A Country Called Childhood

By Jay Griffiths

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Exploring the Meaning of Kith

Stumbling on a bird’s nest as a child, I was breathtaken. I gasped at the tenderness of it, the downy feathers, softer than my fingers, moss folded into grasses and twigs in rounds. My eyes circled and circled it, caught by the mesmerizing perfection of the nest. It was the shape of my dream, to be tucked inside a nest and to know it for home.

A nest is a circle of infinite intimacy, a field-hearth or hedge-hearth. Every nest whispers ‘home’, whether you speak English, Spanish, Wren or Robin. Part of a child’s world-nesting need is answered seeing a rabbit warren, a badger sett or otter holt, as children’s writers instinctively know, giving children a secret passage to dens, nests and burrows.

“A Country Called Childhood: Exploring the Meaning of Kith” is copyright © 2015 by Jay Griffiths from A Country Called Childhood. Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint and the author.

A Country Called Childhood: Children and the Exuberant World, by Jay Griffiths

In A Country Called Childhood: Children and the Exuberant World (on sale: November 11, 2014), Jay Griffiths seeks to discover why we deny our children the freedoms of space, time, and the natural world. Visiting communities as far apart as West Papua and the Arctic and delving into history, philosophy, language, and literature, she explores how children’s affinity for nature is an essential and universal element of childhood.

Learn more now.

Through nests, a child’s own hearthness is deepened and the child grows outwardly and inwardly into its world. Outwardly, children stare at a nest, fascinated. Inwardly, the nest reflects not just the body’s home but the mind’s. In the snug refuge of the nest, the psyche fills itself out from within, as round and endless as a nest, creating its infinite-thoughted worlds. Intertwined with the world of fur and feather is the world of metaphor where mind makes its nests. Metaphor weaves ‘grass’ and ‘shelter’ together. It ties ‘twig’ to ‘refuge’. It knits ‘moss’ to ‘home’.

Finding a nest is a homecoming for a child. In Greek, homecoming is nostos, the root of the word ‘nostalgia’ – an ache for home, a longing for belonging. Children, filthy little Romantics that they are, have an uncanny gift for nostalgia in nature; something inchoate, yes, but yearning, yearning for their deepest dwelling.

Every generation of children instinctively nests itself in nature, no matter how tiny a scrap of it they can grasp. In a tale of one city child, the poet Audre Lorde remembers picking tufts of grass which crept up through the cracks in paving stones in New York City and giving them as bouquets to her mother. It is a tale of two necessities. The grass must grow, no matter the concrete suppressing it. The child must find her way to the green, no matter the edifice which would crush it.

The Maori word for placenta is the same as the word for land, so at birth the placenta is buried, put back in the mothering earth. A Hindu baby may receive the sun-showing rite surya-darsana when, with conch-shells ringing to the skies, the child is introduced to the sun. A newborn child of the Tonga people ‘meets’ the moon, dipped in the ocean of Kosi Bay in KwaZulu-Natal. Among some of the tribes of India, the qualities of different aspects of nature are invoked to bless the child, so he or she may have the characteristics of earth, sky and wind, of birds and animals, right down to the earthworm. Nothing is unbelonging to the child.

‘My oldest childhood memories have the flavour of the earth,’ wrote Federico García Lorca. In the traditions of the Australian deserts, even from its time in the womb, the baby is catscradled in kinship with the world. Born into a sandy hollow, it is cleaned with sand and ‘smoked’ by fire, and everything – insects, birds, plants and animals – is named to the child, who is told not only what everything is called but also the relationship between the child and each creature. Story and song weave the child into the subtle world of the Dreaming, the nested knowledge of how the child belongs. The threads which tie a child to the land include its conception site and the significant places of the Dreaming inherited through its parents. Introduced to creatures and land-features as to relations, the child is folded into the land, wrapped into country, and the stories press on the child’s mind like the making of felt – soft and often – storytelling until the feeling of the story of the country is impressed into the landscape of the child’s mind.

That the juggernaut of ants belongs to a child, belligerently following its own trail. That the twitch of an animal’s tail is part of a child’s own tale or storyline, once and now again. That on the papery bark of a tree may be written the songline of a child’s name. That the prickles of a thornbush may have dynamic relevance to conscience. That a damp hollow by a riverbank is not an occasional place to visit but a permanent part of who you are. This is the beginning of belonging, the beginning of love.

In the art and myth of Indigenous Australia, the Ancestors seeded the country with its children, so the shimmering, pouring, circling, wheeling, spinning land is lit up with them, cartwheeling into life. In bitter contrast to the iridescent lifefulness of this entrance to the world, during the years of the Stolen Generations, some Indigenous Australians were forced to give birth in morgues, surrounded by the dead, because the authorities did not consider them to be human.

The human heart’s love for nature cannot ultimately be concreted over. Like Audre Lorde’s tufts of grass, it will crack apart paving stones to grasp the sun. Children know they are made of the same stuff as the grass, as Walt Whitman describes nature creating the child who becomes what he sees:

There was a child went forth every day,
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became . . .
The early lilacs became part of this child . . .
And the song of the phoebe-
. . .

        – ‘There was a Child Went Forth’

In Australia, people may talk of a child’s conception site as the origin of their selfhood and their picture of themselves. As Whitman wrote of the child becoming aspects of the land, so in Northern Queensland a Kunjen elder describes the conception site as ‘the home place for your image’.

Land can make someone who they are, can create their psyche, giving them fragments of themselves. On losing this, Indigenous Tasmanian Errol West writes: ‘There is no one to teach me the songs that bring the Moon bird, the fish or any other thing that makes me what I am.’ Shatter the relation to land and you shatter personalities like a smashed wing-mirror kicked into the dust.

From song, from dream, from elements of earth and water, spirit-children are immanent in the land. They are left there by the Ancestors of the Dreaming, who sang their way across the land, leaving an imprint of music like an aural footstep. And sometimes a woman who has already physically conceived a child chances to step in that same footstep, and, if she does, part of the song and the spirit-child leap up into her so she feels a quickening, sharp as an intake of breath at a kick within, sweet as a night surprised by song. Sometimes it is the father who, seeing something unusual – a particularly large fish or an animal behaving strangely – may know it as an indication of a spirit-child. Or a man walking by a lake may find a spirit-child jumping into his mind, which he will send in a dream to his wife, inseminating the spirit-child within her. Then the Lawmen, the knowers of the songline which the father or mother was on, can tell which stanzas of the song belong to that child, its conception totem and, in that sinuous reflexivity of belonging, its quintessential home.

To be born is, in Latin, nasci, and the word is related to natura, so birth, nature, the laws of nature and the idea of an essence are related. It is as if language itself has embedded birth in the natural world. In the Amazon, people say childbirth should always take place in the forest-gardens so the condensed energy of the plants can nourish the child. In New Guinea, future generations are called ‘our children who are still in the soil’ and when I was in West Papua, the western half of the island, I was told that in the Dani language the expression for digging potatoes is the same as that for giving birth to a child. Women say they can sometimes hear the unearthed potatoes, which are always handled gently, calling out to them, the land singing things into being to be mothered into the world.

Legends of childhood across the world suggest whole landscapes lit with incipience. Everywhere is potential, beginningness. It may be the inheld energy of an acorn or the liquid and endless possibilities of water; it may be the fattening of a potato in the secret earth or the leaping of a salmon which is the child Taliesin – in whatever form it takes, the land itself is kindling children. In Indigenous Australian culture, there is a common idea that the land is mentor, teacher and parent to a child. People talk of being ‘grown up by’ their land; their country as kin.

So do English-speakers – without quite realizing it. A child may be looked after by its ‘kith and kin’, we say, as if both terms meant family or relations. Not so. ‘Kith’ is from the Old English cydˉdˉ, which can mean kinship but which in this phrase means native country – one’s home outside the house – but no one I have yet met has known that meaning. This sense of belonging has nothing whatsoever to do with a nation state or political homeland, but rather with one’s immediate locale, one’s square mile, the first landscape which we know as children. W. H. Auden wrote of this as ‘Amor Loci’, the love of his childhood landscape. Kith kindles the kinship which children so easily feel for the natural world and without that kinship, nature also loses out, bereft of the children who grow up to protect it.

Much of a baby’s first knowledge is in the language of touch and smell, the texture and feel of the materials which surround it. The world to a baby appears like sight underwater, when it is hard to distinguish separate objects, when everything shimmers in varieties of brightness, a vision of the Aurora Borealis in swathes of light and curtains of colour. With this vision, a highland baby in West Papua opens its eyes to a bagful of vegetables and the odd piglet, all of them together in a string bag dangling down its mother’s back, bouncing as she walks or digs sweet potato or searches for frogs, or tucked into a riverbank while she washes. Outside the mesh of the string bag, the baby is enveloped in clouds. If it cries, its mother will swing the bag round and feed the baby, maybe also feeding the piglet. The baby hears its mother’s feet on the ochre clay and the slippery gurgles of ubiquitous mud. The mother wraps the child in a particular leaf, known to be very cool in the strong sunlight, and may cover the baby with an umbrella made of pandanus leaf to keep off both rain and sun.

Children are porous to nature, as Wordsworth describes: as a child, a lake ‘lay upon my mind’ and the sky ‘sank down/Into my heart’. Created of lake and sky, he says, ‘Thus were my sympathies enlarged.’ Before any sense of myself, before a mirror had meaning, before my skin was a boundary, I remember nature as if it were inside me. Birds sang and I heard it inside. It snowed: I snowed. It rained: I rained. As if in some pre-verbal state, whatever ‘it’ was, I was too. I was warm in May because the sun was: I couldn’t tell the difference. I was all the world and all the world was me, saturated with presence. Grass. Blue. Tree. Water. Wind.

It was a kinship so primary that the senses understood it long before the mind. Water was the touch of it; I could feel the sky and taste the dampness of leaves in the uninstructed mud the body knows. I had two older brothers, each of us a year apart, and our mother, a gardener, thought that children, like seeds, grew best unobserved in good black earth, so in daffodils we were crazy with yellow and by autumn we were brown and shiny as conkers, but all through the year we were frank and stout with dirt. Our mother dressed us in three little pairs of black tops and three little pairs of black trousers, so no one would ever complain about us being filthy for the very good reason that they would never see it. Every once in a while, six little bits of black clothing went in the laundry and three little bits of grubby childhood went in the bath.


The riddle of this book is that of a child’s human nature, which includes a sense of quest, the need for identity and the demand to honour the ludic principle – the principle of play. It is about how that human nature is nested in nature which co‑creates the child. That relationship is vital for the psyche, and shy, bullied, neglected or abused children, those without friends or those with difficult families, find that their sense of belonging in nature is itself a remedy. Nature near the home seems to be a significant factor in promoting the psychological well-being of children growing up in the countryside, but even in small ways access to nature positively influences children so, for example, playing on asphalt seems to generate more conflict among children while playing in greenery promotes more harmony.

Author Barry Lopez describes the lifelong consolation of nature first discovered in childhood: ‘a long, fierce peace can derive from this knowledge.’ In Flora Thompson’s memoiresque Lark Rise to Candleford, the young Laura is trapped in a depression for months and it is nature which releases her in a long river-moment where the water itself seems to have a message for her. ‘To what does the soul turn that has no therapists to visit? It takes its trouble to the trees, to the riverbank, to an animal companion,’ wrote psychologist James Hillman.

Nature gives children a soul-acceptance smooth and valuable as silk. In nature, children learn they are watched over by something of stature and gravity, to which they can take their levity and mischief, something which will comprehend their sadnesses and stand witness to their secrets.

In West Papua, a mountain may be referred to as ‘mother’ to all the children who grow up in her foothills while the forests can be places of awe, as spirit beings are thought to guard certain trees. Sometimes, after a death, the body is laid out in the top of a tree, so local children hear the bass notes of their ancestor story in the air.

If it is therapist, friend, witness, mother and mystery, nature is also muse to children. Listening to stories, children conjure images of mountains or deserts, reaching into their minds for their kith, the country of their knowledge. Especially, says J. R. R. Tolkien, a child will make that picture ‘out of The Hill, The River, The Valley which were for him the first embodiment of the word’.

Pablo Neruda recalls leaving Temuco, his childhood home, when he was exiled from Chile:

There was a creek far down the slope, and the sound of its waters came up to me. It was my childhood saying goodbye. I grew up in this town. My poetry was born between the hill and the river, it took its voice from the rain, and like the river, it steeped itself in the forests. And now, on the road to freedom, I was pausing for a moment near Temuco and could hear the voice of the water that had taught me to sing.

I met a forget‑me‑not on equal terms, as a child. We were introduced one afternoon in the garden. Its name was so understandable and so emotional, unlike its formal name, myosotis, and is so-named in many languages: ne m’oubliez pas in French, Vergissmeinnicht in German, nontiscordardimé in Italian, nomeolvides in Spanish, vergeet mij nietje in Dutch, forglem meg ei in Norwegian, mi me lismonei in Greek and förgätmigej in Swedish. I was delirious for hours, finding that such a little thing, a child’s flower if ever there was one, had a voice, and a loud one – a voice which demanded never to be forgotten. And with that came the connotations of forgetting: to ignore, to pass by, to treat something as insignificant, to condemn, to refuse, to betray. From that afternoon on, the act of remembering has been bound for the rest of my life – faithfully – to this tiny, cherished flower. It was the ordinary and unforgotten symbol of the ordinary and unforgettable nature which surrounded me.

When I was in Australia, Indigenous Australians told me not only how children need land, but also how land needs children, to hear their voices and their laughter in order to know that it is not abandoned. In an eloquent report of the land’s distress, anthropologist Veronica Strang is told how one lagoon, the Emu waterhole in the Cape York Peninsula, went dry with grief on the death of its owner. ‘If the young people don’t come back to this country, the country will feel that “Oh well, look like no one don’t own me now,” so this country will just sort of die away.’

‘Forget‑me‑not,’ the land says, in all the dialects of deserts or forests. Children don’t forget that early promise and can be vociferous protectors of nature.

In 1964, Chairman Mao denounced gardens. Flowers were feudal. Children were ordered to get rid of grass – which was bourgeois – from school lawns. Mao ordered explicitly what modernity is now ordering implicitly: the removal of childhood from its home in nature. Consumer societies are stealing children away from their kith, their family of nature, in a stealthy alienation. This is not about some luxury, a hobby, a bit of playtime in the garden. This is about the longest, deepest necessity of the human spirit to know itself in nature, and about the homesickness which children feel, whose genesis is so obvious but so little examined. Writer on Native American spirituality Linda Hogan describes the term susto as a sickness of soul caused by disconnection from nature and cured by ‘the great without’.

Children’s first and greatest fear is abandonment. The effects of abandonment include low self-esteem, feelings of rejection, the suppression of emotion and possible suicidal feelings. The psyche-industries of the contemporary world construe this primarily as fear of maternal abandonment and understand separation anxiety in human–human terms. But if, as children themselves maintain and as listening adults confirm, nature is crucial in a child’s sense of home, then the separation of children from nature in artificial societies must play an important part. Children, denied their home in nature, are denied the mothering of nature. They lose the original mother (mater) of matter; the nub of it all, the real, mind-mothering world. This is a primary abandonment which causes children so much unrecognized damage, for the spirit needs to feel rooted somewhere on earth, a need which has been denied in the West only very recently.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the bible of the American psychiatric profession, lists ‘separation anxiety disorder’ as ‘excessive anxiety concerning separation from home and from those to whom the individual is attached’. But, says American commentator Theodore Roszak, ‘no separation is more pervasive in this Age of Anxiety than our disconnection from the natural world.’

Between 1981 and 2011, over 625 Guaraní people in Brazil committed suicide: nineteen times higher than the national average. It is mainly children and adolescents who kill themselves, and the reason is land-loss. Evicted from their territory, as virtually all of their land has been stolen by farmers and cattle ranchers, Guaraní children suffer a land-orphaning. ‘The Guaraní are committing suicide because we have no land . . . we are no longer free. Our young people look around them and think there is nothing left and wonder how they can live. They sit down and think, they forget, they lose themselves and then commit suicide,’ says Rosalino Ortiz, a Guaraní woman. The youngest was Luciane Ortiz, aged nine.

Given indigenous cultures’ attitudes to nature and given their experience of land-loss, it is perhaps no surprise that indigenous therapists have been first to examine this issue. In New Zealand, the Just Therapy team places nature and land at the heart of belonging. Attachment, the team insists, is not only the connection between the child and one or two individuals but also to the land. ‘Whenever we Samoans speak,’ says Kiwi Tamasese, a Samoan therapist, ‘we are talking about the mountain, we are talking about the river, we are talking about the waters, so the primacy of attachment is to those things, to those markers, rather than to other human beings.’ Therapy, then, might include the recovery of land for peoples and the restitution of nature to childhood so it can re‑belong.

Both ‘longing’ and ‘belonging’ come from the Old English word langian. This sense of longing to belong, of yearning to be nested, this keening for nature, is audible in the accents of childhood. In his important work on what he calls Nature Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv spent years talking to nature-deprived children and wrote that they ‘spoke of nature with a strange mixture of puzzlement, detachment, and yearning – and occasional defiance’.

I’ve seen this longing in children and how they are robbed of their belonging. They do not know how to describe what they miss because they have never had it, but their instinct knows. They know they have been cheated, terribly, and from the very start. They know the essential, vital world is just out of reach, though the need to grasp at it is still with them, leaving them snatching at substitutes, perpetually dissatisfied, without quite knowing why. I’ve seen the longing of the human soul for its home in nature, the homesickness of the psyche for its earth-hearth. I’ve seen a radiance of hope persist in children for many years, a hope that they will somehow approach that green song at the heart of things, and I’ve seen a dimness setting in, shadowing the radiance.

And when nature-deprived children grow up, they can demonstrate an anger which can turn against nature: furiously despising the very thing they first wanted, as anti-environmentalists do. The pattern is the same in a child who is temporarily abandoned by a parent, at first longing for them, then feeling cheated, searching for distraction. There is a persistence of hope and then sadness falls and, after the sadness, a fury, just as the parent, returning for the fond and filial welcome, finds their child hissing: ‘I hate you.When a society is inhospitable to nature, creatures lose their habitats, their dwellings – creatures including children. In this, modernity is dispossessing its own children. It makes the younger generation homeless, the adults making an undwelling for the children, unbequeathing them, unhousing, unsheltering, unnesting them. Childhood sent into exile.



Jay Griffiths is the author of Pip Pip: A Sideways Look at Time, Wild: An Elemental Journey, and Love Letter from a Stray Moon. She is the winner of the inaugural Orion Book Award and the Barnes & Noble Discover Award for the best new nonfiction writer to be published in the United States. She’ll also be publishing Savage Grace: A Journey in Wildness with Counterpoint in March 2015.

Photo of children silhouetted beneath tree courtesy Shutterstock.

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