Wonder and Earth Stewardship

By Lisa Sideris

Image: Stars and Mountains by Nikolaos Karatolos / CC BY-SA

Notes from the Editor 

There are few, if any, who have taught us more about the nature and value of wonder in cultivating earth stewardship than Lisa Sideris.  In her latest book, Consecrating Science, she gives us all the many meanings of wonder – some not so useful, some even harmful, and some essential for understanding an overall way of being in the world that fosters earth stewardship. Here, in this essay, she clarifies this issue of the nature and value of a certain kind of wonder for the development of earth stewardship, by showing us the wisdom we have inherited from the nature study movement – a wisdom we can and should invest in our work with children and youth so as to nourish their development as earth stewards. 

Does Wonder Develop Earth Stewardship? Answers from the Nature Study Movement

The connection between wonder and children and childlike states is one we often take for granted. Yet wonder is also the province of scientists whose expert knowledge far exceeds that of the average layperson. How is it that the wide-eyed child innocently chasing fireflies in her backyard and the white-coated scientist sequencing genomes in the laboratory are participants in the same experience? And what is it that they experience, anyway? Is wonder an emotion or a cognitive state? Is it a moral virtue, and if so, can it also become a vice? Is it innate and instinctive, or the product of careful cultivation? Should we think of wonder as a fleeting response or a settled disposition, a habitual way of being in the world? 

As anyone who has dabbled in the history and varied meanings of wonder will attest, the answer to all these questions appears, improbably, to be “yes”. More than a century ago, proponents of the nature study movement which flourished in America between the 1880 and 1930 sought to understand these many facets of wonder in relation to children’s nature education. The movement arose as a feature of Progressive era child-centered education that aimed to counter the deleterious effects of increasing industrialization and urbanization on children’s moral, spiritual, and cognitive development. The goal was to instill in children a strong sense of love and sympathy with the natural world, and an abiding appreciation for nature’s unknowns. Nature study advocates emphasized learning by doing, engaging the hands and the senses in lieu of dry recitation of facts and memorization of texts and taxonomies.

Leading advocates of this approach often disagreed about the extent to which its lessons overlapped with science instruction. Nor was there consensus on whether its overriding objectives were moral and philosophical, or straightforwardly practical. One proponent of nature study’s relevance for applied skills like agriculture put it this way: “Teach [children] all you know of the milky way, but do not neglect to teach them the way to milk.” Two of the nature study’s chief pioneers were botanist Liberty Hyde Bailey and the writer and educator Anna Botsford Comstock, both associated with Cornell University. Although few people appreciated practical knowledge more than Bailey, he and Comstock argued that the true value of nature study was distinct from scientific training and practical application. Bailey encouraged scientific veracity in his lessons, but he endorsed nature study primarily as means to instill an enduring philosophy, a worldview grounded in profound sympathy with life.  Nature study lessons need not have “direct practical application to the daily life,” Bailey insisted in The Nature-Study Idea, “for the purpose of the effort is to train the mind and the sympathies and to develop in the child a correct view of nature.”  

Some nature study educators understood their mission to be the cultivation of innate tendencies in the child, traits laid down in our species’ long evolutionary history. Children, they believed, were born naturalists. Living things were objects of fascination to our ancestors, these theorists argued, and so it made sense that children’s perceptions of nature are innately animistic and anthropomorphic.  That is, children are predisposed to see the world, including inanimate features, as infused with human-like sentience. In this way, the child represented a kind of throwback to our biological forbears. The predisposition toward animism could incline the child to wonder at nature. But this inclination needed to be carefully shaped so as not to take the form of a human bias that regards nature simply as a mirror of our own preferences and values. In this way, nature study enthusiasts anticipated modern environmental debates about whether nature ought to be valued in anthropocentric ways, and whether it possessed inherent worth, apart from usefulness or appeal to humans. 

Under Bailey and Comstock’s influence, nature study sought to elicit a type of sympathy, even (or especially) toward creatures we might otherwise fear or avoid. What Bailey termed sympathy is actually much closer to a disposition that we today would call empathy. Empathy is not necessarily predicated upon sameness of experience. It demands that we think or feel our way into the experience of others who are truly alien to us. These others include nonhuman lifeforms, generally, but especially those we regard as radically different or frightening. Sympathy, as normally construed, might simply lead a child to fear and detest predators, and to identify with, or feel pity for, prey organisms caught in the predator’s grip. True empathy aims to correct these biases. Comstock, for example, encouraged children to put themselves in the place of the predator, to imagine its hunger or appreciate its unique hunting skills, as a method of valuing creatures that elicit fear or distaste.

In seeking to cultivate proper forms of sympathy in children, Bailey sometimes drew a distinction between what he called “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” perspectives. The extrinsic perspective evaluates organisms primarily in terms of their usefulness or beauty, as judged from an external, human standpoint. Bailey denounced the egotistical notion that everything in nature was made for human use or pleasure. The stubborn belief that humans occupy the central position in nature is nothing but “colossal self-assurance.” An intrinsic approach, on the other hand, strives to see the world through the eyes of other creatures, to know them in their own worlds.  

The extrinsic perspective and a fixation on nature’s utility, Bailey worried, could prove injurious to the child’s development of wonder at the genuine otherness of creatures, and at the unknown more generally.  A preoccupation with locating the function or use of everything in nature can banish a sense of mystery and deaden the spirit of inquiry. Young minds are above all impressed with nature’s mysteries, Bailey believed. The greatest scientists also admit to not knowing, he argued, for they understand that each discovery churns up additional mysteries in its wake, and that no amount of fact-collecting can dispel nature’s pervasive wonder.

Comstock also made (empathic) sympathy the centerpiece of nature lessons, and the counterpoint to utilitarian valuing. At its best, she argued, nature study allows the child to forget herself and her particular likes and dislikes. Encouraging an animistic belief that everything is alive and sentient could also foster appropriate and lasting forms of sympathy, so long as the child did not take her own experience and perspective as the sole point of reference. These educators sought to strengthen the child’s power to imagine the inner life in a whole range of natural entities. Bird study pamphlets, for example, instructed children to recognize in hens and roosters “at least ten different mental conditions or emotions with perfect distinctiveness.” “What does the flower think?”  Bailey asked.  What is the brook saying as it rolls over rocks and pebbles? These queries, Bailey suggested in The Holy Earth, were not childish questions at odds with a scientifically informed perception, for “science constantly narrows the gulf between the animate and the inanimate.”

Many aspects of the nature study approach now appear remarkably prescient to us. Recent scientific studies are indeed blurring the line between animate and inanimate nature. Scientists have discovered that trees talk to one another by means of warning signals, and even appear to recognize their kin. Forests are “vibrantly alive and charged with wonder.” Some studies of children’s attraction to nature suggest that they have an innate predisposition to attend closely to nature and nonhuman life, as some nature study proponents held long ago. The biophilia hypothesis, first advanced by biologist E.O. Wilson, maintains that humans, and especially children, have an in-built affinity for the natural world, the product of our ancient intimacy with natural environments. Biology and culture work together to reinforce our biophilic responses. Positive associations with nature may reflect its adaptive value for us (flowers, for example, often signal the presence of food), while aversive responses to certain dangerous organisms, or environments, steer us away from life-threatening situations (think of widespread fear of spiders and snakes). Wilson’s turn to fiction with his 2010 novel Anthill fleshes out these ideas in the character of the story’s young protagonist, Raff, who is depicted as a primitive reborn, a “hunter-gatherer” naturally drawn to woods and streams. 

Young Raff grows up to become an ardent defender of the bioregion of his youth. But the ethical transition from the biophilic child to the environmentally responsible adult is not guaranteed. Certain assumptions inherent in the biophilia hypothesis itself suggest the difficulties. For example, some of the most common and compelling expressions  of biophilia cited by proponents of the biophilia theory are actually instances of biophobia: negative or aversive responses to predators, fear of heights, fire, darkness, open water, storms, venomous creatures, and so on. It’s easy to see how avoiding these encounters would generate adaptive benefits for us or our ancestors. But it’s harder to translate these experiences into positive feelings for nature in its totality, rather than select parts thereof. Put differently, biophobia might reinforce our tendency—a tendency that troubled Bailey and Comstock—to see value only in that which we find beautiful or useful, or both. Children’s perception that nature is frightening may be further intensified by well-meaning environmental education programs that expose young children to a host of environmental worries, ranging from climate change predictions to warnings about Lyme disease.  As researchers on biophilia concede, biologically-engrained negative responses may be much easier to reinforce, and much harder to extinguish, than culturally-elicited fears. 

It’s probably less important to establish a biological basis for these biases than to recognize their role in steering children toward or away from the natural world. Proponents of nature study like Bailey and Comstock seem to have intuited how fragile the process can be of cultivating nature sympathy and wonder in children. They sought to guard against anthropocentric identification with nature that merely treats it as an extension of ourselves and our own interests and needs. They understood the value of developing animistic sensibilities in children, without making them overly sentimental or science-wary. 

Concern with outdoor nature lessons gradually diminished in the twentieth century as the cold war era and the dawning space-race prompted concerns that American children were falling behind in math, science, and technology. For the most part, science and nature education is now conducted indoors, at a time when children and teens already spend far too much of their lives gazing at digital screens. But the legacy of the nature study movement endures in classic texts of the environmental movement and in recent trends in children’s education. 

We can see this legacy in Aldo Leopold’s call for a Land Ethic that values humans as plain members of the biotic community rather than conquerors who arrogantly claim to know “just what and who is valuable, and what and who is worthless” in natural systems. A good scientist, Leopold argues, knows that nature is too complex ever to be completely understood by science. We see this legacy in Rachel Carson’s invitation to readers to imaginatively enter the worlds of alien creatures: “I wanted my readers to feel that they were, for a time, actually living the lives of sea creatures.” And we see it especially in her conviction, as elaborated in The Sense of Wonder, that children should not be fed a steady diet of facts, at the expense of sensory and emotional education. “Once the emotions have been aroused—a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration or love—then we wish for knowledge about the object of our emotional response.”  And we see the legacy of the nature study movement in the work of writers like Richard Louv and the No Child Left Inside Coalition, and in valuable resources like Tomorrow’s Earth Stewards. 

These modern initiatives address all aspects of a child’s development—mental, physical, and spiritual—in ways that science education alone cannot. And in taking their cue from the nature study movement, they give wonder a central role as a quality that is both innate and learned, an enduring emotional response that replenishes the spirit of scientific inquiry and strengthens our moral resolve to care for Earth. Wonder, then, becomes the rightful inheritance of every one of us – an inheritance to invest in our development as earth stewards. 

Professor Lisa Sideris of Indiana University Bloomington is well-known for her writings and research on ethics and the environmental humanities, and on the science-religion interface.  Her latest book, Consecrating Science: Wonder, Knowledge, and the Natural World explains how pitting science against religion can encourage a devaluation of the natural world. 

  1.  “Agriculture as a Science for the Elementary Schools,” Journal of Proceedings and Addresses of the Fortieth Annual Meeting. National Educational Association. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1901, p. 791.
  2.  Liberty Hyde Bailey, The Nature-Study Idea: An Interpretation of the New School-Movement to Put the Young Into Relation and Sympathy With Nature. New York: The MacMillan Company. 1911, p. 32.
  3. Liberty Hyde Bailey, The Nature-Study Idea, p. 128.
  4. Eighteenth Annual Report of the Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station. Ithaca, NY: 1905, p. 397.
  5. Liberty Hyde Bailey, The Holy Earth. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1916, p. 6.
  6. “Do Trees Talk to Each Other?” Smithsonian Magazine. March 2018. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/the-whispering-trees-180968084/
  7. Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac. Oxford University Press. 1949, p. 240
  8. Rachel Carson, “Memo to Mrs. Eales on Under the Sea Wind,” in Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson, edited by Linda Lear. Boston: Beacon. 1999, pp. 55-56.
  9.  Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder. New York: HarperCollins. 1998 [1965], p. 45

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