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Do you know things? Can you create things?

June 11, 2014

“Imagine living a life beside people, but never getting to know them.  Could we say that we know our friends and our families if we didn’t even recognize their names, much less their personalities and attributes?  These would be miserable relationships.  But most of us go through life without ever stopping to smell the roses, without ever learning even the names and smells of the flowers that border the road we take to the office every morning – flowers with such perfectly put names as Indian blanket, cowslip, spider wort, fleabane, queen’s cup, and butter-and-eggs.”   –my friend Lisa Elmers,  in her book Beauty Unframed (pg. 25)

“…a developed memory is a wondrous and terrible storehouse of things seen and heard and done.  It can do what no mere search engine on the internet can do.  It can call up apparently unrelated things at once, molding them into a whole impression, or a new thought.  The poet T.S. Eliot understood this creative, associative, dynamic function of a strong memory.  The developed imagination remembers a strain from Bach, and smells spinach cooking in the kitchen, and these impressions are not separate but part of the a unified whole, and are the essence of creative play.  Without the library of the memory … the imagination simply does not have much to think about, or to play with.”  –Anthony Esolen, in Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child   (pg. 9)

In the information age, we have full access to nearly everything known to man because of the internet.  Not only can we access this database through a computer, we can carry it around on a device in our pocket.

But do we know more than we used to?  I would argue that we don’t.  We have access to more, but most of us don’t actually know more.

This week my family had the pleasure of a visit from my aunt and uncle, who are avid nature enthusiasts and birdwatchers. My uncle is a fountain of bird knowledge. I had asked if they could teach me some basics of bird-watching.  As we walked around my neighborhood with Liam, they led us in marveling at individual plants and birds in a way I hadn’t really done before.  Our family goes for walks frequently. Yet my time outdoors came even more alive as I learned and identified the names of certain birds and plants, thanks to my aunt and uncle and the Peterson Field Guide they gave to me.

Imagine going to a party or on an outing with the same people every week, but never learning their names.  You might have fun, but if you don’t know who they are, the depth of your enjoyment of those individuals is limited.  It is the same with nature.  Learning the names of species allows you to have a sort of relationship with the natural world.  How much everyday joy is there in knowing a person’s name and story?  There is also joy in knowing the nonhuman members of God’s creation personally.

Not only is there joy in knowing birds, plants, and animals firsthand, but the ability to access their names readily in our mind, as Esolen explains, enables us to merge species, stories, and ideas into new and beautiful creations.

Today’s common educational philosophy seems enamored with this idea that the less structure we give children, the more free to be creative they will be.  “Don’t give children coloring books!  They can create their own pictures to color!”  Yet as Esolen argues sarcastically:

“‘Bad grammar will not kill you.  How should it? It itself is week and foolish.  All structure is foolish.  Be creative. Do what you please.  So what if some old fashioned Tyrant up above calls it gibberish? It will be your gibberish.  There are no rules.  Isn’t this apple shiny, though?’  And so what we kill is not only the possibility that students will learn English grammar, but that they will learn the grammar of anything at all – law, moral philosophy, mathematics, history, you name it.” (pg. 20)

As much us we like to think so, we are not gods.  We cannot create ex nihilo (out of nothing).  It is only by studying and learning what God has already designed (and what the people before us have discovered) that we can create anything worthwhile.  But he DOES want us to create- we are made imago dei (in the image of God).  The first thing Adam did in the garden of Eden was name the species God had put there with him.  He also tended the garden.  Did he and Eve cultivate beautiful beds of flowers?  I have no idea, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

Go.  Learn names. Master techniques. Expand your memory.  Create.

Today I identified a Northern Yellow-Shafted Flicker in my backyard.  I can’t wait to see him [or her- one detail I still need to identify] again!









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