Excerpts from Prartho Sereno’s book-in-progress, Tending the Roots in a STEM-Crazed World: Gleanings from a Curriculum in Wonder
If… a child loses her natural friendship with the world of animals and trees, her sense of belonging to the realms of weather and the moon and stars… how will she endure the loneliness?
If a child is not encouraged to develop her inner ear, how will she hear her calling?
If the magic that is the soul of imagination is squelched in our children, what will become of the wild evolutionary experiment that is Planet Earth?
If a child’s questions are answered with readymade knowledge… how will she find the urge and courage to bushwhack—to open new pathways into the Unknown and walk them?
If children are not encouraged to keep their hearts open, how will we endure the ensuing reign of indifference and mistrust?
If the flame of children’s infectious playfulness is snuffed out, who would want to live among us?
* * * * *
The Wind-up Bird
Perhaps our dilemma is not so new. Maybe only that the working parts have grown… and continue to grow… more convoluted and complex. Certainly, as the globe dangerously warms and worldwide poverty and anxiety deepen, the ante has been upped.
Way back in 1843, Hans Christian Andersen illuminated modern industrial-aged man’s predicament in his story The Nightingale: As it opens, the Chinese emperor is shaken to discover that the most valuable treasure in his kingdom is one he himself does not know. A small brown bird, he is told, lives and sings in the forest beyond his garden, enchanting all who hear. Of course, he demands that the bird be brought to sing for him that very night.
With the help of a kitchen maid, the nightingale is found and beckoned. The bird goes willingly to meet her king, who soon learns that everything he has heard about the bird is true. When she opens her beak to sing, tears fall from his weary eyes. He asks the nightingale to stay with him, and she accepts his invitation, and word about the emperor’s bird and her lovely song spreads throughout the kingdom and beyond.
Then one day a gift arrives at the palace from a nearby kingdom—a clockwork version of the nightingale, made of pure gold and studded with precious jewels. When the emperor winds the bird up, he is delighted to discover that she is able to sing an almost exact replica of one of the nightingale’s songs.
Gradually, the glittery wind-up bird takes over the attention of the emperor, until the real nightingale decides to fly back to her home in the woods. She does this without anyone noticing that she has left.
This is the moment when our predicament rises its seductive head, isn’t it? The glistening bells and mesmerizing whistles of all our contraptions? The magical wormholes of our screens, where we travel in vivid technicolor through time and space? Who needs the simple brown bird on the branch?
In time, of course, the Great Eventuality arrives at the emperor’s door—his death. Sadly, the comfort he had found in his bejeweled nightingale has evaporated. The gears and springs of the wind-up bird have gone to rust. It can only squeak and whir.
This is when his old friend, the little brown bird with her enchanting voice, hears of the emperor’s need and comes to sing to him again. She brings a song with hope and trust as its heartbeat. This song, sailing on the breath the nightingale’s love, brings the emperor back from the brink of death, so that when his death comes round again, he is able to die contented.
I think we all know what the clockwork bird represents in this story. In the high-beam, rough and tumble scramble of all our seeming progress—lit streets, touch screens, delivery drones—we have eroded the night of its stars, the morning of its layered silences, our consciousness of its translucent emptiness.
But what of the nightingale?
She is a small, easily overlooked creature, with a voice that brings everyone back into their hearts—-even a foolhardy self-absorbed autocrat. She is a voice. The voice that breaks through the crusts of power and greed. A voice that everyone understands. Her song can be imitated, but the imitations will never ring true. Only this voice can bear the beauty and trust capable of healing.
May I suggest that this is the voice that lives at the edge of the garden inside each of us, in touch with beauty and generous in sharing that beauty. She goes willingly wherever she is invited, bringing hope and trust. We all heard her in the beginning, and when we are lost, it is her voice we long for.
Dare I suggest—the voice of poetry?
* * * * *
[…] It is difficult to put in definitive words what [my students, especially the youngest ones] teach me. When I am around them I find myself laughing deeper and dancing with more zest. I am more surprised by the turn a moment can take, and sometimes they bring me back to the hidden springs of tears. So here, in this collection of words, I am going to try to do the impossible, push the words beyond themselves in order to show the teachings.
Recently, to include me in the conversation she’d been having with the secretary and to also acknowledge that she knew why I was signing into middle school, the principal made an off-the-cuff comment. “Is poetry as divisive as everything else these days?”
Without a moment’s hesitation, my answer streaked out, “Heavens no!… Poetry is the exact opposite… It’s where we go to heal divisions!”
“Hmmm,” she said, as it seemed to have never occurred to her in quite that way. “Maybe we need more of that.”
Yes. Which I hope will come clear as we make this journey through the classroom evidence ahead in these pages.
Now is a time in our collective consciousness when “identity” is at the forefront of our worldwide discussion. I celebrate the movement and inclusion of so many who were bullied away to the fringes and wholeheartedly welcome them into the heart of our communities. But my perhaps unfashionable interest is to dig down beyond personal identity, to our common source. To wonder at the uncanny improbability of life itself, including somehow, little you and little me. I once heard the cosmological scientist proclaim, “The only thing that can save humanity and our planet from our destructive selves is the widespread experience of awe.”
To that I say Yes. And with poetry as our dowsing rod, I invite you to head out with me, to the fields where it is said the underground springs of wonder flow.
Do you have something say about poetry? An essay on being a poet, tips for poets, or poetry you love? TrishHopkinson.com is now accepting pitches for guest blog posts.
Prartho Sereno’s prize-winning poetry collections include Indian Rope Trick, Elephant Raga, Call from Paris, and Causing a Stir: The Secret Lives and Loves of Kitchen Utensils. Poet Laureate of Marin County (2015—17) and MFA Syracuse University (2013), Prartho has been a Poet in the Schools since 1999 (Radio Disney Super Teacher Award, 2007) and is founder of the 12-years-and-counting, currently-zooming Poetic Pilgrimage: Poem-Making as Spiritual Practice.
Although she claims over four years’ life and work in an Indian ashram to be her strongest creative influence, Prartho also credits excursions into other art forms: counseling psychologist, vegetarian cook, mother of 2, meditation and yoga instructor at Cornell University, book and cover illustrator, and amateur singer-songwriter. https://www.prarthosereno.com