The Child Botanical: A Case For Exploring The Intersection Between Environmental History and The History of Childhood

Childhood in Britain today, as a concept, is extremely precious to society. Children are pure, innocent, as of yet uncorrupted by the world; theirs are ‘the hands by which we take hold of heaven’. They represent the future, both very literally but also conceptually in that they are symbols of potential change, an opportunity to imagine how the world could be different. If this is true, then what is adulthood? It is the antithesis: a corruption of innocence, a loss of purity, and a symbol of the status quo. Our idea of nature, of what is “natural”, is significant to such concepts. We see the adult world as constrained, urban, and interior whereas the child’s, ideally, is unconstrained, rural, and exterior. The outdoors: forests, parks, beaches, and riverbanks are the “natural habitats” of youth, where children exist at their best, not the home, car, factory, or office. Children are lent a purity by association with these natural spaces. Simultaneously, they lend their own purity to them. Our conceptualisation of children and of nature tie them inextricably to one another.

This concept of the “child botanical”, one that does not necessarily square with the reality of the relationship between childhood and nature, took hold in Britain with the advent of industrialisation. Its origins lie in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s On Education (1762) which marked a departure away from the puritan belief of original sin towards the opposite, that we are born virtuous. In the 19th century romanticists such as William Wordsworth mainstreamed the idea and ‘the cult of childhood’ was born, leading to a boom in children’s literature from The Water Babies (1863)to Swallows and Amazons (1930). Such works and ideas nearly always tied children and the natural world together; becoming joint-symbols of an idealised natural purity that was being lost to the modern world of factories and smog. Today that sense of loss is still prevalent, felt at both societal and often deeply personal levels, and it now has a name, “cultural severance”.

In post-war Britain this relationship gained a new dynamic with a sharp rise in population, the car, and resultant urbanisation. This is the period which holds the most contemporary relevance because it is that of the childhoods of today’s adult population who have seen (and overseen) during their lifetimes a transformation in the way children interact with their environment. Many equate the degradation of the natural world they have seen over time to a deprivation of childhood. But are they right? Is there such thing as a “special relationship” between nature and child? Why has the concept proved so appealing? Why is it that children have found themselves at the centre of the debate around the present climate crisis? Why does the 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg draw so much admiration, but also so much hate? As the effects of climate change steadily encroach further into our daily lives, issues around the relationship between childhood and the environment are only being brought into greater prominence. Climate change is being cast not only as a physical attack against children – in the form of pollution – but also a conceptual one; an attack against the “child botanical”. Greater study of that relationship, and how it has changed over past decades, is therefore both important and timely.

However, children as physical beings, as supposed to concepts, are prone to act antithetically to the ideals they are held to. What children decide to value within their environment is ultimately up to them, and their choice versus the expectation of it can prove disruptive. Sometimes a rolling pastoral landscape is boring whilst a busy industrial site is exciting; sometimes a dead animal is more intriguing than a living one. To many children nature isn’t something to protect; it is to be used, to be played with. Likewise, the natural world doesn’t always show respect for the purity of the child, indeed, children are more prone to its dangers. The point here is that the relationships between children and environments are necessarily their own. They are unique and fundamentally different from those of their elders, transgressive even, and yet in history they are paid little attention to. Despite the importance we place on “childhood” and “nature”, history seems to indicate we value these more as concepts than as realities. Such relationships can no longer be deemed ahistorical, for they offer what historians constantly seek, a new perspective.

Some works in recent years have begun to tackle such issues and the “the environmental history of childhood” more generally. All focus so far has been on America, where this concept was first toyed with in Elliott West’s Growing Up with the Country (1989). It is clear West thought this an area criminally underexplored in history, describing it as being ‘at best embryonic’ despite the subject matter being ‘of some of society’s most important, interesting, and perceptive members’. It is important to note that West did not set out to make his history of childhood environmental, this was simply the logical direction that study led him, a clear indicator towards the natural fit that these two fields have together. West found that the key difference in how children and adults related to the frontier was in their relationship to the environment. For children the flora, fauna, weather, and land were not symbols of a “frontier” at all, they were home, the only world they knew. Therefore, their relationship with said environment was fundamentally different from their parents, they held a unique ‘kinship’.

Since 1989 however, whilst the respective fields of the history of childhood and environmental history have both grown, they have had little interaction. To date there has been only one book that has explicitly sought to write an environmental history of childhood: Pamela Riney-Kehberg’s The Nature of Childhood (2014). Again, this is an American work, focussed on the mid-west from the 19th century to the present. Therein, Riney-Kehrberg does an excellent job of explaining the methods by which American society has sought to control the relationship between child and environment and charts the increasing restriction of children’s spaces over time, particularly in urban environments. Today, she argues, only the indoors is considered a “safe space” for children. The work overall lacks a degree of nuance, however. The past is always framed as a ubiquitous gold standard from which things have only ever deteriorated, specifically since Kehrberg herself was a child in the 1970s. As a result, the work at times feels as if it was written by a stereotypically miserly elder complaining about “kids these days”, bemoaning that children don’t play outside anymore because they ‘spend their leisure time at soccer matches, watching television, or looking at their computers, cell phones and video games’. Whilst the use of a declensionist narrative is understandable to an extent, the issue is not so clear-cut as to pronounce the current generation utterly deprived of environmental understanding. Could it not be equally argued that children today have a far greater awareness of the environment as a whole than those of generations prior?

Issues of control are thus also at the heart of this discussion. Because the environment and children are both seen as being malleable, easily influenceable, almost helpless, there is dialogue to be had about how society decides to try and control that relationship. Do we seek to regulate it because we see too little of the innocence that is supposed to exist there? We think of children as pure but also as naïve and unappreciative of the status they hold. They must be taught not to trample on the daisies or build dens from silver birch, to appreciate nature correctly. If they interact with nature in the “wrong way” then they must have been misguided, so we must provide them with the proper guidance to make sure they do it the right way. Similarly, we see nature as being simultaneously virtuous and dangerous. Wild spaces, be they rural or urban, are borderlands on the fringes of society where children can often demonstrate greater degrees of control and independence. The rules are less clear, and the physical space is unorderly and anarchic. At the same time these spaces can be where adults are strictest in their policing, designating pathways not to be strayed from, putting up signs telling you to “keep out for your own safety!”, or preventing entry altogether. Thus, we have the paradoxical concept of wanting to protect the environment and children from one another but also wanting them to exist together as much as possible. How did such ideas come about in Britain? What is encouraging (or discouraging) people to regulate the child botanical?

The methods we use to this end are various, through schooling, scouting, and stories of all sorts. There are a great many number of organisations dedicated to “introducing” children to the natural world, and the focus of children’s media on such themes is intense. Through charming anthropomorphisms, tales of adventure in exciting wildernesses, and escapes from the dreary adult world, we are desperate to instil a love of nature into our youth. This is another of the ideological complexities in how we understand children and nature; that we as adults know better how to treat the environment despite children supposedly being closer to it than ourselves. Humanity tends to cast itself as a warden figure, a guardian over the “defenceless” children and environment; is the high value placed upon them due to how much we value them as independent actors, or as possessions? Examining how people have sought to influence the relationship between child and environment, and how and why that influence has changed over time, can contextualise the relationship we know today and offer perspective on how it might change.

Furthermore, the idea of “children” as a cohesive category is a problematic one. Differences in class, race, and gender play just as much of a role in the lives of children as they do of adults, and yet the ideal of the child botanical has its roots in the work of white, middle-to-upper-class men. Similarly, all the current research is based on American childhoods, what differences might we find in Britain? The environment is an extremely variable factor to, from urban to rural, north to south, highland to lowland. Might it not be that children who are products of different social and societal influences will approach nature in different ways? Is our ideal of childhood the right one?  The rebelliousness of children can be enlightening in these respects, their unfamiliarity with the established order making them more likely to question or transgress it, undermining what adult society says certain types of people are a “natural” fit for. Ultimately, our current understanding of how children independently think about and interact with nature is limited.

Examining how the relationship between the environment and childhood has changed over time is thus an insightful and important enterprise. This is an area of study that is both bitingly relevant to the present day, surprisingly underexplored, and delves to the heart of heart of contemporary issues around urbanism, social control, class, generational divides, safety, and of course the environment. The value society places on children means that demonstrating how environmental issues affect them can lead to greater value placed on environmental issues. Highlighting children’s points of view as an alternative to mainstream society also asks us as adults to re-examine what we value within the environment and childhood and re-assess how we present these things to each other. It asks us to incorporate children into our thinking about the spaces in which we live from their own perspective, not how we would wish them to be. It asks us to consider which “version” of childhood we are seeking to promote in society.

Author/Publisher: Louis Lorenzo

Date of Publication: 7th of January 2020

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