CHILDHOOD AND NATURE

Sylvie Shaw, 2000

(Department of Social and Political Inquiry and Graduate School of Environmental Science, Monash University, Clayton, Victoria, Aust. Please contact me on ssha10@student.monash.edu.au for permission to quote from this article).

This article briefly discusses childhood nature connection. In particular it looks at aspects of childhood trauma, where nature is a protector for children who are physically and sexually abused.

According to research by Louise Chawla (1998), what characterizes people’s concern for nature is linked to their childhood experience of nature as well as to their childhood perception of the natural world as alive and conscious. This childhood animism is nurtured by parents or other role models and adults played a major role in introducing nature to their children. For Helen it was her father and her grandmother. Here’s what she says about being with her dad:

"Every second week end I was with my father. He lived in different share houses in the inner city and was a bit of a hippy, a bit of a leftie, and so every weekend would be an adventure in the inner city. My sister and I would sit on the pack rack on his bicycle and we would explore the city that way. He would always go around with a few trees in the basket and he’d plant Tasmanian and Sydney blue gums, anywhere, everywhere. I loved it. He would dig up pavement wherever he wanted to and plant a tree. Or in people's yards that didn't have any trees, he would jump over the fence and plant a tree there. And he still does. He is an incredible man, my father.

Like Helen, several of the interviewees said that what they remembered about their childhood adventures in nature was the sense of freedom; they felt free to do whatever they liked and could roam through the bush or across the paddocks for the whole day without any adult supervision or control. These positive childhood experiences in nature, as well as books about nature and adventure stories, and adult mentors or role models, are also common childhood experiences for people who become environmentally-active.

Other writers have found, however, that children growing up in the city are likely to acquire a ‘cultural’ heritage that ignores or is afraid of wild nature. For example, in their article entitled "Nature is Scary, Disgusting and Uncomfortable", Bixler and Flood (1997) have documented how children raised in urban areas are afraid of being in the woods, they fear wildlife, insects and spiders, they are disgusted by the dirtiness of the outdoors, and they don’t like feeling or being in extremes of weather. Instead they prefer to have adventures in the tame and predictable city - in manicured parks or shopping malls.

This is not the case for the people I interviewed for a study on nature connection. Participants in my research had a range of experiences of wild nature in their childhood. For most of them it was a positive experience, but for some of the interviewees, those suffering from physical and sexual abuse, nature was the only place where they could feel safe.

Childhood Trauma:

While most children get through childhood without experiencing severe trauma, this wasn’t the case with Kim, as this very graphic story shows.

"One of the things I am very aware of is the capacity for the earth to heal the wounded soul. This was my experience when I was a little girl. My father was extremely violent and my mother was powerless to protect me. Fortunately we lived in the outback, the real outback, so I had the bush that I could escape to. Even before I went to school, I spent every available moment in the bush, as it was the only safe place. Nobody could hurt me there and I was sleeping out in the bush by myself before I was 7 years old. But I never felt alone. Funnily enough it was the one thing that I was allowed to do.

Every day I had to do a whole lot of chores and I worked very very hard. I was up every morning at 5 o’clock going round the rabbit traps, feeding the animals and milking the goats, but on weekends I was often allowed to go off by myself. I had a little belt with all my utensils hanging off it, a billy and a small frying pan, and off I’d go. I had this sense when I left the yard that this was freedom.

Even before I was seven years old I had built my first stone circle and I used to curl up in it and feel protected. It was a refuge, a magical spot that was mine, and I would lie in the centre of the stone circle and look up at the clouds. After a while I would go into kind of a trance-like state and I could almost see a circle of women in the clouds, standing around me singing. I’d turn to look at them but all I could ever see were some little after-images. I never saw them embodied but I knew that they were there singing and looking after me. That was my first sacred place, my first place of ritual and of transcendence and I wasn’t yet seven years old. I believe that it was the severity of the family experience which opened up the possibility of this very profound nature connection.

The wounding was really severe and I was fortunate to have the opportunity to get out into the bush, away from the violence. I often think what would have happened to me if I’d lived in the city with that degree of violence and that degree of fear, and no where to go."

Kim’s story of abuse is terrifying. To cope with the terror, nature not only provided her with protection and refuge, it also acted as a kind of parent. The women surrounding her and singing seem to be playing the role of mother. Her trauma was so severe that she believes the women answered her cries for her comfort and protection and took over the role of mother.

"I suppose you could say then that nature was like a parent to me. I had that awareness. I remember at school there was a poem we had to read that used the phrase ‘the cold hard earth’ and I jumped up out of my seat and said, ‘It is not. She is not. It is not cold. You should just lie down and feel her’. I wanted to take everyone outside and show them it wasn’t cold. ‘It’s not hard, I said, ‘It’s warm and nurturing’. It was a really strong reaction but my teacher knew I was a bit strange as I used to come to school with possums up my jumper."

Kim now works with survivors of abuse, as well as with young people in danger of suicide. It is not uncommon that people who have been abused end up working with survivors of abuse, this is referred to as the ‘survivor mission’ (Herman, 1992, 1997). Kim mentioned that she would not know what would have happened to her if she had not had wild nature as a safe haven.

Psychotherapist Judith Herman, in her book Trauma and Recovery, points out that around the age of seven or eight, abused children often run away or hide and perceive their hiding place to be a place of safety and this mirrors Kim’s experience. Herman suggests that abused children are "more dependent that other children on external sources of comfort and solace" (107), so Kim, living in an isolated situation out in the bush where there was no one else to depend on, found protection in nature.

But hat happens then to abused children who don’t have nature to escape to? Children growing up in the city who are deprived of wild nature connection. A child psychologist I met at a workshop a few weeks ago told me that abused children who are not able to find solace in nature may be scarred for life.

Other interviewees were able to cope with psychological and emotional abuse by finding a refuge or special place in nature where they can be alone and free.

Tom:

"The garden was my refuge, my cubby house. I used to spend most of my time hiding deep in the garden where no one could see me. When I was feeling vulnerable I used to hide and play games by myself and when my mother called me I wouldn’t answer her because I was in an invisible world. The shadows and the canopy of plants around me was my invisible world and no one could penetrate it. She’d yell ‘Tom, where are you?’ but I was in another galaxy." (He’s now a landscaper and sculptor).

It is thought that having a cubby is related to our stone age life when we needed to hunt prey from a safe refuge and they could not hunt us. It was a place to hide in and a place to hide from.

Trauma in Nature

So from trauma where nature was a protector, to children being traumatized when they see nature being destroyed. One reason why people become involved in environmental activism is because they feel a deep sense of loss when development ruins their childhood place. This is certainly the experience of some of the people in this study as these stories demonstrate.

Peter: "The land around our house was always seen as junk. It was seen as the junk bush because it was soon going to be built over. But somewhere deep down I knew that this so-called junk bush was how the land used to be, and I had a sense of being a witness to its destruction, watching it going down before my very eyes and not quite understanding why, or what was going on, but feeling very perturbed about it. (Activist, Friends of the Earth)

Kay: "I actually had a cubby in a willow tree out in front of the house. The branches came right down to the ground so it was like a cave or a tent and you could part the leaves and go into this magic space. But its roots had gone into the drain and it had to be cut down. It was absolutely horrible. I stood at the window and watched it go and cried and cried. I remember I was puzzled and concerned that we couldn’t find a way of making our houses in such a way that we could co-exist with the trees." (Activist and teacher of ecological studies)

Rick: "I grew up in quite an isolated farming area, my parents had a hobby farm and next door to us was a large bush block and I used to spend a lot of time playing there. It was my favourite place. One day the next door landowner decided to clear his block and he brought in the bulldozers and cleared the whole lot. And I saw how the animals were affected, and we saw all the native wildlife disappear from our land as well. I’d always been aware of wildlife and really had a strong connection to that land and to see something like that happen, emotionally, I think that was when my activism started." (Wilderness Society forest activist)

Marigold: "At school they were building a new sports oval and in the middle of the oval was this huge, huge gum tree and I remember the day they cut the tree down to build the oval. Just knowing so deeply in my heart that it was wrong to do that. I was just a little kid but I can remember it being wrong." (Environmental educator)

Darren’s story was a little bit different. His feelings of grief came not from seeing a treed place or special play space being destroyed but from animals being killed. He believes that feeling of grief and despair is partly what stimulated his interest in environmental issues.

"By the time I was about ten, I had decided not to eat animals any more. I think I took this stand because I saw quite a lot of animals suffering as I was growing up. My grandfather kept chickens and every now and then he’d have a big purge of the chooks (chickens) that weren't laying any more, and they would all be captured and have their heads chopped off. That deeply affected me and I suppose you could say that some of my environmentalism grew from there. My grandfather had grown up in the bush and was used to hunting wild ducks and rabbits and other animals, and he would often take me out hunting with him. I was really deeply affected by seeing animals being killed. But I appreciated growing up having those experiences because kids who grow up in the city would not have had that opportunity to forge a nature connection, even if it was to see animals being slaughtered."

While these interviewees may not have suffered such severe child abuse as mentioned by Kim, the trauma they experienced was none-the-less real to them. The trauma they witnessed was perpetrated on nature, often on their special place, So they felt the trauma very very personally, but being young did not know what was happening or why.

So what does this mean in terms of the theory on trauma?

What is common among the interviewees’ stories is the sadness they felt along with a feeling of loss of control. They could not stop the destruction; they were too young, but they experienced a deep sorrow as their special place, the place where they played, was destroyed. And they were confused, as they could not understand the reason for the destruction. The other common element in their stories is that the trauma in childhood paved the way for their later activism. As I said earlier, what characterizes people’s concern for nature is linked to their childhood experience of nature, so I was interested that several of the activists I spoke with had similar stories.

There are several possible explanations linking their experience of seeing nature destroyed and their later activism and I am going to propose some of these.

1. Resolution:

Perhaps their later activism can be seen as an attempt to resolve the trauma they experienced. This is akin to the ‘survivor mission’ that I mentioned earlier, where people who have been physically and sexually abused help other survivors cope with their trauma, only in this case, it’s trauma done to nature. Their survivor mission becomes the protection the earth.

2. The second possible explanation I’ve called Restitution:

As children, they felt powerless and confused by what they witnessed and experienced, and now they want to make amends or restitution for their feelings of helplessness at the time, and for their inability to intervene and change the situation. They become active as adults as a way of transforming the impotence they felt as children into empowerment and action: and they work to repair the earth in order to repair their own damaged selves.

3. Retaliation:

It can also be seen as a type of retaliation or revenge for the anger and hurt they experienced as children. But their anger is now being channeled though more socially acceptable means like non-violent direct action or land restoration projects or earth-based spiritual practices. Their anger may be sublimated now but they still feel angry by the continual destruction of the environment and at society’s reluctance to take any action, even to care about this destruction. Their activism can be seen as an attempt to stop a repetition of the trauma and to stop others from experiencing that same traumatic scene.

4. Re-creation or a Re-living of the Experience

It may also be possible to see their later environmental activism as a type of ‘revisiting of’ the trauma. Seeing a forest destroyed in childhood might have a parallel in seeing the forest destroyed later in life and working to stop it.

All these explanations talk about making amends for what they witnessed and felt as children and are pathways of healing for them. In trauma recovery work, survivors are encouraged to speak out, to share their trauma story with others who have similar experiences. It makes them feel less isolated and gives them a group with whom they share a common experience. So being with others in a campaign or forest blockade for instance can be healing as well as a political experience.


Bixler, Robert D. & Myron F. Flood (1997), "Nature is Scary, Disgusting and Uncomfortable", Environment and Behavior, 29, 4, pp. 443-467.

Chawla, Louise (1998), "Significant Life Experiences Revisited: A Review of Research on Sources of Environmental Sensitivity", The Journal of Environmental Education, 29, 3, pp. 11-21.

Herman, Judith (1992, 1997) Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic Books.


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