Now, when I say “creek,” you are not to picture some aspirational, Instagram-worthy Nature Outing. I live in a large metropolitan area. Our creek is a disruption in an urban neighborhood, enclosed in a shrubby little wood domesticated by jogging trails. The water is threaded through drainage pipes beneath streets, then escapes over concrete spillways back into its rocky bed. Neon graffiti mars the steep banks, and the level banks are littered: Whataburger sacks, cigarette lighters, plastic cups, empty 7-Up bottles. We wear galoshes, and we don’t touch the water. We carry hand sanitizer and wipes. We leave before dusk.
But I don’t mean to make it sound too sketchy. There is graffiti and pollution, yes, but also the sound of water, the vivid and quiet greens of moss and lichen on cool, damp rocks, the smell of juniper and cedar. There is reprieve, however imperfect, from man-made monotony. Hopkins tells how creation
wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell
. . .
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things . . .
Despite rough usage, the creek has a sacred vitality and peace. I’m grateful for the privilege of living nearby.
We walk to the edge of woods, push back branches obscuring a trail, and step out of the bright daily world into the trees. My son is in a carrier, my daughter runs ahead of me. We’re “going for a walk in the forest,” as she says, a charmingly grand appellation for this thin stand of trees. But still, when we’re here, a change comes over us. Our spirits expand. My daughter tromps along joyously in her rainboots, talking to me or to herself or to the creatures of her imagination, singing lengthy made-up songs. In this place she is most luminously herself. It’s my honor to witness.
The era of motherhood in which I find myself leads easily to claustrophobia. Without great vision, these little years become a very small dwelling place, an endless succession of grimy floors, dirty diapers, sticky hands, and fractious tempers. But when we walk to the creek, we enter a larger and more gracious space. Freed for a time from the urgencies of laundry and meals and discipline, I see my children more clearly. I see them not as my most daunting works in progress, but as persons, miracles, image bearers, redolent with completeness, perfectly wrought. Perhaps it is at the creek that I come closest to seeing my children as their Maker sees them. That alone should draw me here often.
Occasionally along these trails there are sheer drops of about twenty feet down to the creek bed. But we choose a path that winds down gradually enough for a small child and a babywearing mother. As we descend, the neighborhood noises recede, and we begin to hear the quiet singing of slow water. I wonder if she’s noticed how far down we must go to reach the creek. Someday, perhaps, she will ponder this and understand the wear of water over land. Someday we’ll talk about erosion, rock strata, topography. Not today. We’re still in the “quiet growing time” Charlotte Mason describes, those precious first six years of life. For now, we are just here to see and enjoy.
Despite my own CM education, I haven’t always understood this. I remember one day a couple of years ago when I brought my new four-year-old foster son here. The creek had dwindled in midsummer to sluggish puddles covered with algae. Oh, what a soliloquy I gave about algae. How diligently I helped him notice — which means I did all the noticing and he none. This child, practically a stranger in my home, who’d suffered and lost so much so recently, could have used a quiet moment among the trees — and there I was, lecturing about algae. Kind reader, I know practically nothing about algae. But I felt so very good about it at the time.
How sheepish I felt later when I read more of Charlotte Mason’s writing and understood that I’m not to be the intermediary between my children and the world around them. In the early years, they
must be let alone, left to themselves a great deal, to take in what they can of the beauty of earth and heavens; for of the evils of modern education, few are worse than this — that the perpetual cackle of his elders leaves the poor child not a moment of time, nor an inch of space, wherein to wonder — and grow. (Vol. 1, pg. 44).
My foster son left our home over a year ago. Does he remember anything about algae? Absolutely not. I doubt he was listening. But I hope he remembers the sound of water, the peace of trees. I hope there was space amidst my cackling for him to experience wonder.
So now, I limit myself to pointing out a very few things to help my daughter’s imagination enter the life of this place: a glimpse of a hawk, a burrow in the bank. I kneel to look closer at the bark of a tree; a few minutes later, she does the same. It is lovely to see, and for now, it’s enough. I want her to experience the creek with her whole being before she understands it with her intellect, to know in her bones what it is to climb over rocks down in the earth beside the water, tree roots above our heads, the lives of creatures hidden nearby.
The time will come for academics, for Nature Outings. But meanwhile we are doing vital work on these walks by our lovely, bedraggled little creek. We are learning that this is a world worth being interested in. We are learning the habit of wonder, the foundation for all good, true, and beautiful things we will learn later. In The Supper of the Lamb, Robert Farrar Capon writes that our world
needs all the lovers . . . it can get. It is a gorgeous old place, full of clownish graces and beautiful drolleries, and it has enough textures, tastes, and smells to keep us intrigued for more time than we have. Unfortunately, however, our response to its loveliness is not always delight: it is, far more often than it should be, boredom. And that is not only odd, it is tragic; for boredom is not neutral — it is the fertilizing principle of unloveliness . . . Man’s real work is to look at the things of the world and to love them for what they are. That is, after all, what God does, and man was not made in God’s image for nothing.
This is the great vision that propels me through the littleness of our days: to teach my children to look with love, to be practitioners of wonder.
The short midwinter day is waning. We return to our trail and begin the ascent through the trees. My daughter scrambles forward on hands and feet, pulling herself up over roots. As we clear the last rise to level ground, the trees part and above us is the evening sky, golden white. “Look, Mama, look!” she calls, her face turned upward. “Look! God’s world is peeking at us!” Her eyes are bright, full to the brim with her spirit, and my own spirit is quiet enough to see it. And in this restful joy that is the creek’s blessing, we walk home.