Natural Fields of Vision
By Robbie Hanna Anderman
I was raised and programmed in the New York
public school system, getting high marks for performance in the required
fields of study. After two years at an Ivy League equivalent private
college in Pennsylvania, I was offered the opportunity to enroll in
Toronto’s innovative and, at the time, controversial Rochdale College at
its newly opening “campus.”
At Rochdale, there was a bulletin board where
people would post, “I want to learn X. Who else does? Let’s meet at Q
and discuss how we’ll learn together.” The whole concept of “What do I
want to learn?” compared to “What do I have to learn to get a mark and a
degree?” was radical to me and greatly altered my concepts of education.
So when a friend asked, “What are you doing in
the city?”, I replied, “That’s a good question!” and accepted his
invitation to visit the hills of Eastern Ontario’s Renfrew County in
mid-winter. I’d never seen so many stars, or so much snow, before and soon
realized that I wanted to learn how to live in the country, closer to
Another friend suggested we buy land together
and, after a successful search, we did. Realizing how much there was to
learn and how likely it was that others would also like to learn such
skills, we began envisioning our old, off-the-grid farm as “Rochdale in
the Country,” a place for people to come and learn country skills.
We were blessed by friendly neighbors who helped
us out and shared their knowledge (not all back-to-the-landers in the
late 1960s were so lucky). Winters were great for reading “How to Do”
books and articles.
Sharing land, community, and child raising with
friends on this land has allowed us to live on a family income usually
well under $15,000 per year, yet it has also meant being very busy
surviving by interacting with Nature.
Amidst my busy-ness, the children, unconstrained
except by the weather, witnessed the wonders of Nature.
Learning What They Want to Learn
Our older son Daryl began to read on his own at
age four. So we understood that children actually do learn to read when
they’re ready, and when they want to. He soon went on to dismantling
typewriters piece by piece and then on to studying and doing all the
experiments on one electronic set after another. These early
investigations have helped him in his present jobs of tech repair at the
local community radio station and computer repair in the local area.
Even more, they re-enforced the notion in us that children learn what
they want to learn when they want to learn it.
Our middle son Ethan began reading on his own at
age 11, as did our third son Ben. We did have our doubts and wonderings
as Ethan, and then Ben, grew older with no interest in reading, and
several relatives and friends encouraged those doubts and wonderings.
Still, it was very clear that these young humans were too busy being
“Young World Explorers” every day, witnessing and interacting with the
natural world and other humans to bother with reading, especially since
we always read story books to them during our relaxing family time every
night. (Living in an “off the electric grid” home, we’ve never had a TV,
although we did call the Turkey Vultures “TVs”.)
One of our favorite story books from the library
was called Clever Lazy, about a Chinese girl from long ago
whose baker mother had successfully asked the Goddess for a child “lazy
enough to be clever, and clever enough to be lazy.”
One night while reading The Lord of the Rings
to Ethan, I got tired and wanted to go to bed mid-chapter. I held firm
despite his pleadings; “If you want to know what happens next, read it
yourself.” And so he did.
There was no stopping him from then on. However,
taking a cue from Clever Lazy, he soon realized that when
reading while lying down in bed, one page easily holds open while the
book rests its weight on the bed. For the second page, however, one
generally has to hold the whole weight of the book up on edge.
Being clever and lazy, Ethan taught himself to
read upside down (and sideways), thus, by turning the book around, the
bed was able to hold the weight of the book for the second page as well.
This has likely contributed to his ease of reading many thousands of
pages in the last nine years.
Our friends, Jean and Chris of Golden Lake, often
invited Ethan to go out birding with them, thus sharing their enthusiasm
for the natural world. Soon butterfly and dragonfly “counts” were a part
of his life in the summers, as they also pointed out and named most of
the plants while wandering through field and forest.
Soon, with his eyes accustomed to that same
180-degree field of vision used while reading in bed, he was finding
butterflies on “counts” in Renfrew County and Algonquin Park that no one
had ever seen there before, a fact that was verified by “experts.”
Then he came home and reported one day that he’d
identified 18 different species of wild orchids on our 100-acre farm,
and a 19th variety across the road, including what turned out to be one
of the largest recorded populations of a relatively rare species that
grows in fens.
Personal Visual Fields
Yesterday, while thinking about writing this, I
went out snowshoeing in the forest over the hill from our home. And I
realized something about my son’s unique way of seeing that I’d not
When out walking and exploring in the woods, and
even in our fields, one has to walk carefully around or over rocks,
bushes, brambles, and the like. Even more, unless one is on a path, one
has to keep alert and watch out for every tree twig approaching from
every angle, forcing one to weave, instead of walking in a straight
In contrast to walking down a sidewalk, which has
relatively straight lines and boundaries, our sons, who always
complained I was too slow when I’d stop amidst our walks to prune
branches and make a trail, were continually confronted with the need to
adjust visual focus and respond to this stimuli while moving about on
At the same time, in contrast to paved sidewalk,
street, and playground, no square foot of Earth underfoot was exactly
like any other. And while there were similarities, the differences could
Now let us consider the visual field of a person
who is looking at a book, TV, or computer screen.
A book is generally about six to 18 inches away
from the eyes, and about a foot square in area, more or less. The words
and pictures are fixed upon the page(s) and the book itself, at rest,
rarely moves much. The eyes generally move laterally across the page
within a limited range. The mind and imagination are active, yet safely
so, within a limited flat visual field at a set steady distance.
With a TV screen, the imagination and mind get
less exercise in most cases, yet the limited fixed visual field is
similar, though larger and usually farther away.
A computer screen can keep the imagination and
mind (and hands) active. Yet again, although the eyes often get the
exercise of seeing things move on the screen – sometimes – even similar
to three-dimensional, the visual focus is still limited and relatively
flat, and at a constant distance.
On the other hand, while “Reading the Book of
Earth,” one has a full 180-degree field of vision in 3-D, usually
involving living beings (plants, animals, insects, et al.), and
elemental expressions like streams, clouds, sun, moon, stars, fire,
wind, shade and shadow.
When looked at with the exploring curiosity of a
child, or simply an open mind, the natural world has so much to teach us
and offers so many opportunities for learning and interaction on so many
Using the art of photography, both sons have
taken their “Fields of Focus” close up to Nature. And they have learned
– and taught – much.
Many of their photos, especially Ethan’s, focus
on the beauty to be found in “little things,” especially flowers, small
flowers, like wild orchids. When something that is less than a
quarter-inch in size is clearly focused upon and enlarged to an eight-by-ten print, Nature’s secret beauty gets revealed.
Ethan was loaned a camera when he was about 15.
Upon showing some of his photos to a visitor, he was gifted with a good
manual Nikon 35mm camera that had been gathering dust on a shelf. By now
he had an eye for beauty and a respect for the cost of film and prints.
While other nature photographers often shoot a roll or two to get one or
two photos, Ethan takes his time, carefully considers the angles and
lighting, often going back hours later when the sun’s angle has shifted
to get the one or two shots he wants. He’s joined a local photographers’
co-op and has exhibited and sold some of his work.
In 1995, my uncle declared that since our sons
were not attending school, they needed a computer. Walking his talk, he
went and bought us a Mac laptop (we insisted on the laptop, since it
puts the least drain on our solar system). Daryl jumped right in,
sharing what he’d learned at friends’ homes with us all, and expanding
his knowledge by leaps and bounds.
Ben, thereby, was introduced to computers at a
younger age than his brothers. After learning to read (especially comic
books), he’s gone on to learn several programming languages on his own
initiative. He also shares his knowledge and skills with us all at home,
and with others elsewhere through chatrooms, etc. So it was no surprise
that Ben chose to pick up a digital camera on eBay. This allows him to
quickly take many more photos than Ethan would, and to show them to us
on the same day: “Look what you missed while working inside.”
Sharing their way of seeing, and their
photographs, I have been quite amazed with the revelations of the beauty
that surrounds me, but which I’ve been missing for over 30 years, even
though I’ve walked right past it. And places like wetlands, which
usually only appeal to me in the winter while on snowshoes, are
certainly growing more appealing to me to venture in to see what’s
there, what I’ve been missing.
What this is confirming for me is that reading is
just one skill amongst the many that are available for “Young World
Explorers” to learn and investigate. If there is no overt pressure to
pick up any skill, learning of it will naturally happen if access to it
Earth is so much a “library” in and of itself,
that focusing on learning to read and to look at screens distracts from
developing other natural abilities and talents. Reading has been
promoted as “The Way” to uplifting civilization and creating material
gain, and it actually is. However, I’m of the thought that such
civilization and material gain have destroyed much of the natural beauty
of Earth, while not making life really better for the vast majority of
Natural Peoples, which we all were at one time.
I have concluded from watching our sons that
reading limits our Fields of Vision. While it is a worthy and often fun
endeavor, we need to balance the amount of attention given to it with
awareness of what it actually takes away from us.
Robbie Hanna Anderman could never
decide on a career, nor on a major in college. His father always told
him “one must keep learning every day”... and so he does. Having been
blessed by five life teachers who share his genetics, he finds each day
full of opportunities to learn. Educated to only play the written notes
on piano and French horn, he moved over to allowing music to “come
through” via the 5-holed Shakuhachi bamboo flute and has allowed the
instrument and life to teach him its sounds. Nowadays he cares for his
organic pear orchard and vegetable gardens, is releasing his second
flute and percussion CD, promotes industrial hemp as a boon for the
environment and the rural economy through The Cool Hemp Company and The
Hemp SeeDee, shares an off-the-grid hilly rocky “farm”
with wonderful neighbors in the Bonnechere Valley in Ontario, Canada,
blows natural flutes, is taking a “refresher course” from his
granchildren, and is learning the dance of life alongside his wife
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