The Intentional Tourist

Teaching our children to notice and honor our natural surroundings

All morning we had climbed the mountain, my wife and I and two friends from a neighboring mission station. With us were two young Africans who carried our water and lunches and rain gear. We reached the top, hot and tired, but with enough energy left to marvel at the panorama spread out before us. This was what we had climbed for. We stood in Nigeria, and could see into the Cameroons to the east and Chad to the north.

We picked out flat rocks on which to sit so we could savor the moment. I glanced at the African boys to see how they would react to the beauty of their own mountains and the neverending bush in which they would live for the rest of their lives. Both of them were seated, too. With their backs to the view that we watched with such enthusiam.

When we lived in Saudi Arabia, we often took off into the desert just to explore it and to see for ourselves what life was like in such a place. Often we drove down the roadbed of the railroad that the Germans had built for the Turks when this section of Arabia was part of the Ottoman Empire. This is the same railroad that Lawrence of Arabia harrassed during the First World War when he was helping the Arabs drive out the Turks in the "Arab Revolt."

One time we were almost forty miles from home when we came to a roadblock set up by the Saudis to prevent further access to that part of the desert. The guard stopped us and asked us where we were going and why. I told him in my broken Arabic that we were merely looking around, sightseeing as it were (although I didn't know the Arabic word for sightseeing!). He was dumbfounded. I'm sure he expected we were spies for the Israelis or someone else. At any rate, he didn't let us pass.

It was impossible for that guard to comprehend that we were just "sightseeing." He had lived in that desert all his life. There was nothing to see except the desert. Sand. Rocks. A few stunted trees along the banks of a dry riverbed. Why would we want to look at that?

Wilkie Collins, in The Woman in White, has one of his characters say, "Admiration of those beauties of the inanimate world, which modern poetry so largely and so eloquently describes is not . . . one of the original instincts of our nature. As children, none of us possesses it. No uninstructed man or woman possesses it. Those whose lives are most exclusively passed amid the ever-changing wonders of sea and land are also those who are most universally insensible to every aspect of Nature not directly associated with the human interest of their calling."

Collins had an insight. However, it isn't just the primitive African or tundra-dwelling Eskimo or desert-dwelling Arab who is insensitive to the "ever-changing wonders of sea and land." One glance at our roadsides makes us realize that the inhabitants of our "civilized" country are just as insensitive. Throwing an empty beer can or a sack of garbage out the car window can never be done by those who love the beauty of the land through which they pass.

There's a lesson here. Education--Christian education, secular education, in whatever form we can deliver it--is essential to the preservation or at least the conservation of our land and sea. And that education must come early in the lives of our children. Every parent, every teacher, everyone who has a hand in teaching our youngsters, must themselves feel a responsibility to teach our kids that the natural world is beautiful and must not be defiled.

The ramifications of this concept are neverending. Like a stone thrown into a pond, like a pendulum set in motion, the cumulative effects can be enormous. We must never shirk our duty to our children and grandchildlren by forgetting for one minute that they are watching us when we leave a cluttered campsite--or ignore a sunset--or turn our backs on a mountain--or pay no attention to a cornfield stretching to the horizon.

Birney Dibble, M.D., lives in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. This is his first contribution toMinnesota Parent.

 
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