I grew up in the woods of northern Pennsylvania. I was blessed with a feeling of oneness with Nature. That was enhanced by a fascination with the lives of Native Americans whom I could count as my neighbors (Seneca) and who played a role for me through great leaders, in my Boy Scout career (Eagle Scout, Order of the Arrow). Out of this developed a feeling of how it is possible to live in Nature by closely working with it, by not destroying it. I think it was Nature’s destruction that early made me a skeptic. How can “Man” think he is so superior that it is his own ego that he puts on display? And when his own ego is put on display, is it any wonder “truth” is abandoned?
I recently spent almost a month at my family cabin in the woods of northern Pennsylvania. There I focused on the structure of my children’s book Thunder Basin.
After my stay at the cabin, I walked along what is known as the “mall” at Penn State University. As I walked there, I remember being a young skeptic student walking that same route in 1967 — 50 years ago. As a 21-year old, I wanted to find places where I could gain deep knowledge. I still have an essay I wrote back then, parts of which I want to share with you. It reads as follows:
“Suppose that we have approached a thoughtful, erudite young scholar, and have asked him as to why he patterns his educational life such as he does. He may answer that his aim is to learn of the secrets that the earth possesses. His goal in seeking knowledge is to become versed in the affairs of the world, and to pursue the ‘truth’ that lies hidden therein …
[asking about society] But in history, as in the wider realm of which our truth is sought, the logic of the events lies beyond the compiled elements [we recognize]. The locus of truth may lie, for example, in an understanding of the events between those of which we study [. It may lie] in the behavior of those who created the events … [composing our knowledge. It may lie] in the environment in which the events are staged, in the framework of the society … [which made our] history, perhaps in the direction the events are taking or their predestination, or in a consolidation of all these matters…
If truth is so elusive in our example of history, then what can be said of the search for the more profound truth?…[T]he whims of men many times are themselves opposed to the aim after which they seek. Many vain attempts by men to grasp truth are hindered by ridiculous adherence to traditional ‘virtues.’ Man seeks condolence, and in his blind adherence to his own petty standards which he originally set up as the absolute morality, finds ease in the solitude of tradition when confronted by facts of truth.”
Where am I some 50 years later? I set out to find “knowledge” and ended up writing a children’s book and working on another. I have tried to belay my skepticism in thinking that the mind of a child can still be the locus of that kind of perception in which the world is seen as a highly connected wonder. In Did Tiger Take the Rain? the girls realize:
“We all live under the same sky…When the sun shines, it shines down on humans and tigers together. When it rains, we share the same rain… We feel the same wind. We breathe the same air…” (p 27).
In Thunder Basin, we are still at that stage in a child’s life when she can rediscover her curiosity, before being throttled into “normality.” Although the obstacle is not so much that of my esoteric 1967 essay, that of “man’s blind adherence to his own petty standards which he originally set up as the absolute morality,” Thunder Basin tries to expose blind adherence to the dictates of a smartphone. It is still no less than adherence of the “whims” of society. For Native Americans, the quintessential character that upsets this complacency is Coyote, the trickster.
In my book, the heroine loses her cell phone in the woods and she is suddenly forced to look around her. The objective is to at least provide an alternative world to what she is forced to see on the LCD screen — a world beyond, which she intuitively knows and trickster helps her find: Nature with all its briers and mosquitoes. But also Nature with its unending wonder and beauty.