By Amy Clark
Somewhere in the conglomeration of my childhood memories are miles and miles of woods. The kind that Robert Frost talked about walking through before sleep. The kind that tower above a little girl’s head, always reaching and stretching skyward, spindly and full of needles, forever evergreen. Brief are these memories, these trips to the Rocky Mountains that surrounded our Colorado home when I was five, and six, and seven. I picked up rocks and put them in my pockets. I delighted at the soft sounds of mountain streams. I waited for the white blanket of winter with breathless anticipation, for the chance to glide through these green trees on skis, and afterward: hot chocolate in the lodge.
I read recently in the New York Times that grammar school students’ aptitude for science is steadily falling. The study cited showed that only one out of every 100 students in 4th through 12th grades placed as advanced on the aptitude tests given nationwide. The article did not speculate at the cause for this lack of science smarts, but I am inclined to blame the woods. Or rather, the lack of them.
The nature vs. nurture debate has grown cold. We are largely products of our environments, shaped by the things that surround us – which, in the urban and suburban settings that most of these students are educated in, are largely fabricated environments. Environments rich with connectedness, perhaps, but the connections have evolved and largely involve technology and wires. Headphones to keep self-absorbed thoughts in and the sounds of the urban environment out.
I am a product of one of these urban environments. My childhood-after-Colorado days bring back summers of riding bicycles through our middle-class neighborhood, sneaking cigarettes in the stack of tires at the playground, bubblegum ice cream from the gas station and crouching on the hot sidewalk in front of our house pulling weeds. None of these weeds was I able to name, nor the trees that lined the streets, nor the various species of grasses that lined the ditches we threw our cigarette butts in as we pedaled by.
I could not tell you what an invasive species was from a native one, or what the flat land we now inhabit used to hold. In school, we learned only that there was once prairie, and there were once pioneers who wore bonnets and rode in wagons and made their own soap and candles. But it was the people and what they did that we focused on, not the land or any connection they might have had with it.
We played Oregon Trail on the green and black screen of Apple IIe computers. We shot deer and rabbits and bison to feed our fake families. We applied tinctures and laudanum for snakebites, and forced our wagon and oxen to ford through rivers. We decided that if this were really the way life was around here, it would be laughable. Although even those of us who did venture into the woods on occasion with our families did so wearing safety orange.
I do not know if I would have a better aptitude for certain kinds of science had I grown up in the Rocky Mountains, my first home. But I do know that it was a landscape that demanded more of my attention, more of my inquisitiveness about the way things worked – and I feel like I would have wanted to try and rise to its demands in a way that the flatness here does not ask me to. Nearly every great scientific concept was gleaned from observing the natural world. So how are we supposed to teach it in an artificial one?
I did okay in high school biology, excelled in anatomy, and don’t really recall any of the rest of my science education except for a few trips to the planetarium in Omaha and feeding caged snakes my freshman year. We did get bussed to a nature preserve once when I was twelve, but spent most of the time in the museum housed there, looking at taxidermy products and old farm tools. None of this had anything to do with us. We had no woods at the edges of our yards, no mountains or canyons or a vast ocean nearby. We have one percent of our state’s natural prairie habitat remaining, and none of us knew what that meant, or what our landscape should have looked like had it not been razed and plotted out, settled and farmed. Nor did we know that history is not so far removed from the present, and inextricably linked to the future. Or that our cities depend on the woods and the ocean and all the things we cannot name that dwell in them; that we were once creatures that dwelled in woods, and before that the ocean; that once, we wanted only to know them and would never have dreamed of destroying them.
Amy Clark is an MFA student at Iowa State University. As a born and bred Iowan, she is honored to have her work appear on this site. When not writing she can be seen serving friendly folks at the fabulous Stomping Grounds Cafe in Ames. Her work also appears in literary journals such as Mid-American Review and Cimarron Review.