The Miracle of Childhood – Dorinda Wolfe Murray
“Looking back on my childhood I realise how incredibly lucky I was. Not in a romantic, perfect kind of way. No rose tinted glasses I promise you. We were after all not very well off and winters are bitterly cold when there is no central heating and you live in the middle of the UK countryside. We did not have holidays anywhere except at home; we had one television and a radio. If we were hungry after mealtimes, it was bread and dripping (with salt of course!).
As a child, food and love are probably the two most important things in life. Our food came from the countryside and although our parents loved us, they were often busy, so we were allowed to roam over the local farm land (having asked permission of course!). As I said we were not well off so we relied on what my father grew in the vegetable patch, what he shot, and what we got from our local village. I remember in the autumn picking apples and going out into the fields to ‘make’ houses from the straw that the combine harvesters had yet to bale. We went out and about for hours, coming home when our stomachs were hungry. We paddled in ponds; built dams; got soaking wet; fell into nettle patches (I well remember that one); played endlessly in sandpits and ate worms (apparently) and certainly had more than our fair share of earth attached to what we consumed. We stamped on green walnuts to get to the nuts, turning ourselves brown in the process; mulberries with their telltale purple juice (much worse than blackberries) meant we could never escape detection from eating the stolen fruit. And of course we got cold, wet, miserable and filthy dirty. But somehow we got through it all and the countryside entered and has subsequently sustained my consciousness all my life. The way clouds chase each other across the sky; the way water flattens the grass when a stream is in ‘spate’; the feel of mud oozing between your toes. I watched birds strip the berries off the trees in winter; saw how the wrens died in the cold; watched as sparrow hawks took their food from the bird tables, leaving a puff of feathers behind; learned to listen to the call of the wild geese as they flew at high altitudes heralding the start of the winter storms. The cycle of life and death in my childhood was what life was about. Stubbed toes, sore feet, falling over, cuts, bruises and scrapes were what taught us our boundaries. We fell out of trees (not something I did more than once); got stung by wasps – and bees; bitten by red ants and endless mozzies.
As I said I was and am lucky. My father and grandfather were naturalists of the best sort. They understood that nature was red in tooth and claw; gloriously beautiful and wonderfully cruel. They respected it. Just as I have learned too to respect it and to respect my children’s ‘take’ on life. Children are far more accepting of death than adults. It is us that make them afraid. Children have a ‘knowing’ about life, an instinctive understanding that as adults we often forget. And in our forgetfulness we become frightened and teach our children to be afraid. Yes, of course we have to set boundaries; we do that because we love and care for our children. But we do not need to stifle them so much that they forget their instinctive ‘knowing’. Life to a child is simply wonderful – take any toddler for a ‘short’ walk down a street or lane, and if you let them, they will take an hour as everything is looked at and examined. Life is a miracle when you take the time to notice it. Nature teaches us so much, and we ignore our connection to it at our peril. It replenishes us, gives us ease and rest and is never above teaching us a lesson or two should we get too ‘up ourselves’. We do our children a huge disservice by stifling them with too much care and attention; by not letting them get dirty in sandpits, ponds and streams. By sanitising their lives so much that the only life they see is on an X-box or on television.
I feel like weeping when I see playgrounds for children made up of astro turf with plastic swings. Not a sandpit or water slide in sight; no grass to play on; no dirt to make into mud pies or chestnut trees to provide conkers to fight with. That is why when I see Tess’ playgrounds (and she won’t mind me saying this) I feel that at last things are moving back in the right direction. They look wonderfully creative with colour and texture; areas in which to crawl, sit and run. Places to explore, get dirty and get (to use a much hackneyed phrase) up close and personal with nature.
Of course we want to protect our children from harm and give them the best start in life. But being a parent is about teaching our children boundaries and teaching them to observe and experience. Nature has a huge place in this – as do the cuts, falls, and hurts of learning to walk and run.”