I offered a backpacking class this spring as part of Chrysalis’s Friday afternoon electives. One thing I enjoyed was the way in which the kids began to play with the natural surroundings. I led three different hikes to three quite different campsites (beside a river, along a plateau’s rim, and beside a lake). Each location led to a different kind of play that was responsive to that location—by which I mean they did not play the same kind of game in each place. By the river they practiced skipping stones. They played among the rocks on the rim. At the lake, they sat out on a promontory and drummed on a fallen log, making music together. Each trip was composed of kids of different ages, several of whom would not, at school, hang out together but within this context, they worked and played well together with an improvisational intensity, responsively evolving to each occurrence of something different. And at every campsite they wished to build a fire. On the two trips where we could build a fire, I imposed a 25 stars rule. It had to be dark enough out that they could count 25 stars first. They had never counted the stars coming out before.
But my strongest impression happened a mile into the first hike. We encountered a small stream flowing across the trail. The kids were stopped by this flow of water 1-2” deep and four feet wide. “How do we get across?” There was no bridge. There was no “official” answer. They turned to us for the answer – but the real answer is “Anyway that works.” Step on rocks in the stream. Go up or down the stream until you find a narrower spot. Jump. It’s up to you to figure out. The world is full of problem-solving challenges but most of the time we are semi-mindfully following along on paths developed by others. Such paths are easy to follow but they don’t develop our sense of capability, of self-reliance. As we hiked on, over other stream crossings and challenges, the empowering delight shone brighter in their eyes. As we waded around later in the river, one boy exclaimed purely, “I feel like I can do anything in the world.”
Scientific method for kids
I, and probably hundreds of thousands of other kids before and after me, have been and will be bored by lessons on “the scientific method” with assignments where we wrote out a description of some class experiment using headings of Hypothesis, Methods, Observations, Results, Conclusion. It felt fake, unexciting, a boring procedure that seemed incapable of actually being the powerful method by which science has uncovered so many marvels.
We do lots of hands-on science at Chrysalis. If it involves investigating some new phenomenon, we usually begin with open-ended exploration. Lots of excitement. Exclamations of “Cool” attract the attention of nearby students. They see what the initial exclaimer points out and then go replicate it in their investigations. Ripples of discovery spread out and reflect back and forth throughout the classroom.
That’s when it hit me. This is the real Scientific Method. Kids do it naturally. Discover something so cool that you communicate your excitement to others who then explore the thing from their slightly different perspective and share back and forth. Discoveries swirl around back and forth.
Then I saw those boring paper assignments in a different light. They are practicing the form developed by adult scientists to communicate to an invisible audience of other scientists the essential nature (and recipe) of their “Cool!” so that distant scientists have the opportunity to respond like the kids in the class do by replicating it. Like the famous Zen saying that the finger pointing to the moon is not the moon, the “scientific method” assignments are fingers pointing towards the moon of the phenomenon itself – but they are not the moon. They are not the scientific method.
(My editor points out that the scientific method is more than the discovery and sharing of cool things. It’s also the thought-shaped repetitive interaction with the phenomenon in an attempt to reach a deeper understanding of it. This is a good point because many children will tend to do random manipulations of the phenomena and will focus on seeing what might happen rather than going deeper and trying to understand the patterns and the why of what’s happening. But I think writing down the “parts of an experiment” does not develop this kind of thinking and could actually occupy one’s mind in a somewhat confining task that prevents it from happening.)
When kids discover positive feedback spirals (often called “snowballing feedback spirals” because things can grow very quickly in the same way that one can start with a snowball and roll it into a snowman), they can get so excited that their excitement contributes to the feedback spiral snowballing ever faster. Last week, kindergarten students had gotten their hands on a small container that they had filled with water and poured into a small depression in the playground. This water began soaking in, softening the surface layer of dirt. Their small hands could scrape some of this into mud that could be played with outside the depression. When the mud is scraped away, the depression becomes larger, able to hold more water, produce more mud and thereby grow ever faster. By the time I noticed, the hole was a foot across and the kids were covered with mud.
Ravens and Landshaping
I spend lots of time at what I call Ink’s Creek Play because it represents the most photographically beautiful possibility for showing what effects my plays with runoff can have. It’s hard to get there in the rain so that’s a challenge but the rest of the time the trip out to there is always a beautiful kayak, hike, or bike ride. A perfect weekend day of adventure to go out, photograph, observe, ruminate. This last time, a croaking high in the sky drew my eyes up to two ravens circling. One was above me. The other was up over the next drainage. Then I saw “The Fit.” “My” drainage faces south. At mid-day, the grass-covered, flanking slopes of the headwater forms a parabolic reflector, heating the air and creating thermals. The next drainage over also faces south. Two thermals side-by-side. Two ravens riding high, side-by-side. This got me thinking about how a raven would develop a feel for the shape of the land below through the feel of the air pressing up against its wings. These drainages would develop thermals at mid-day. Earlier in the day, the thermals would develop in drainages facing more easterly (and in late afternoon, in drainages facing westerly). I remembered how in my younger days, I loved bicycling over certain places because the dips and rises of the land transmitted a kinesthetic, non-cerebral direct pleasure. I just loved the feel of that passage over the land and I wonder if ravens might also develop favorite places where flight simply feels more fun at certain times of the day.
In Cairns #22, I described a sweaty moment on a steep uphill climb when I vividly realized that the appearance of swear words in my inner monologue was feedback that my mindfulness was slipping. The insight into the connection was so strong that I took a vow then and there to not indulge in swearing and, instead, to see its appearance within me as one of many feedbacks guiding me along my way.
I’ve noticed a similar thing happening within our culture with the expression “just sayin.” I first became aware of the expression on Fox News. A speculative rumor or lie would be said, followed by “just sayin” as if that excuses the falseness in a way that allows what was just said to remain. Then I began hearing it in the conversations of some of those around me. Not insidiously but in a way that excuses and therefore invites mushy thinking. Then I heard myself saying the phrase. It can slip out so easily because it allows me to step away from any responsibility for integrity or truth. It robs me of the opportunity to experience how the words we choose can acquire power. Buddhism, I think, talks of the three mysteries we are given: body, mind, and voice. “Just sayin” leads me away from one of the most important journeys we can make with the mystery of our voice. And so there emerged a recent time when I decided that the emergence of that phrase from my mind/voice, like swearing, will be feedback to help steer me towards greater mindfulness in the words I speak.
Kids use the similar phrases (“just kidding” or “just messing around”) when they are called on bullying someone. As Alysia points out, “It allows us to not face our intentions. The victim has no recourse; the perpetrator escapes from culpability.”
Redding was right in the path of an annular eclipse last month. (An annular eclipse would be a total solar eclipse if the moon were closer to the earth at the time. Because it is a little too far away, the moon can’t quite cover the sun so that at “totality”, a ring of the sun is still visible.) I went out to a vast, quiet spot to watch it. The dimming of the light is outside of our experience. We have the daily dimming of sunset but this is different in many ways. At sunset, the sun is low, passing through more atmosphere so the dimming of light is associated with a changing of color. During the eclipse, there is no change of color – just a dimming. Also, at sunset, the sunlight is being cut off by a horizon that is only a relatively few miles away at the bottom of an atmosphere so some of the blocked light still bounces “around and over” the horizon. But during the eclipse, the light is being cut off 240,000 miles beyond our atmosphere. Another difference is that sunset is an event propelled by the turning of the Earth. We have lived with this pace all our lives; it is familiar and known deep in our DNA. An eclipse is propelled by the motion of the Moon orbiting the Earth. Something is happening at an out-of-this-world pace and we don’t have the experience to understand it. Nightfall is our only experience with dimming sunlight but the visual experience of an eclipse is nothing like nightfall. It is other-worldly in the full, literal sense of the word.