Memory Forever Unfolding
“Sometimes it seems to me that some of the most important moments of our existence are spent in attempts to bridge the gap between the two states of (on the one hand) trying to live utterly in the moment, and (on the other hand) trying to live in memory and reflection.”
Caspar Henderson, The Book of Barely Imagined Beings
Please allow me to spend some time dwelling in memory and reflection. I’d like you to journey with me to the 1950’s. Follow me to a small apartment in Fresh Meadows, Queens, New York. My world between the ages of three and five was a middle class, brick housing complex, a typical mid-century, post-war apartment building. I have several very dim but residing memories of the playground and my bedroom. I spent hours on the swings, singing songs at the top of my lungs, experiencing freedom as a small child might perceive it. But what I remember most are some of the books I read. I taught myself how to read and as early as three years old I could follow simple books. By the time I was five, I could read just about any children’s book. That was my other source of freedom. Now, over six decades later, two of those books stand out. I’d like to tell you about them. Their deeper meaning was slowly revealed during the course of my lifetime. In those early years they were an important component of how I came to know the world.
There are two influential books that I would like to share with you —The Golden Guide to the Stars, and Harold and the Purple Crayon.
The Golden Guide to the Stars
“You need no equipment to see and study thousands of stars. This book will point the way to hours of interesting study with nothing more than your two eyes.”
Herbert Zim, The Golden Guide to the Stars
One Sunday my parents took me to the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. I was awestruck at the immensity of the virtual cosmos. It was here that I first experienced wonder in a palpable way —the night sky, the planets, and the vast expanse of outer space. I sat in the circular auditorium gazing at the virtual heavens. What a bonanza for a young imagination. Outer space appeared accessible, promising, and truly wonderful. We visited the planetarium gift shop and my parents allowed me a souvenir. I asked for Herbert Zim’s Golden Guide to the Stars. I savored that book for years to come. I didn’t understand all of the text in the book. Still, it took me on magnificent journeys throughout the solar system, illustrating comets, imaginary planetary landscapes, moons, stars, and asteroids. I was enamored with the two page spread depicting a beam of light passing through a prism, resulting in the colorful spectrum. In my mind’s eye I can still see many of the book’s illustrations. In those early years I first came to know the world by using my imagination to visit outer space and to gain a perspective on the earth as a planetary body. This was my first lesson in scale.
There was a dark side, too, revealing the limits of my insufficient capacity for understanding. Periodically I would have terrifying nightmares. I can’t recall anything substantive about them. Yet I can still conjure the deeply unsettled feelings. The dreams had to do with inexplicable proportionality. I was outrageously small or large in relationship to my space. In retrospect, I was swimming in a weightless dimensionality, unable to find my bearings, terrified by feeling disembodied, befuddled by a sensational surreality beyond my experience or any rational explanation that would make sense to a five year old. It was my first encounter with the void. The world (and the universe) were both wonderful and inexplicably daunting, perhaps, too, forever unknowable.
The Golden Guide to the Stars unleashed my imagination. I knew that my mind (and my dreams) could wander far and wide. Books were the inspiration that could launch countless journeys. As a young child, they allowed me to expand the territory of imaginative exploration. I was enamored at the prospects. To think that a small book could have so much power!
Harold and the Purple Crayon
“One evening after thinking it over for some time, Harold decided to go for a walk in the moonlight.”
Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon
All explorers need a guide. It’s easy to wander off the path, or to encounter landscapes, people, animals, or situations that you aren’t quite ready for. A five year old traveler needs guides, too, especially when the journey is propelled by an active imagination. I couldn’t assimilate all that I was learning. I had many irrational fears. After reading through The Golden Guide to the Weather, I was worried that a harmless cumulus cloud on a warm summer day could become a dangerous thunderstorm. I distrusted tunnels and elevators, unable to see where I was going. I was frightened of speed and loud noises.
I found a book that would give me confidence. It helped me confront my fears by demonstrating that I had the power to construct, coordinate, and control my expanding imaginative reality. You see, Harold had this magic crayon.
He used the crayon to draw the landscape of his evening escapades. At the start of his adventure he required a moon for light, a path to walk on, a tree to explore, and some apples to eat. He drew a dragon to protect the apples, but it was so frightening that the hand holding the crayon began to shake. He inadvertently drew ocean waves and fell into the water. Harold improvised. He drew a boat and took a sail guided by the light of the ubiquitous half moon. Other adventures follow, including a picnic with a “hungry moose and a deserving porcupine,” a climb up a mountain to get a better view, falling off the mountain and constructing a balloon in the midst of his free fall, and finally as he begins to tire, a search for his home and bedroom. He draws a house and then an entire city neighborhood with many tall buildings and countless windows. As he gets increasingly worried, he has a brilliant insight. He remembers the moon shining in his bedroom window. So if he can draw his bed and the window with the moon shining through, then he can find his way home. He does so and falls off to sleep.
Harold and the Purple Crayon is one of the most adored children’s books of the twentieth century. It has sold over two million copies. It has never gone out of print. There are six other Harold books, multiple animations, and a thirteen episode HBO series. There’s even curriculum for how to use the book as a means to teach young children philosophy. Harold is not only popular, but the lessons of his journey are relevant for children and adults alike.
Here’s why I remember it so vividly. Harold is seeking adventure and discovery. He does so through his fertile imagination. He has no map. His experiences are spontaneous, wonderful, and scary. They lead to predicaments. He regains his balance through improvisational thinking, using the crayon to create structures that emerge from the tribulations of his imagination. He is always learning something new. And then, when he is fatigued and overwhelmed, he searches for his home place. He arrives home by drawing an image of what’s comfortable and familiar.
I first read Harold and the Purple Crayon the year it was published (1955). I was five years old. It was one of my first lessons in how to explore the world. Over the course of a lifetime, the substance of the adventures have changed considerably. Yet the sense of insecurity and risk, the waves of confidence and doubt, the challenges of uncertainty, the uses of creativity and imagination, the urge to discover new ideas, the necessity of rethinking what you thought you knew, the inevitability of mistakes, and the ability to flow with circumstances— these are not only the challenges of a lifetime, but as we’ll see later in this book, the foundations of environmental learning.
Harold’s culminating lesson is the celebration of a secure home place. He desires mobility, and with mobility he encounters adventures and unpredictability, but he also knows that he can locate and reconstruct his way home. Home place (however it is defined) is a conceptual ballast that supports transience, impermanence, exploration, discovery, and allows the creative imagination to flourish.
Here Comes the Fog Man
“Beyond the light there are many kinds of darkness at the edge of knowledge”
Caspar Henderson, A New Map of Wonders
When you dwell in memory, you also encounter dark shadows, disturbing images that deeply impact how you come to know the world. One memory starts as a frolic and ends as a headache. In 1956 we moved to a suburban community on the south shore of Long Island. Our development was essentially built on a wetland that drained into a series of beaches bordering the Atlantic Ocean. During the summer months there were plenty of mosquitoes. The solution? Spray DDT! A man would come in a small jeep and dispense a cloud of chemicals resembling a misty fog. We called him “the fog man.” I remember running through “the fog,” delighted that I had access to the same clouds I observed in the sky. I soon realized that these fog adventures would typically result in a headache, and from then on I stayed away. In my adult years, as a thirty-nine year old, and then more recently, I’ve had cancerous but encapsulated tumors removed from my body. I often wonder whether the “fog man” seeded those mutations.
Around the same time, The United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in a feverish and insane experiment of above ground nuclear testing. You could watch images of mushroom clouds while perusing the evening news. In school, we would have drills to protect us in case of air raids. The teacher instructed us to put our heads down on our desks. I was only six years old. But it wasn’t hard to figure out that if the Russians dropped an A-bomb on New York City, this was feeble protection.
What lessons emerged? First, I experienced cognitive dissonance, the awareness of conflicting possibilities. My mind was twisted by the prospect of a misty fog leading to poisonous headaches. How could the prospect of delight prove to be delusional? I longed to explore the clouds that were drifting on the ground. But I didn’t realize they were a human-made gas, linked to a toxic chemical that would soon be banned. This never dampened my enthusiasm for exploring landscapes and weather, but it did teach me about prudent vigilance. This theme reemerged in my professional work decades later as a crucial existential and educational challenge—how to engage a sense of wonder at exploring the biosphere when you simultaneously learn about threats to biodiversity, climate change, and species extinctions.
Second, I learned that authorities were perfectly capable of misleading people. Did my teacher really think that putting my head down on the desk would protect me from a nuclear explosion? Why did we have such weapons when their use sparked mutually assured destruction? I didn’t ask such specific questions until later in childhood, but my sense of fear was surely enhanced. And more importantly, I began to question the wisdom of adult decisions.
Knowledge, I learned, was a double-edged sword. It could fuel my imagination and also scare the living daylights out of me. This mirrored a dual message of the 1950’s, my first exposure to a life-long conceptual incongruity. Check out appliance, television, or automobile advertisements of the 1950’s. They promise the glorious prospects of unbounded affluence, showcasing shiny and sparkly consumer goods. Yet newspaper headlines and newscasts discussed the Cold War while government officials recommended that ordinary citizens build bomb shelters. Of course its easy to dramatize this in retrospect, but these memories remain vivid, and they informed the hopes and fears, the seductions and aspirations, and the images of success and failure that are still prevalent six decades later.
“Memory is not a pocket, but a living instructor, with a prophetic sense of the values which he guards; a guardian angel set there within you to record your life, and by recording to animate you to uplift it.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Memory”
I’ll conclude this brief snapshot of vivid learning memories for now, although I would also like to stress that I could cite dozens of additional incidents and memories. Some of those reflections will emerge later in this book. I call these passages developmental interludes. They are dynamic approaches to lifecycle learning. It’s instructive, regardless of your age, to trace how you learn through a lifetime, to consider what’s changed, to trace integrating themes that continue through the stages of your lifecycle, and to observe that the essence of how you learn is both perennial and adaptive. I use the term “developmental” to stress that at different stages of conceptual, cognitive, and emotional maturity we have perspectives that reflect the time, age, and place of our situation.
I believe there are recurrent themes during the course of a lifetime —interests, ideas, dilemmas, and ways of perceiving the world that form your personal narrative. If you take the time to meditate and reflect on different stages of your own development, these narrative themes become more clear. You gain perspective on how your actions have a broader context, how they recreate themselves as learning opportunities, how your life is, in fact, a cycle of possibilities, unfolding in dynamic and interesting ways, offering unique insights and wisdom.
Of course your body and mind change with each breath and every thought moment. You recycle cells and ideas alike. However, there are narratives that tell the story of your life, that integrate coherent themes by coordinating and interpreting the process of developmental change. In this book, I am asking you to look carefully at those themes. They are a pathway towards a better understanding of the learning habits of a lifetime. As you find deeper meaning in those memories and reflections, you will better understand how you come to know the world, in a way that is personal and meaningful.
I will suggest, too, that revealing these narratives should be a collaborative effort. What are the ways our shared experiences are similar and different? This is an educational plea for the necessity of both multigenerational and multicultural exposure. You can’t know the world just by knowing yourself. Indeed, you come to know yourself by knowing others, and that’s when deep learning happens. That is the essence of lifelong learning. By capturing my own developmental interludes, I hope to trigger some of yours.
This reflects my hands-on educational philosophy as well as the writing strategy of this book. The most interesting learning opportunities unfold from your personal experiences, especially when they are shared with others. When your personal narrative is curated with purpose, and then melded with ecological observations, synthesized through interpretation, and organized by analysis and theory, your learning expands, your capabilities flourish. Developmental interludes help you expand your sense of self. They prepare you to engage in profound environmental learning.
“Wisdom begins with awareness, of the self and the world outside the self; it deepens with our awareness of the inherent tension between the inner “I” and the outer world.”
Stephen S. Hall, Wisdom
Harold and the Purple Crayon is just as meaningful today as it was in 1955. Yet we should be aware, too, that in these times, Harold is as likely to take his journey on an iPad app or a You Tube Video. Harold’s adventures are perennial because they tap into challenges that face every generation, regardless of the medium.
The human imagination finds many way to travel through space and time, to experiment with scale, perception, and perspective. Artists, visionaries, mystics, and scientists use the imagination to experiment with scale, to expand awareness, and to explore and discover the world. Harold just happened to use a purple crayon. It could have been a musical instrument, the written word, a form of dance, a microscope, a telescope, or a sextant. These are educational mediums. Whether they are used for pleasure, performance, measurement, or experimentation, they tap into the creative capacity, stirring the imagination, generating insight, and stimulating emotional responses.
You may not be conceptually ready for what you encounter. And you may not be able to assimilate what you learn. Memory and the imagination reverberate throughout your awareness, allowing you to construct multiple realities, playing out dynamic scenarios that may
never come to pass. The imagination can visit realms that are both wonderful and terrifying. That’s why we require guidance, collaboration, and mentorship, why learning is a multigenerational activity, and we pass ideas on from one generation to the next. This happens by virtue of the stories we tell each other, whether around a campfire, at a family gathering, in a classroom, or through a magnificent book. Learning is perennial when it taps into wisdom that penetrates many generations. Its likely that the dilemmas you face, the questions you have, and your hopes and aspirations connect you to other people and cultures, both through the ages and over the course of a lifetime.
Perennial learning is awareness of the wisdom of the ages. Yet the context and milieu of environmental learning is always changing. For example, promising new technologies easily take over our lives, and in so doing they alter what we observe and how we perceive. Our social relationships are powerful forces that expose us to waves of trends, styles, and implicit conformities. How do we find a path through the changing flows and circumstances of our social and technological encounters?
The whole world's living in a digital dream It's not really there
It's all on the screen
Makes me forget who I am I'm an analog man.
Joe Walsh, “Analog Man”
The latest research in evolutionary biology and cognitive neuroscience is complex, emergent, and often controversial. However, a tentative consensus suggests there is a somatic and evolutionary substrate that informs sensory perception, structures our imaginative capacities, and enables us to form concepts and ideas. Exciting new research explores the remarkable plasticity of the brain in relationship to cultural evolution. Eva Jablonski and Marion J. Lamb (Evolution in Four Dimensions) propose an evolutionary synthesis that describes four inheritance systems—genetic, epigenetic, behavioral, and symbolic. That means that there are many pathways for transmitting information (and hence knowledge) between and within generations. Kevin Laland’s work as outlined in Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony suggests that the most important contributing factor to the rise of human culture is our capacity for social learning. What happens when you consider the educational implications of this proliferating research? Surely it means we must pay attention to understanding the adaptive qualities of active minds.
I know that my granddaughter finds Harold’s purple crayon as engaging as I did. And just as I used to love to run on the playground, I take pleasure in admiring her great joy at kinetic learning—climbing on whatever surfaces she can, while challenging me to races I can no longer come close to winning. I also marvel at her ability to sit with a computer tablet, and make her way around the interface entirely on her own. Just as I learned to read with minimal supervision, she can navigate computers through trial and error, by observing others, and by just figuring it out.
My grandparents grew up in an era when there were no airplanes (invented in 1903) and just a few automobiles (invented in 1885). My granddaughter watches videos on a tablet. Born in 1950, I stand in the middle of four generations, a child of the mid-twentieth century, a transitional era, that predates the so-called digital age. Like Joe Walsh, I’m an analog man, too, but I am intrigued and thrilled at the learning possibilities of the digital realm. Yet I know that despite my familiarity with computers and the Internet, and all of the ways that I am deeply enmeshed in the digital age, my exposure came well into adulthood. My granddaughter has always known tablets and the Internet, and that changes everything.
I do not intend to levy judgment. I prefer to reveal the depth of my unknowing as to the educational implications of how quickly learning environments change. The technology proceeds apace. We adapt and learn together. As Jablonski, Lamb, and Laland, among many other scholars point out, there are many vectors of information transmission and social learning, and we cannot pretend to understand the various ways they unfold.
Therefore, it is undoubtedly presumptuous to write a book about the future of environmental learning. The ecological and evolutionary dynamics of rapid global environmental change are complicated enough. Superimpose the rapidity of cultural shifts, the transmission of information, the perceptual and sensory impact of advanced technology—the interpenetration of memes, dreams, and machines— and we realize how much there is to absorb.
Our challenge is to consider the necessity of adaptive learning, the ability to assimilate, interpret, and synthesize the rapidly changing circumstances of our planetary condition. You work with what you have while attempting to anticipate what comes next. You learn to improvise, to confront uncertainty, to cultivate open-mindedness, the ability to listen well, and to sprinkle this formula with a healthy dose of humility.
And then you look up at the sky and see the same constellations that your ancestors did. Or you take a walk in the woods and marvel that the lichen growing on the trees and rocks have an ancient lineage stretching into the deep time of Earth history, acknowledging that some Arctic lichen live for 8,600 years. Or that the atoms in your body were formed when a distant star exploded in a past so remote you can barely conceive it.
Yes, its necessary to consider how the changing milieu of contemporary life requires adaptive considerations in educational settings. But remember, too, that an ancient book like the I Ching, is a “book of changes” and it’s timeless advice reflects on the inevitability of change in all human endeavors.
Depending on your age, your culture, your background, your values, and your interests, there are many paths to environmental learning. This includes varieties of developmental sequences, cognitive abilities, and multiple intelligences. Let’s keep this in mind as we proceed. Your path is an educational narrative, one strand in a collective narrative that yields more generalized insights. The very best educational approaches weave individual and collective experience, while calling attention to what’s perennial and adaptive.
An Ocean Voyage
Hexagram 26, Great Restraint
Firmness and Strength, Substance and Brilliance Daily renewal
Of Inner Strength.
A Firm Line is in Top Place, The worthy are honored, Strength is contained,
This is Great Truth.
Not eating at home
It nurtures the worthy. Crossing the Stream Resonates with Heaven.
John Minford, I Ching
When I was twenty-three years old (1973), like many young people that age, I had Wanderlust. I had just finished a Masters program in history in which I spent countless hours reading and writing. My mind was surely challenged but I felt hemmed in and claustrophobic, not wanting to spend my twenties in libraries. Through a series of fortunate inquiries and connections I secured passage on a coal freighter traveling from Norfolk, Virginia, to Taranto, Italy. I was thrilled for this opportunity. Tired from my cloistered experience I brought no reading material with me, only my guitar and pack.
Upon arriving at the ship, I met the captain. I was under the impression that I would be put to work but he said that wasn’t necessary. This was a ten day voyage. I realized there would be nothing for me to do except play the guitar and gaze at the ocean. I had a few hours before the freighter departed. I hitched a ride to downtown Norfolk searching for a bookstore. All I could find was a pornographic book shop but in the back they had a small shelf of literary books. I grabbed The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse and John Blofeld’s sparse translation of the I Ching.
During the first evening, I sat in my cabin and went through the I Ching coin throwing procedure. I asked whether this voyage was the right path for this phase of my life. My hexagram was number 26, translated by Blofeld as “The Great Nourisher.” The first lines read, “The Great Nourisher favors righteous persistence. Good fortune results from not eating at home. It is a favorable time for crossing the great river (sea).” This was one of the first great independent adventures (voyages) of my life. The seemingly random process of selecting a hexagram was remarkably reaffirming.
Thirty-three years later I was offered the presidency of Unity College in Maine. This would be another challenging adventure, taking on the leadership of a small university. I’ve always saved the I Ching for new challenges and I only use the random process when I want to shake up my otherwise rational decision-making approach. As I was preparing for what be a major life change, I once again threw the coins to select a hexagram. I used a different, more comprehensive translation, this one by Jack Balkin, a constitutional law professor at Yale University. His approach is very much geared towards issues of leadership, as are many of the I Ching translations. Remarkably, I arrived at the same hexagram, named in this translation, “Great Accumulation.” The Judgment section of the text reads “Cultivating a determined and steadfast character is essential, because if you wish to remain at the height of your powers you will need to hone your skills continually and renew yourself daily.....good fortune will come from working for the public good rather than for private advantage. Devote yourself to the perfection of your talents and to the achievement of something beyond your narrow self-interest, and you will have both the power and the vision to achieve great things, symbolized by crossing the great river.”
I have a modest collection of I Ching translations. And my knowledge of the work is at best equally modest. It was written many, many generations ago, sifted through Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist minds, and then filtered through Western scholars from different intellectual traditions. The Yin Yang lines yield archetypal nature- derived trigrams that recombine as sixty-four hexagrams, interpreted through observations of the natural world, human behavior, and the nuances of governance and leadership. It is arguably one of the most enduring, intriguing, and mysterious books to emerge from human culture. When I study the book, I feel as if I’m getting access to an intellectual mixture of the world’s great wisdom traditions, organized around a primordial, archetypal knowledge system.
The ten day voyage was slow and steady. For virtually the entire trip, there were no human signs other than the daily doings of the crew. I played my guitar and gazed at the ocean. For the first nine days I contemplated sea and sky, remarking on the absence of human signatures. A half day out from the Straits of Gibraltar, ships appeared. The closer we got, the more ships I saw, as if they were all pulled by a magnet through a funnel. Finally, the sea traffic was dynamic. There were hundreds of boats of all conceivable shapes and sizes, carrying the world’s cargo through a narrow passage into the Mediterranean Sea. I wondered what it might have been like only five centuries earlier to sail in the opposite direction, westward through the passage into what was then the great unknown, to be a passenger on such perilous journeys. I wondered, too, about the great contrast of sailing across a wild ocean and then entering the busy world of human commerce and exchange.
Writing a book is a challenging voyage in its own right. It’s not as physically perilous as crossing an uncharted ocean. But it’s a powerful learning experience. And there are times when you confront the great unknown. I write a book when I feel that I need to dig deep within myself to pull out what is at the edge of my awareness. It’s an exploration of inner space made public. You spend thousands of hours devoted to exploring ideas and experiences that you hope will be of wider interest. Despite your best plans and whatever structure you have in mind, there will be meandering paths, looping themes, and reiterative cycles of insight and frustration. You meld perennial learning (what it is you’ve always known) and adaptive learning (how to apply that knowledge to changing circumstances). You develop rational, sequential approaches, while you look for creative ways to express them. You improvise as necessary, while always returning home to the seminal questions that inform the work. Still, your ideas congeal and then decompose, reforming throughout the course of a lifetime. The learning process, like your memory, is forever unfolding.
So grab your purple crayon and use it well. Take the ideas in this book and carry them to new places. Use them to expand your thinking, to challenge yourself to challenge others. Delve into your own memories and experiences to allow the theoretical material to come alive. Stay home and observe the natural world. Use your animal senses. Discover your roots by learning about what’s right in front of you. Then you can stretch far and wide. Cross the stream so you can resonate with heaven.