorca. It was theater, but we are actors before him whatever we do and would rather be expressive. (In such matters he's the perfect audience, all his will eager to absorb the ways people relate to the deeper realities.) By eighteen months, when he grew able to join in the ritual of bringing water to the plants, he had pretty well got it down that they are somewhat creatures, too, to care for and be gentle with. But they live in such slow rhythms! It will be years before he grasps our pleasure in their thriving and the rituals we make of this, too, as when friends come by for cuttings or at transplanting time.


        Insects were more immediate. I think they're made for kids to love, those pretty, intricate bits of motion. I turned Lorca on to them in the City Hall gardens, where we pause to consider the colors of flowers and the texture of cold, dewy grass as we walk up for milk and doughnuts on the moist downtown mornings. We observed the bees and butterflies, parted leaves to discover caterpillars, and dug in the mulch for sow-bugs. And he was off and running, dragging us from tree to tree to see their caravans of ants. At home he'd soar like a hawk over the plains of kitchen linoleum, discover tiny motion far below, and plummet to catch solitary ants out scouting, so small we had to hold them up to see. One night he went around to a dozen of us in turn with a bit of red sweater-fluff, crying, "Ent! Ent!" as he held it up to each for inspection. I flipped out -- not at his usual ceremony but because I thought he was making his first deliberate pretend. But it turned out his sense of the line between animate and inanimate was still somewhat blurry.

        Snails were an equal passion. When he was two, he'd climb into our bed at 8:00 a.m., ripe with morning pee, his sleeper-feet muddy from the garden, to wake us. "Look, I got a snail! See the snail!" Poor damn thing, shell cracked, blowing agonized bubbles: it's a long way around the cottage from the mint bed, tumbling in through the dog door, clutched in a fist not yet surely controlled. The eyestalks come out; (s)he's still a grand fellow. Lorca cries, "Snail! Oh, snail!" Karen smiles in her half-sleep. I admire it a bit more, it might still survive. "Okay, why don't you let him go home now?" We do this ritual every time, saying, "Bye-bye, go home now," to the sow-bugs as we put them back down and sometimes making a small pilgrimage to release a moth. And Lorca exits feet first through the dog door, muttering, "Snail, go home."

        At first, if we fell back to sleep, he'd forget, and we'd wake to find two or three snails lost in the desert of the blankets. But my mother never murmured at having to clean their forgotten, mashed remains out of my own britches' pockets when I was his age, and Karen, though less fortunately reared, has grown to be even easier with such potential traumas. What was hard for me was quite different: I was still loath to have him watch me kill snails wholesale among the rhubarb. Let him have his love, before he must make sense out of our being tender with some creatures and brutal with others. But his first learning in this was clean -- helping me hunt the biting fleas in our dog's shaggy mane. And now that he knows that the garden plants are for food and to be protected, he has the foundation for a more complex relationship with the snails -- and a context in which to explore the pleasures of squishing small things, which he will come to unless we forcibly restrain him.

        Christmas Day, in his grandparents' huge, new house, all white walls and white floors and elegance. For the first time I saw Lorca attacked by an hysteria of presents. At nineteen months, he wasn't yet into the game: he gave gifts by spontaneous impulse, and here, too, reacted in terms of his own passions. His day's high point, better even than the two-bit, wind-up, green hoppy-toad, was the earwig he found crawling amidst the purity. It was a remarkably durable insect. For fully twenty minutes he showed it around, letting it travel from hand to hand, dropping it and picking it up. Ceremonies, indeed! All is revealed in the words of the incantations. "You're ruining Mimi's Christmas," joked his grandmother, in third-person and quite unguarded anguish, all her weeks of thoughtful shopping and expectation frustrated by his obsession. More from concern for her and for the insect than from having sufficiently savored the discomfiture of materialism, I took Lorca outside to let the earwig go and say thank you and bye-bye.


        0f course, earwigs can pinch you a bit, as I explained, but they won't if you just let them crawl on you and don't try to restrain them. For all his passion, Lorca is cautious. For a week after I told him among the chrysanthemums that bees can really hurt you, he wouldn't touch anything but snails. Then he started checking insects out one by one: "Will this butterfly hurt me if I touch it?" "No, no butterflies will hurt you." "Will this beetle?" "Most beetles are safe. Big ones can bite you a bit. Give me your hand." I nibbled him to demonstrate how hard. For the time being, we got it down that spiders were okay to touch except if they were real big or like a black marble, but that he shouldn't touch them if we weren't around, except for daddy longlegs, which look like spiders but aren't really spiders. And he should check out anything new with us. Like the earwig.

        And he does, and I trust him off on his own, since we've repeatedly identified the few other dangerous tinies around (scorpions and centipedes). In the mountains he is still too quick to poke with his own hand in rotten wood, a fault of mine also. So we squat like naked savages inventing the first tool as I show him how to find a short, stout stick to poke the punky fibers over with, searching for grubs. Still, nothing is so salutary for education as a little painful experience. It took the bee-stings in spring to really ground his caution.

        There were two in three days: the first purely fortuitous, a bee lost in the sandbox; the second the organic hazard of barefooting it on a clover-studded lawn. Lorca handled the physical pain easily: cried for only a minute or two, took comfort, and got absorbed in the after-sting explanations. The first time we observed how badly the bee was mangled, and established that Lorca's residual pain would take a while to abate and a day to go away and simply had to be endured, but that the bee was much worse off. "Bees will sting me only if I hurt them," he repeated, trying to get it down. "Or if they think you're going to hurt them," I amplified, as we went inside to have a honey sandwich.

        When he got over crying from the second sting, we went right out to watch bees in the garden and tested again how close we could get to them safely. "Can you touch him?" "No." "He will hurt you if you touch him!" "Right!" But he refused to walk barefoot on grass. I didn't push him; but for some mornings we studied lawns on our walks and saw that, sure enough, where there were flowers in the grass there were bees, and where there weren't, there weren't. Soon we ventured barefoot onto the plain lawns and then, as anxiety subsided, walked in the bare patches on flowered lawns. For weeks he did this, leaning over to point out the bees, until the experience was fully integrated. The stings did not make him more cautious with other familiar insects -- the pay-off of being sure about telling them apart and being forewarned about bee danger -- but both lent point to his caution about strange creatures.

[The Garden]

        In the garden we move at more leisure into the experience of interdependence. Once a week I do the play-group. Before lunch we enter the garden gate, file past the leeks, and pull back the compost heap's plastic blanket to a chorus of greetings and exclamations. It is rich with slugs and sow-bugs and worms, and two fine species of salamander surviving in urban habitat. Sometimes we find a cricket or millipede. Even the slugs have bugs on them, little, quick-moving, white specks the five two-year-olds can see better than I can. The kids pass them around from hand to hand, learning from each other that it's safe and fun and how to hold them gently. From me they learn how to gather without pushing or shoving, so everyone can see the salamander's eggs, and how to take turns holding one up to the light to see the tiny black wiggle coiled in the lucid jelly. When we're done, we are careful to put everyone back, and to tuck the blanket over them.

        Much too small to feed us all, the garden is most valuable as a teacher. The play-group helped me plant peas. (Ach, such help!) Once a week we watered them, watched them sprout and grow, saw the bees pollinating the flowers, restrained ourselves from picking the young pods. Mature pea plants are priceless: for two-year-olds whose grasp of time is still weak they display every stage from tiny flower bud to heavy-bodied pod, simultaneously, in strict sequence along the climbing stems. Each day we pick something to eat for lunch -- they favor the peas, broccoli (especially the flowers), and the little cherry tomatoes. They have no problem liking these vegetables or ingesting the lesson of where their food comes from.

        Sometimes we take the kitchen garbage out to bury. Its nourishing properties are already evident in the life of the compost heap. The kids are in an oral phase of readiness to learn pick-up-and-put-away, and are happy to help me bury the dog-shit there too. Though they know now that what they eat comes out at the other end, it will take another year at least for them to begin to grasp the full cycle. Meanwhile we explore its more complex rituals. This spring they will be almost three, eager to test out higher skills of discrimination and manipulation in the acts of weeding and picking off the harmful insects -- which will lead them to a deeper involvement with the plants under their care.

[The Ecology of Learning]

        As they give and take, with the live world and with each other, the ecology of their learning is as rich as the animate ecology that supports it. And just as they are permitted to enter into the garden's mystery in careful stages, according to their growing powers (oh, my trampled rows!), so each season or plant's fruition offers a new focus of learning for them to relate to, or through it to each other. So much for an hour a week! And so much power in regularity and in catching each stage of learning as they grow ready for it. It gives me some idea of what's possible through the use of what the Montessori people call "prepared environments."

        There seems no limit to the learning that can develop through focusing on a subject. When he first got into insects, I made Lorca a book of super pictures from an old National Geographic. We went to a store to hunt the right issue down; he was just old enough to "help" me cut the insects out and paste them on thin cardboard. He liked having them handy to look at and talk about, and I made up a few songs about them. But there was a deeper purpose: he was heavily into books, and I wanted him to know from the first how they came to be.

        The deeper learning develops more organically. We are so alienated from life that it isn't hard for two-year-olds to come away from the compost heap knowing more about buggies than do most of their parents. And even such innocent expertise has profound social ramifications. One day, visiting friends up north, I found Lorca with their older child among the old wooden pathways decaying on the sand. He was holding up one end of a section while they peered under. Intent on my business, I passed them with a casual "hi!" as just two other people involved in what they were doing. Only later did it register: he was showing her where the buggies live. I had a sinking feeling, as of something irrevocable, and thought: What have I done to my son? A blessing and a curse: already he is an expert, in a circle older than his peers, and on a subject eccentric and creepy; already expertise is one of his ways of getting along with people. For so early are the basic ways of relating set up like a trellis for the self to grow along; and though his insect passion will fade, the roles he learns through it will not.

[The Big Bad Wolf]

        And then there's the matter of how we are taught to see and relate to other intelligent beings. Kids' books indoctrinate them in a schizoid myth about dogs. Like Negroes in old-fashioned adventure stories, dogs are portrayed alternately in terms of useful and slave-like devotion and of ravening danger. Spot and Fido tag along, do tricks, and run sheep for last century's meat industry, while the Big Bad Wolf waits to gulp the sweet girl and lurks in dreams, and plays villain to the piggies in a morality play of solid virtues.

        It's more than my love for dogs that makes me find this caricature as ill-inspired as Miss Muffet's spider. Lately we've learned some of the true tale of wolves, the customs and smart grace of their society, where it still survives, and the forces that destroy it daily. (See Farley Mowat's simple and lovely book Never Cry Wolf.) Having learned what we're doing, and why, to the human oppressed, it's impossible for us not to extend our sympathy to the wolves, on learning how their extermination is being organized to cover up the profitable human decimation of the caribou herds with whom they live in evolutionary symbiosis.

        For me, seeing wolves hunted from planes like Vietnamese lends direct political dimension to the effort to restructure these key childhood myths. They come down to us from earlier conditions of our species and memories of real danger. But now we have the power, and the enemy we face is us. When I walk near ghettoes, the black children shrink in fear from my dog familiar. Reassuring their mothers, themselves fearful, I crack my sad joke: "He's a lover, not a fighter. People think he's mean 'cause he's big and black." And patiently coaxing the kids to pet him, I think of the years of demonstrations, when their older siblings saw on TV and in their streets the trained dogs, snarling like the men in uniform holding their leashes, ready to let go. True, there will always be a need to embody the forces of terror in ways that children can deal with. But we must find better strategies to teach than the prosperous pig's brick walls, and myths that no longer serve to justify species genocide -- if not for the wolves' sake, for our own.

        When Lorca arrived, Bull reacted like a four-year-old brother. For the first month he wouldn't even look at us, let alone at the kid, and sulked in the big leather chair after meals. By the sixth month things were smoothing out, with the aid of daily rituals of morning play, all four of us in the bed, Karen and I hugging and rumpling the kids together to teach them that love can be generated by sharing and not be lost for another's receiving it. But in fact there is first and second in love, and Bull got the short share. When Lorca began crawling, he was hard pressed as all his domains were invaded. He could take being tugged at, at least for a while, only tumbling the offender gently as he stalked off. But his food dish was his last retreat, the only space sacred to him; and here he was adamant.

        Lorca starts toying with the leftover kibble. Bull hastens over to lie with it between his paws, head filling the dish in an impromptu but dignified breakfast. A hand sneaks in beside his jaw. His eating pauses. A low growl. The hand withdraws. It sneaks in again. A louder growl. "No," we say, pulling Lorca back, "Bull doesn't like that." The nth time we realize: no, we must let them make their own peace. Lorca will have to learn, but from Bull, not from us -- and if of us, as he will, then not of us as insulating and limiting his relations, but of us in our trust for the dog and for him. Lorca's hand goes in again, stays in, to the loudest growl. Bull's lip-raise of warning is ignored, not yet understood. As we watch in fascination, there is a snarl, a clash of jaws, a seventy-pound flurry of black motion; and Lorca sits in shocked surprise, his arm held in Bull's teeth, just tightly enough to dent the skin. A long, instructive moment. Bull releases him, settles down to eat again. Lorca is unhurt, his face the absent calm it assumes when he's off puzzling something new. Checking it out, he tries for the kibble again. Snarling flurry, arm clamped a little harder.

        That was enough for them, though it took a few repetitions through the months before it was mutually settled. And it was almost more than enough for us -- an act of faith less in Bull's intentions than in his dexterity, weighing what might happen if he slipped and gashed a cheek. How to explain without seeming cold or irresponsible, save to say that our relationship with this furry intelligence is deep and complex enough to generate that degree of trust and worth the risk to extend to our child? (People project strange things on their "pets," and Karen fears some may read this story as permission to take pretty stupid risks. All I can say is, be conscious of what you are doing.)

        So Lorca grows up with Bull, two beings involved with us in negotiating key needs of space, affection, contact, and respect. Other scenarios have been less dramatic, like dealing with Bull when he wants in on play between Lorca and us, or Lorca's long struggle for the privilege of staying on his feet when Bull gets exuberant. There is still an element of rivalry and resentment between them; we try to deal with this realistically, in a warm and protected environment. But their friendship has been growing ever since Lorca discovered Bull's pleasure in hanging around the high chair to scavenge, and their mutual passion for cheddar cheese. Now Bull leads us on walks and lurks in the ivy to ambush us and to dare chase. We bark with him in the dawn, and when sirens set all the dogs howling, Lorca and Karen and I howl too, just for the pleasure. Out on the lawn, the play-group and the local dog-pack tumble in supervised sport, every pup for himself. Bull will even submit to being ridden awhile before he turns belly up to invite a scratching; and sometimes Lorca just comes up and hugs him or stares at him, intensely crooning, "Boo! Boo!" as he does when he sets the dinner dish before him.

        Thus Lorca encounters Bull, in the aspects of Danger and of Loving Play -- but not in the cardboard, one-dimensional way they are portrayed in the books he can't yet read. Bull as Danger is not ferocious and implacable but is someone pissed off for good reason, who can be dealt with reasonably, rather than by force against force. And Bull as Playful Pal is no one's cute, wind-up toy; he refuses to do arbitrary things like fetch balls and exhibit weird postures. Instead, again he's someone else, with his own tastes in sport and companionship and his own pace in accommodating friendship. Will Lorca learn to see so clearly the human wolves?

[The Tail]

        Of course, I find it hard to wind this up. It is an ongoing tale, scarcely, though well, begun. Against the weight of our past we work to understand ourselves as life among life and for life, and struggle to create a new order, to reconfigure our lives in its textures. What can we do but raise our children to share in this? The small bit of this task I write about here is no more integral to the whole than are many others -- and no less, for in such innocent teachings are grounded who our children come to be and what future they will create.


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