Friday, June 5, 2009


An Ecologist and Her Children Wake to a Warming World

by Amy Seidl
reviewed by Alison Hawthorne Deming (

Beacon Press, 2009. $24.95, 192 pages.

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HOW ARE WE TO SEE OURSELVES as characters--as actor--in the enormous story of climate change and the planet's diminishment? How do we change our role in the drama from consumer to caretaker? How are we to think and feel about our bewildering moment in natural history, when the complexity of change is occurring on a scale not observable to the plain eye? Amy Seidl's Early Spring brings complexity home to the author's garden, family, and community in northern Vermont. She moves gracefully among roles as mother, ecologist, neighbor, and thoughtful witness of the everyday. She shows us where to look to see local change in circadian rhythms of both nature and culture: the date the lilacs first bloom or robins arrive, the forestalled annual ice-fishing derby or sugaring-off celebration in maple country. To a trained eye, these changes speak volumes about how creatures, plants, and human communities are being pressed into adaptation.

Seidl writes wonderfully detailed descriptions of complicated processes, such as the "pillow and cradle" features of her local landscape, the process of caterpillar metamorphosis and the peril of Bt toxins, and how plant chemistry responds to increased ultraviolet rays. She shows the value and mechanism of sustained looking: the family journal that spans three generations of data on ice-out on Lake Damariscotta, Maine; the woman in Michigan who observed birds from her kitchen window and recorded their visits for over forty years; and the woman in Massachusetts who kept track of what she saw on daily walks for forty-two years--"when the wood ducks arrive at her pond, the first time she heard the peepers' chorus, and when the wood anemones bloomed"

These compulsive note-takers do more than add information to our overburdened hoard. They are "recording the rhythm of life" around us, Seidl writes, a rhythm that has its analogue in our consciousness. The lilacs in her backyard bloom eight to sixteen days earlier than when she was born, and by the time her daughters are her age they will bloom fourteen to twenty-eight days earlier. We are engaged in a transformation that requires new calibrations of feeling and reflection's well as policy and action.

Seidl's tutelary spirit is Rachel Carson, whose words introduce the chapters of this book. The title Early Spring suggests one of the challenges here: many people in cold climates would be darned happy to have an earlier spring. At this book's conclusion, that benign phrase will begin to have the poetic resonance and urgency of Carson's catalyzing work in Silent Spring.

Childhood and Nature

Childhood and Nature

Design Principles for Educators

by David Sobel, reviewed by K. Meagan Ledendecker

Stenhouse Publishers, 2008. $17.50, 178 pages.

Review published in the May/June 2009 issue of Orion magazine

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IN HIS NEW BOOK, Childhood and Nature, veteran educator and place-based education advocate David Sobel asks the big question: what’s the most effective way to educate children so that they will grow up to behave in environmentally responsible ways?

To answer, Sobel offers tools and inspiration applicable to anyone whose life intersects with the lives of children. He argues convincingly against inundating children with factual information about nature, insisting instead that children need experiences that will allow them to muck about and (to paraphrase Robert Michael Pyle) get earth under their nails and a sense of place under their skin. Yet so often schools, not to mention home environments, divorce children from play in natural settings.

Children need experiences in nature that allow them to form connection, affinity, and ultimately love for the natural world. These experiences, which Sobel terms “transcendent experiences,” are more important than learning facts about nature and are actually prerequisites for environmental concern. Simply put, “Talking to trees and hiding in trees precedes saving trees.”

Sobel’s theories about children and nature education emerge from his natural-history-style observations of children at play. Sobel identifies seven “play motifs” based on these observations, which he translates into design principles for how to guide children’s experiences. The power of these principles lies in how Sobel has identified them. All too often those working with children fail to first observe children’s behavior, and then to use those real-life observations to enhance children’s experiences.

The design principles—adventure, fantasy and imagination, animal allies, maps and paths, special places, small worlds, and hunting and gathering—are illustrated throughout a series of Sobel’s essays that comprise the second section of the book. Although the essays were published previously, they remain surprisingly fresh, in part due to the introduction Sobel provides to each chapter, as well as Sobel’s conversational tone.

Sobel writes for his readers as if he has sidled up to share stories with fellow educators, parents, and observers of children. While offering inspirational tales of children engaging with their natural and human communities, Sobel hands us the tools we need to offer our children similar opportunities. “Won’t you come too?” he asks. How can we not want to accept Sobel’s invitation, join in the fun, and provide children with the “experiences that allow love to slowly take root and then flourish”?