When we contemplate the whole globe as one great dewdrop, striped and dotted with continents and islands, flying through space with other stars all singing and shining together as one, the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty.
— John Muir
On April 22nd, we celebrate Earth Day. It seems a fitting occasion to appreciate how the poetry and dedication of passionate environmental reformers like Muir have left us a legacy that includes our glorious National Park system and the celebration of Earth Day for over 50 years. It’s also an occasion, at The Lamp-Post, to consider how children’s literature can awaken the curiosity of new generations of John Muirs – citizens who are attuned to language and nature. Authors inspire us with the magic of stories and the wisdom of characters who stay in the mind and become part of a reader’s world view, affecting the way we perceive the world and react to its new challenges.
Muir’s words remain inspiring, and so I’d like to take a closer look at how inspiration can be found in three different works – Nuts to You, squirrels rescuing squirrels in a vulnerable forest, by Lynne Rae Perkins; Project Mulberry, two students raise silkworms and learn about sustainable farming, by Linda Sue Park; and The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, the resourceful William Kamkwamba uses junkyard gold to build a windmill and bring energy and electricity (and water) to his village, by Kamkwamba (with Bryan Mealer).
In exploring these titles, I focus on the ingenuity required to preserve our natural world, mining these titles for the verbal and anecdotal seeds the authors have planted in these works, seeds that can inspire readers. In each of these books the characters are ingenious by necessity. Ingenuity is critical in figuring out how to preserve species or habitats. The progress that leads to Earth Day – or the great horned owl or the snail darter or the axolotl! – comes from inspired new ideas. As Julia Song notes midway through Project Mulberry: “Good ideas were hard!”
“Cautiously, they crept to the chewed-off edge of the livable world.”
The squirrels in Nuts to You – Chai and TsTs – set out to rescue Jed. (You’re supposed to pronounce TsTs phonetically, “Tsuh-tsuh,” although Perkins recommends making two tongue clicks to be more accurate, just one of the playful details that makes reading the book so fun.) Along the way they discover a friend among the red squirrels, née Tchotke, but she goes by Tchke, which is much easier to say. They discover that humans are cutting down vegetation along their “buzzpaths” – the strips of land occupied by power transformers and electrical wires – which threaten their home, the Grove.
The book opens when Jed is captured by a hawk, and though that should be the end for Jed, he is alert and level-headed enough to practice the squirrel martial art of Hai Tchree. He distracts the hawk ever so slightly by alerting him to “Mice!” in the field below, and when he senses the slackening of the hawk’s grip he makes like water and is able to drop out of the hawk’s talons to fall safely to the field below. Ingenious!
The squirrels themselves do not at first truly understand the threat they are facing. They know the chain saws are loud, and that trees are falling, but they don’t know the humans are not actually clear-cutting, but merely pruning the designated alleys for the buzzpaths.
The critical moment of ingenuity in Nuts to You involves social psychology. When Chai, TsTs, Jed, and Tchke return, they recognize the Grove is doomed and that they need to find a way to get their colony of squirrels out before it’s too late. Somehow they don’t think their friends and family will just trust their say-so, but by playing on their well-found knowledge that squirrels love games (one of many squirrel culture traits that Lynne Rae Perkins playfully embellishes), they devise an elaborate game reminiscent of capture the flag that succeeds in saving the squirrel colony.
At the novel’s close, a wise old squirrel offers some perspective, understanding that in places where the humans build condominiums, animal habitats are truly destroyed. This squirrel has parlayed a mutual love of peanut butter and learned to communicate with the lunch-toting lumberjacks. He sagely notes that “in a nutshell, I didn’t leave the forest. The forest left me.” But his parting words are: “I wish humans understood how important trees are.”
John Muir would be happy to hear this sentiment expressed so succinctly in a children’s novel. He’d also be heartened that an evolving literature – which includes Lab Girl by Hope Jahren; The Overstory, by Richard Powers, and The Search for the Mother Tree, by Suzanne Simard – has begun to articulate and teach us all both the wisdom of trees and the ways in which they actually communicate. As if the Ents from Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings or the wise old Red from Katherine Applegate’s Wishtree are among us after all.
Ingenuity is encountered in more obvious ways in Project Mulberry, but it sometimes comes from unexpected quarters. Julia and Patrick embark on a project to raise silkworms for the state fair. It’s an odyssey of discovery as they learn they’ll need to procure mulberry leaves to feed the silkworms, study each stage of the silkworm’s development, figure out how to depict and document their progress, and eventually confront unexpected ethical dilemmas when it’s time to harvest the silk. They get a massive save when they encounter the genial Mr. Dixon who has the only mulberry tree in town and is happy to let them harvest as many leaves as they want to feed the silkworms.
The first problem they have to solve is how to keep Julia’s annoying little brother, Kenny, from messing with the growing silkworms. Patrick suggests bringing Kenny closer to the project, in order to get him to respect and preserve it. It works, and Kenny becomes an integral part of the team. He is the first to spot a subtle change in the appearance of the eggs, indicating progress toward hatching. He’s also the one to suggest that the way to film the silkworms clearly is to put them in glass jars. (Ingenious!)
Julia and Patrick learn to manage all the little challenges that come with this brand new project such as how to care for and mist their precious mulberry leaves, how to count the eggs and learn patience, how to recognize the tiny silkworms when they’ve hatched, and how to feed them regularly (more than they expect!). They become truly inspired when their club takes a field trip to Mr. Maxwell’s farm to learn about sustainable farming. (Linda Sue Park borrowed details from Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm, made famous in Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma.) There they come to truly understand the importance of “the cycle” in understanding how Nature works best. They gain insights here that may last the rest of their lives:
“The caterpillar had already wrapped itself in a layer of silk. It looked like it was living inside a cloud. We could see its black mouth moving, moving, busy, busy, busy.”
Mr. Maxwell teaches them what it means “to feel responsibility for what we eat.” He details the ingenious cycle of his farm: the cows eat the grass; the cow poop fertilizes the grass; the chickens eat the maggots that grow in the cowpats, aerate the soil, and distribute the fertilizer; the sheep come in and eat all the weeds; and then the cows return… It’s a brilliant, self-sustaining operation that makes for happy cows, happy chickens, and happy sheep, and it inspires Julia and Patrick to further contemplate the power of nature’s cycles.
My favorite moment in the book is when Julia and Patrick resolve to harvest their minuscule amounts of silkworm poop and take it across town to fertilize Mr. Dixon’s mulberry tree. It feels more like a ritual gesture, but it suggests that Julia and Patrick have got religion on sustainable farming, and it’s not hard to believe that thinking self-reflectively, taking the extra time for small gestures, and doing the right thing even if it’s more time consuming, will become an integral part of the people they each become.
I would like to believe the same is true for readers. Who’s to say which reader absorbs Julia’s lesson from Mr. Maxwell, but that’s how literature works. Children’s literature, too. Just as Charlotte’s Web has helped generations of readers to think about the life of a spider, or the interrelations in the barn, a host of children’s novels have provided iconic moments that teach these messages, too. Jean Craighead George introduced us to Sam Gribley, the boy who steals away to live independently in the Catskills, in My Side of the Mountain (1959). Sam shows us all how to live in the natural world, working with the bounty it provides. E.B. White’s Trumpet of the Swan (1970) opens with the budding naturalist, Sam Beaver, who discovers and protects the trumpeter swan eggs before befriending Louis. The super intelligent rats in Robert C. O’Brien’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1974) abandon the notion of stealing from humans, and create their own sustainable farm in Thorn Valley. More recently, Carl Hiaasen has written a quintet of witty, moving books in which young conservations fight to preserve animals and habitats in Florida. See: Hoot (2002), Flush (2005), Scat (2009), Chomp (2012), and Squirm (2018). Lesser known works like Bill Harley’s Night of the Spadefoot Toads (2008) depict curious, sensitive characters learning how to recognize, appreciate, and protect the sensitive wildlife around them. And just now Katherine Applegate has presented us with Willodeen (2021) whose story revolves on the discovery of how interdependent habitats are, just like Maxwell’s Farm.
“I was filled with the desire to understand, and the questions never stopped coming.”
William Kamkwamba is the epitome of ingenuity. In his memoir, adapted in a young readers edition, William details the quandary his village faces. A drought. No money to buy seed for maize, the one cash crop they can raise. Nights filled with darkness as they have no electricity. And the endless walk to haul water as they have no electric pumps. William is only 14 when he sets about to build a windmill to generate enough electricity for his family. William’s motto is, “Where others see garbage, I see opportunity.” He solves every problem and meets every challenge by heading to the junkyard and harvesting spare parts. He uses a Walkman, a condenser, five radios, and a homemade microphone to build his own little neighborhood radio station. His windmill combines a gum tree, more bicycle parts, and scrap from the junkyard to show that electricity is possible for his entire village. Eventually, William figures out how to use solar panels to pump water for his village, ending the need for those long walks. William has a mind and a can-do problem-solving mentality that never stops thinking, tinkering, solving.
Another mantra (he reminds me of Rikki Tikki Tavi) is: “I guess I’ll have to research this a little more.” Whether William is building soccer balls (plastic bags bound with rope) or toy trucks (cardboard beer cartons bound with wire) or contemplating how his family can get the corn seed to grow more maize, William is a relentless problem solver. His family ends up “selling all of our food” (their remaining seed corn) to buy flour to make fried cakes that they sell at the market. They turn a profit on the elaborate transaction and manage to survive the famine until they can actually grow maize again.
William’s resourcefulness is partly borne from the culture in Malawi. When he builds a trap – rubber bicycle tube, broken bicycle spoke, clothesline wire, maize chaff, four bricks – it’s not as if he’s dreamed it up anew. Where William lives, you have to be resourceful. But William dreams bigger than traps, soccer balls, and toy cars. When he sees the energy that can be generated by pedaling a bicycle, he thinks beyond his family. He thinks of his village and eventually dreams, “What if every home and shop in Wimbe had machines on the rooftops to catch the wind?” And he makes that dream come true.
“What can do the pedaling for me so that both of us can dance?”
What does all this have to do with conservation, the environment, and John Muir? William explains that the problem is not an actual lack of electricity in Malawi. Because of deforestation, the government-operated turbines get clogged regularly from runoff, which turns off the power at night in rural villages. Electricity became more expensive, causing many families to use wood for heating and cooking, leading to more deforestation.
The famine Malawi experienced in 2001 was exacerbated by the end of government support for fertilizer, devastating floods, and finally drought. Thus William’s family recourse to the ingenious flour cake solution, employing first hand elementary principles of market economics. William’s windmill isn’t about to solve every problem in Malawi. But his ingenuity offers a problem-solving template for those who will eventually find smarter, nation-wide solutions.
William’s ingenuity is fueled by his endless curiosity. He is a born researcher. He gets access to science books from an American literary mission and finds his touchstone, Using Energy. He transposes the ideas he learns, using rudimentary materials, to build his windmill. After people become aware of his successes, he is invited to give a TED Talk in Tanzania. He gets access to a computer for the first time and quips, “Where was this Google when I needed it?” Eventually the success of his book leads him to Dartmouth College. While earning his degree there his favorite haunt is the “tool library ” in the School of Engineering where William can borrow tools and experiment to his heart’s content. He demonstrates that you don’t need Google or a computer when you have your own fervent brain to invent solutions working with the resources you have, one with the land and your people.
“A windmill meant more than just power. It was freedom.”
We want student readers – kids – to be ingenious, too. In educating parlance, we want them to learn how to be creative problem solvers. These books all display playful and ingenious creative problem solving in which students can learn vicariously. Teachers regularly challenge their students with projects to evince creative problem solving. When you read these three books, look for the places where a sentiment or image might just be the little niggling idea that gets planted in a student’s mind, and never goes away, affecting how they see the world and spark some new idea in their future. That’s what great literature can do – what we want it to do – planting the seeds for tomorrow’s innovative leaders.
I believe student readers can be inspired by the experiences of TsTs, Julia Song, and William Kamkwamba. I can’t predict which moment, which witty riposte, which colorful description, which perfect pithy turn of phrase, or what critical invention will be the spark for each of them. But I do know the seeds are here.
It may come from William Kamkwamba’s evocative memory of farming life in better times: “The rains made everything come alive. All across the region, the flowers bloomed and the forests and bushes blossomed. Everywhere you went, the land smelled rich and fragrant.”
Or from Mr. Maxwell’s encomium to living within the limits of the land and its resources: “I’m a grass farmer. That’s my main job – making sure the soil stays fertile so the grass grows well. The animals do everything else, and if we all do our jobs, the system sustains itself – it keeps going and going.”
Or it might come from a simple, pithy Lynne Rae Perkins squirrel neologism: “Squirrels are fleet, and life is fleeting, gather ye nuts and feast while ye may.”
When students read sentiments like these, they drink from the cup of John Muir and his resourceful heirs. One of those heirs, Rachel Carson, also wrote:
“The aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth. And that, I take it, is the aim of literature, whether biography or history.”
To which I think we should generously add, that’s the aim of children’s literature, too.