A Primer

by Charles Clayton on May 26, 2011

“In the beginning, years ago, I think I said too much. I spoke with an encyclopedic knowledge of the names of plants or the names of birds passing through in season. Gradually I came to say less. After a while the only words I spoke, beyond answering a question…were to elucidate single objects.”
Barry Lopez, “Children in the Woods”

At this point in my life, 400 days from turning 40, I’m not a big believer in religion or any unseen world. Except when I’m hanging out with my daughter, a three-year-old ball of golden-haired fire. Sometimes, she ALMOST makes me want to believe in some sort of Supreme Being — but not for the reasons you might think. Not because she’s a little angel. Not because I think all babies are miracles. Nothing like that. She makes me want to believe in a bearded man in heaven because such faith would allow me to say “BECAUSE GOD MADE IT THAT WAY” whenever the questioning gets too tough for me to answer

It’s the quintessential “why-is-the-sky-blue?” sort of thing. The mind of a child trying to make sense of the world around her, accompanied by the half-baked, half-assed, half-educated brain of a parent trying to explain things without resorting to fairy tales (yet maintaining some semblance of magic), and doing his or her best to impart some scientific truthiness so the little girl with the wondering eyes can learn a thing or two.

Example: It’s spring and the trees are budding, and any kid who’s not glued to the teevee knows that this is special and worth noticing, worth checking out. She asks about the furry catkins on the aspen alongside the trail. She knows it’s an aspen because the bark is white, easy enough, but she’s never seen a catkin, so I pluck one and show it to her. Soft, fuzzy, obviously like a caterpillar, which she points out to me. I explain that this will become seeds for the trees, and that the wind will blow the seeds away, and some of them will sprout and make new trees. Easy enough … there’s tomato starters in the kitchen window, so she knows the sprouting seeds drill. But WHY are there seeds? Well, so there can be baby trees. WHY are there baby trees? So they can grow into big trees. WHY? So they can make more baby trees. Pause and ponder. WHY are there trees? Because the trees give us shade, and oxygen to breathe (grossly human-centered answer, I know, I know). WHY? Because they use the sunlight to make food, then breathe out oxygen for us. WHY? Because they evolved that way? Pause and ponder. WHY? Because billions of years ago, in some primordial swamp, a zap of lightning (or sunlight, or hot water, depending on which version I’m spinning) turned some molecules into some building blocks of life, and they randomly figured out that the sun was a good way to make food.

And on and on, backwards through time … the formation of the planets, supernovas, eventually to the Big Bang. And when you go back that far, you basically end up with one of two ultimate answers:

1) “Because a former Universe quit expanding and began contracting until that entire Universe was just a tiny little dot, then it exploded and made a new one.”

This is good, and some astronomers think this is how things may have unfolded this time around, but has one problem — it turns the discussion into a circular story with no prospect of an end, or a beginning, and offers no final answer to the question, inviting another round of WHY. Which is okay, for a while, but 45 minutes later, I’ve come dangerously close to resorting to:

2) “BECAUSE GOD MADE IT THAT WAY.”

Neatly wrapped, all-encompassing answer that requires no further discussion and could halt the inquisition issuing forth from the kid strapped to my back … but alas, as in life — unable to bite the mythical bait — so in daddyhood: I just can’t bring myself to utter those utterly final words. The final word, so to speak. So when the chatterbox just won’t stop, I simply tell her I DON’T KNOW.

Which is fine. She’ll figure out soon enough that mommy and daddy are plodding blindly through life, as clueless as anyone with regards to where the WHY chain begins or ends. Fine, that is, unless you’re fond of the Good Book. The one that begins at the BEGINNING of it all and ends with the END. According to that one, Jesus himself says that I’m headed for the fire due to the fact that I’m keeping a little child from the Lord, one of just a handful of utterly unforgivable sins.

Don’t get me wrong, for while I may actively prevent my daughter from indulging in things like crazy colored sugar cereals, Mcmeat products or Sunday School, I’m more than willing to allow for a book or two of Bible stories on her shelf, right alongside pint-sized tomes about Greek goddesses, Nordic heroes, Tibetan monks, ballerina princesses, baby animals and a swell little biography of Georgia O’Keefe. Like it or not, Biblical tales are part of our collective consciousness, part of our culture, and many of them are good stories: a tribe of wanderers trying to figure out how to function in a rough-and-tumble desert chock full of lions, serpents, flash floods and drought … not so different than New Mexico really. Heck, they even ride camels and camp in tents, both of which my daughter has done, so she can relate.

Good stuff, at least at the kiddo level. Useful parables about building your house on a rock instead of the sand, or how humble folks with good intentions can conquer seemingly insurmountable adversity. And there’s no genocide in the children’s stories. No smiting. No massacres. No hellfire or eternal damnation. Best of all, at least in our books, NO GODDAMN DEVIL.

The Devil came into my life via a kid in the trailer court I grew up in. A poor kid with a permanent flaking skin condition and a single drunk mom who drove smack dab over my puppy while driving us to school one morning. The kind of kid who gets sent to the store to fetch mom another pack of Salems. He told me about the Devil, probably on the same day he showed me the porno mag he found in his ma’s bedroom, or the long day he held me hostage with a can of bug spray, and it freaked me out. This was more than just a bump in the night. Suddenly there was evil in my world, an actual EVIL BEING who was bent on harming me, who was always trying to trick me into doing things that would send me to HELL (such as gazing at my first porno mag).

Which is why I bite my (forked) tongue and don’t resort to “BECAUSE GOD MADE IT THAT WAY” when the questions get tough — because the notion of god leads one to religion, and religion, at least in this one nation under god, invariably, if temporarily, leads you to the Bible and the folks who thump it, who can’t wait to tell you all about the devil so they can scare you into joining their club. And I don’t want my daughter to have to wrestle with that sort of thing. Not yet. That can happen later, when she goes to college (on a full scholarship), smokes pot for the first (and only) time and wrestles with the problem of evil in Philosophy 101. She already knows the world can be a bad place. All kids knows this, no matter how loved or how stable a home life they might have. Diaper rash burns. Bigger kids take your toys. Daddy gets grumpy. Mama’s boobs aren’t forever. Ants bite. Bees sting. You don’t always get ice cream. All life is suffering, and the dark is scary enough as it is without worrying about whether THE DEVIL might be hiding in it.

So fiddlesticks on the devil, and more importantly, on the hysterical fear of him. A fear that ripped human culture from the womb of the earth and plopped it into the hands of a jealous and angry god. A fear that leveled the sacred groves of Europe. A fear that led to the wholesale slaughter of midwives, herbalists and storytellers who dared stray from accepted religious dogma. A fear that spread across continents and oceans like a disease, seeking out and destroying any perceived threat to the spiritual status quo found in rat- and cathedral-infested Rome, London or Madrid.

Questioning the status quo is a good thing, and as long as my daughter is going through this stage of incessant, root-level questioning of everything around her, I’m going to answer to the best of my ability. I know she’s soaking it up because out of the blue she’ll blurt out things like (while eating green beans) “I’m a T-Rex, and I’m eating stegosaurus legs”, or (while getting slathered in sunscreen) “the sun is a star, and stars are big balls of fire,” or (while hiking) “those trees died and they’re turning back into soil.” From the mouths of babes: biology, astronomy, paleontology, the knowledge that dispels irrational fear of the dark, the mysterious, the unknown.

This is all well and good, but at the same time, I gotta make sure that my personal aversion to Judeo-Christian-Islamic triumvirate doesn’t cause me to turn my daughter’s world into a dreary “just the facts” sort of place, shorn of mystery and enchantment. Our fear of the Devil and his brother Jehovah may have caused us to deny our Earth Momma, but our soulless scientific rationalism has taken that denial and ran with it — strapped it to the top of a Hummer and hit the gas, crammed it into an oil tanker and headed straight for a hidden reef — filling a gaping spiritual void by plundering any vestige of goodness left untrammeled by the Good News and transforming it into cold, hard, rational profits: herbs into energy drinks, old growth into plywood, genetic code into an industrial plaything. I don’t want my daughter to have to wrestle with all that either. Not yet. That can happen later, when she goes to college, smokes pot (for just the second and only other time) and decides that her economics class is a load of horseshit that just doesn’t jibe with the “Leaves of Grass” she’s reading in poetry class.

Which brings me back to catkins, and questions, and attempted answers. Edward Abbey once wrote: “The Earth needs no defense, only more defenders.” I would also suggest, with all due respect for the Lorax (who speaks for the trees) and well-intended parents everywhere, that the Earth needs no spokespeople, only more people willing to listen to what it’s saying. Answer questions? Yes, of course, always. Point out the vultures circling overhead? Sure, and you can even mention the fact that they eat dead things if you want. But watch out for: “This furry catkin … pregnant with possibility, an unbroken chain of evolving life force, a goddamn scientific miracle right in the palm of your hand sweetheart, just let me count the ways.”

No. No, no, no. JUST SHUT UP Daddy, and listen. Let the planet speak for itself; try to see the world through the eyes of a child, like the child you THINK you’re teaching. She’s already paying more attention that you are. Leave the mental geology book on the shelf and allow the “single objects” to gradually reveal themselves and their connection to every other single object, the whole infinitely bigger than the sum of its parts (and each part infinite in its own right).

This might entail a trip to the wilderness to witness firsthand the roar and spray of a hidden waterfall, or trout jumping in a shimmering mountain lake (we’re hoping for our first backpacking trip this summer), but it could just as easily mean watching the magpie strut along the cinderblock wall, or flipping over rocks together in the back yard to see what kind of creepy crawlies exist, well, right in your own back yard. It’s a lot more fun than a trip to church, a lot more interesting than a list of facts, and easy as mud pie: just step outside, hand in hand with your little girl or boy, and see what happens.


Charles Clayton is a father, schoolteacher and slightly reformed vagabond whose writings appear in various regional publications. He is a frequent contributor to the Mountain Gazette and occasionally publishes a ’zine called GRANOLA SANDWICH. For more musings and commentary go to www.granolasandwich.com. He lives in Taos, New Mexico.

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