On her regular route through Lincoln Brick Park recently, Jackie Blanc paused at a dead tree in the prairie that showed burn marks, evidence of the prescribed fire that had taken place there several years before. She asked students, teachers, and parents from Riley Elementary School in St. Johns, should we be in trouble for this wee burn mark on the tree?
In fact, students learned, prescribed fires are a tool for managing an ecosystem. With the right fire at the right time, we can minimize the spread of pests and disease, provide forage for game, recycle nutrients back into the soil, and accomplish an array of other ecosystem objectives.
This reminded me so much of writer Thich Nhat Hanh’s philosophy of inter-being, the idea that in observing the present moment, we can understand how all phenomena are interdependent. Or, in the words of naturalist John Muir, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."
Applying this concept here in the prairie, we look at this dead tree, which had burned. When we thoughtfully follow this, we understand that the tree becomes many things. First, part of the tree becomes smoke, which floats into the sky and becomes a cloud. Later, that cloud fills with water and the tree comes down in the form of a rain drop on your forehead. Other parts of the tree become ash. The ash goes into the soil and nourishes it, so now the tree is part of the earth. And later maybe it will be part of a blade of grass or the bud of a flower.
So you see, as we look closely at things, we see how they are made of many things that are not that thing. A flower, for example, is made of sunshine, of clouds, of earth, “the whole cosmos has come together in order to help this flower manifest itself” (Hanh).
Engaging students in this way of thinking about the interconnectedness of all things contributes enormously to their worldview. With this expansive perspective, they would see a carton of milk at the supermarket and not only see the cow that produced it. They would see that the cow is not separate from the water it drinks and the grass it eats; the water and the grass are not separate from the soil and the earth and the choices we make to take care of it. Students now see the whole puzzle, not just the individual pieces. And the denouement is the realization that we must take care of our earth, the animals that live on it, and the air we breathe, because all of these things are not apart from all of us; they are a part of all of us.
Special thanks to Megen Oakley, a parent of a student from Riley Elementary, for the inspiring conversation that sparked the ideas in this post.
Hanh, Thich Nhat. No Death, No Fear: Comforting Wisdom for Life. Penguin Random House, 2003.
Muir, John. My First Summer in the Sierra. Houghton Mifflin, 1916.