Forever Young: How Six Great Individuals Have Drawn upon the Powers of Childhood and How We Can Follow Their Lead
by William Crain, cofounder of Safe Haven Farm Sanctuary
Turning Stone Press
Reviewed by Karen Davis, PhD, president, United Poultry Concerns
Our society’s children seldom experience nature anymore. They move between poles of a cold-blooded education system, designed to fit them to the capitalist economy, and a Disneyesque world of commercial amusements featuring captive and artificially constructed animals in dazzling manmade settings.
Seldom, if ever, do today’s children experience “forests, fields, and the seashore, where they can observe animals living freely in their natural habitats,” wrote Rachel Carson, one of the six gifted individuals characterized in Forever Young as having never lost their childlike “sense of the beautiful intricacies and wonder of life.”
Defied “ruts of tradition & conformity”
The six individuals whose feelings, intellects, and endeavors were nourished and sustained by nature, amid the disenchantments and hardships of conventional adult life, were Henry David Thoreau, Albert Einstein, Charlotte Bronte, Howard Thurman, Jane Goodall, and Rachel Carson.
Each of them defied what Thoreau reviled as the “ruts of tradition and conformity.” Each brought fresh insights and ideas that, in author William Crain’s view, have more in common with the native perceptions and imaginations of children than with the average adult attitude.
Observing the damage we are inflicting on the earth in our commercialized rampage across the globe, Howard Thurman, a spiritual counselor to Martin Luther King and other leaders of the civil rights movement, identified as part of the problem our assumption that we are separate from and superior to nature.
“Childlike wonder is replaced by the marketable pleasures”
The childlike point of view does not inform the average adult’s notion of happiness in capitalist culture. Indeed, most adults in the modern workforce do not have the time or energy left over to contemplate and enjoy nature, even if there is any still to be found in their vicinity.
Thus, among the accomplishments of the six individuals featured in this book, Forever Young traces the disconnections and destructive compulsions of “developed” nations: children and adults are disconnected from one another; humans are disconnected from the natural world; adults stifle the interests, activities, and capabilities of children and devalue the world of nature. Childlike wonder is replaced by the marketable pleasures.
Children as miniature adults
Yet it would be wrong to assume that a diminished as well as a reckless and harmful childhood is anything new. People in the Middle Ages viewed children as miniature adults to be apprenticed as soon as possible to a trade, or to work on the farm.
And whether from developmental immaturity, imitation of the adults or the urging of innate impulses, children have often treated animals with enthusiastic cruelty, as depicted in William Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies about a group of boys stranded on an uninhabited island.
“Uncover secrets through patient observation”
As a child, I loved animals, but this did not stop me from ignorantly plucking butterflies off the flowers in our yard, and taking grass snakes out of the fields behind our house and putting them in cigar boxes and glass jars. At the time I did not realize these creatures had feelings; I can’t recall ever having been taught to leave them alone.
A distinguishing feature of the six individuals featured in Forever Young is their aptitude for patient observation of nature and animals. Wanting the chimpanzees in Africa to learn to trust her, Jane Goodall “exercised great patience,” Crain writes, and Goodall wrote, “I wanted to learn things that no one else knew, uncover secrets through patient observation.”
A walk in the woods vs. Disney World
How many children are suited for patient observation of the natural world? How many will choose a quiet walk in the woods over a traveling circus or a trip to Disney World?
How can we trust that a child’s spontaneous love for animals and nature will not guide the adult into a profession that manipulates and disrupts the natural world?
The English Romantic poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850), in his Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood, recounted his loss of visionary insight into nature as he became an adult.
Wordsworth found solace in his belief in compensatory forms of happiness commensurate with the hard realities that life brings.
Wordsworth held that despite the loss of visionary joy that comes with growing up, there remains in each person a “primal sympathy” that custom, though “heavy as frost and deep almost as life,” can bury but not destroy.
Forever Young shares such hope while recognizing – lamenting – the power of commercial entertainment to usurp the willing attention of all age groups.
“Even when people go to the beach or a park,” Crain writes, “they fixate on their devices. They do not experience birdsong, gentle breezes, or the play of sunlight on the water. They are oblivious to nature’s sensations and the gifts of the spirit that can come with them.”
“Not every man is improved by country life or country labors”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), Wordsworth’s contemporary and coauthor with him of the Lyrical Ballads, a collection of poems that sympathetically portray the hard life of rural people, first published in 1798, did not share his friend’s forlorn faith that a universal primal sympathy with insight “into the life of things” could evolve effectively into what Wordsworth called the “philosophic mind” – the conscious sensibility and thoughtfulness of adulthood.
In his study of philosophy and literature, Biographia Literaria, Coleridge wrote:
“I am convinced that for the human soul to prosper in rustic life, a certain vantage-ground is pre-requisite. It is not every man that is likely to be improved by a country life or by country labors. Education, or original sensibility, or both, must pre-exist if the changes, forms and incidents of nature are to prove a sufficient stimulant. And where these are not sufficient, the mind contracts and hardens by want of stimulants, and the man becomes selfish, sensual, gross and hard-hearted.”
“Pictures to the blind, music to the deaf”
Without education, original sensibility, or both, said Coleridge, citing the peasantry in North Wales for example, “the ancient mountains, with all their terrors and all their glories, are pictures to the blind and music to the deaf.”
A raw, unreflecting passion for nature is probably no more reliable, ethically, than a coldly rational approach.
Rachel Carson deplored the effect on students who are “primarily exposed to animals in laboratories” of preempting their “feelings” for animals and nature.
“How do we follow their lead?”
Together, Carson and Thoreau, in their empathy for birds and all creatures, exemplified the fortunate confluence of what Thoreau called “the point of view of wonder and awe, like lightening,” and what Coleridge called the “meditative and feeling mind.”
Part I of Forever Young is devoted to the Six Lives. Part II asks “How do we follow their lead?”
Parents and educators endowed with “meditative and feeling” minds can do much to encourage children to empathize confidently with animals and nature, thereby contributing lifelong benefits for the children, the animals, society, and the planet. I urge you to order a copy of Forever Young and learn what you – what we all – can do.
––Karen Davis, United Poultry Concerns
Order the book on Amazon.com Books by asking for “Forever Young by William Crain.”
Bill Crain is the founder, with his wife Ellen Crain, of Safe Haven Farm Sanctuary in Poughquag, New York.
Crain is a professor emeritus of psychology at The City College of New York, whose writings include The Emotional Lives of Animals and Children: Insights from a Farm Sanctuary.