Misguided ideas of “protection” – of nature and of childhood

hand of man therapyjohn muir

There is much conversation in media to “return to nature.” Books and motivational speakers decry amassing material objects; slogans promote exploring the wilderness, saying that “you may have limited cell reception, but the connections are guaranteed to be better;” and social media is making the photographic capture of trees and mountains and rivers a trending fashion statement with its popularity contest of who can #exploremore in the #greatoutdoors. (Bonus points if you are so lucky as to be in the #pacificnorthwest. Which, I admit that I am. And yes, I have used these hashtags, for myriad of reasons that I am now reconsidering.)

My question, though, is when did we leave? There seems to be a general consensus that we return to nature, which would assume that there has been a departure. 

And perhaps this question has two answers, that mirror and echo each other – the first is a large scale, human history view of the retreat from wilderness into civilization, and the slow process of progress from early man’s reliance on nature to modern man’s capabilities with technology; the second is the much shorter span of a single human’s life, from childhood to adulthood, and the life sequencing of spending increasingly more time in schools, then office buildings, and with tools of work and study that go beyond our early curiosity with the outdoors as a play and learning space.


In human history, we have slowly moved out of depending upon the “wild” to survive, opting instead to live much of our lives indoors and in civilization. Likewise, it could be posited that a typical life span also follows this trajectory – from more to less time spent in wild / natural spaces.


Though really, there are doubtless more than just these two answers. For this post, though, humour me to explore these two ways of thinking of our societal withdrawal from nature, and the subsequent consequences both for us as humans, as well as for nature itself. Too, I want to take the discussion a level deeper, and step into the comparison between childhood and nature, both being given somewhat unrealistically pure and innocent attributes.

Looking at the correlations between early man to modern man, childhood to adulthood, and nature to not nature, there also emerges a pattern that the Adult – the modern man, as the civilized being – has the role of the caretaker/protector/”knowledgeable one” in relation to childhood and nature, because the Adult is the more evolved in a life span as compared to a child, just as modern man is more evolved than his nature-reliant ancestor. This role is taken on, though, with a series of unspoken assumptions about this “other” that has been created in the process; assumptions that are, at the least, limiting factors and, at the most, a complete fantasy that has the potential to harm this created Other. (The other here, just to stay on the same page, is the Child and Nature.)

Have adults created an idealized fantasy world to conceptualize nature, and childhood?

Affrica Taylor, a professor at the University of Canberra, talks about the “romanticized and idealized conceptualizations of childhood” (Taylor, 429) that adults create and impose upon real children, essentially creating a Childhood that is completely separate from Adulthood and, by extension, Humanhood.

winnie the pooh

This is a Peter Pan, Disney-infused effect – a way to remember one’s own childhood in a way that isn’t entirely true, and come to authoritative conclusions that affect children now, based on those made-up realities. Affrica explores the same cognitive separation that has taken place in regards to wilderness.

Not only are these images (of nature) themselves devoid of people, but most of us are much more likely to witness the romantic sublime of wilderness on posters, calendars and in diaries than to actually visit these places (427).

Further still, Affrica dives into the conflation between childhood itself and nature, both being pure entities – “innocent” in the case of children, and “unpeopled” wilderness. She writes how “endangered childhood” is becoming a topic as navigated as “endangered wilderness” in academic thought and research, and “loss, danger, purity, contamination, protection and recovery” are all becoming recurring themes in the conversation of both.


In Affrica’s mind – and I would agree – it is dangerous to so quickly conflate nature and childhood with the claim that they both represent a pure ideal of some sort.

Let’s talk about fires now.

This is where I’m going to change gears for a moment. Because sometimes, as adults/modern man in the protector/know-it-all role we’ve given ourselves, we mess it up. We take liberties based on ideas that we ourselves have made up, and these end up being harmful.

Ecology lesson, in the briefest possible way: forest fires are a natural part of the life cycle of a healthy forest; fires clear the forest floor, creating room for new growth and life; fires are a cyclical shedding of the old, and growing the necessary new. Humans have recently, in the big picture, entered the conversation, and decided that fires and their “destruction,” are bad.

We’ve created a version of nature that makes sense in our minds, but not in nature itself. 

From our assumption that we know what/how the forest should be, we not only stunt growth, but we create room for incredible damage: forests that have been “protected” from fires for too long will eventually reach their tipping point, and a rogue lightning strike will erupt years of unburned undergrowth, creating dangerously uncontrollable fires.IMG_2736

To go so far as to compare childhood and nature – or rather, human adults’ actions towards and control of childhood and nature – there may be a lesson in how we can get it wrong, sometimes. As adults create an imagined Childhood that they then feel the need to “protect” in the lives of real Children, we risk disallowing children’s voices from being heard. “Protecting the innocence” of childhood can look a lot like disempowerment. It can look a lot like ignoring actual children, and what they actually want and need, to impose ideas of a false reality, created by adults. (Non-children, by the way.)

Ultimately, what will be the repercussions of this idealized Childhood? What are the wildfires?

Instead of removing ourselves from the experience of childhood with the creation of a myth of what Childhood is, and instead of removing ourselves from nature and treating it as this Other entity, what is needed is a true relationship. Nature is a force of its own – not a fad, a decoration, or a necessarily vulnerable Object (a mountain certainly has power, and can allow or disallow a climber’s summit) – and the human goal should be to understand it and how to live with it, rather than treat it as something entirely separate from ourselves. Similarly, actual children need to be understood as they are, and not by how they fit into a romanticized box of “knowing.” Children are not weak, not voiceless, not representatives from an adult’s fantasy world of Childhood.



Taylor, A. (2011). Reconceptualizing the ‘nature’of childhood.Childhood, 18(4), 420-433.



4 thoughts on “Misguided ideas of “protection” – of nature and of childhood

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed your comparison between forest fires and an idealized childhood constructed by adults. I think that you have made a very valid point that we are tampering with childhood in a way which can be harmful, and like the forest fire analogy we are creating a childhood that is good for adults but perhaps not for children. I believe that the best way to move beyond this practice of creating a childhood for children is to give children a voice. Children are competent and would be valuable in this discussion. In the Wyness (2013) article the author discusses how children’s participation in decision making processes can provide a very positive view, and aid us in developing policies and programs that work with children. Without their voice we are potentially developing an idealized childhood where children are not allowed to take risks for fear of being hurt. Children need to take these risks in order to know how to take positive and calculated risks as youth and adults. I feel like you would really enjoy the book Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv. He provides excellent analysis of the connection and benefits between nature and children’s exposure to it.


    • I agree with you – maintaining the conversation about children but without children is setting up a system that may not be best for them. It creates the adult “ideal” of how childhood ought to be. I see this theme being treated again by Affrica Taylor in her article on the sexualization of children in the media. I have mixed feelings, personally, about Bratz dolls and the capitalism that surrounds the marketing and consumption of children’s toys, clothing, and even food.. however, I do think that she raises a good point that of the few children actually questioned about their own habits and interest in the dolls, none seemed too concerned. In fact, they were pleased to have a toy that was more like them (teenagers) than Barbies, who are miniature – and wholly inaccurate, but don’t get me started on that just now – adults. And just like with wildfires, we have this set of beliefs and ideas about what is best for kids… what could happen if we could involve them in the conversation? Because, unlike trees, they can talk to us. We have to observe the forest for great periods of time to hear its conversation; children, though, are so much more approachable, and are likely happy to talk about themselves and their wants and needs.


  2. There’s some interesting implications to what you’re saying here. First off, I do want to point out that while I agree that the “idealized” notion of nature is probably quite illusory, it’s scientific-type observation and study that leads to such an insight. Case in point: through study and experimentation, we know interesting things about the role wildfires play in forest growth. That’s important to remember, I think: we know that our some of our interventions into forest ecosystems were negatively motivated by ideological concerns, ONLY because we have the empirical evidence, retroactively gained in most cases, to back this up. Our ability to test and hypothesize about how natural systems work can in turn inform something about our own preconceptions and values and how these ideas impact on our policies. In short, we needed the scientifically objective data about forest fires and forest biology to tell us how dumbly blinded we were by non-scientific values and priorities about forests and fires. That’s a nuanced relationship between types (and consequences) of knowledge, and I believe these nuances were lost on Taylor when dismissing the scientific study of child development, for example, as a mere “conceit” that is ignorant of its own culturally or historically determined knowledge base. Good science will often strive towards cultural and ideological self-awareness, in my opinion, and no way of thinking has a monopoly on introspection.

    I’m extremely curious, and admittedly perplexed, by this interplay of factual knowledge and ideological, cultural concern. It had me wondering, when reading your post here, about Indigenous groups in this very region, who prior to contact with Europeans used controlled fire practices agriculturally, and what kinds of conversations about nature drove such practices, practices which possibly resulted in the anomalous thriving of Garry Oak species in the region due to the Oak’s particular resistance to fire damage (see: http://www.goert.ca/about/why_important.php). In Europe, actually, the Oak tree was associated with the deified concept of Thunder and Storm, and worshiped as such. The Norse god Thor had oak groves dedicated to him in Scandinavia and the British Isles, and the Greek god Zeus’ original site of dedication was the Oak Tree at Dodona (there are numerous other examples throughout Europe – there’s an etymological connection between the genus name of the oak, Latin quercus, and a presumed Indo-European root meaning “to strike”, owing to association of hammers and lightning – see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perkwunos). Watkins (1995), an expert on the prehistoric ancestral traditions these figures descended from, speculated that the prevalence of oak trees’ often being struck by lighting, which has been observed in some regions to be statistically higher in probability than most other tree types (DeRosa,1983), led to this association (there was a belief, scientific in its application given the paucity of other evidence, that fire was contained within the wood of a tree, and that the “hammer” or striking of the thunder and lightning god released this fire). I mention this because through an exhaustingly long and extremely complicated history of conquest, linguistic assimilation, and various other forms of cultural contact, this simple observation about oak trees and lightning influenced a fair amount of what goes into dominant Judeo-Christian concepts of what “God” is (and what he does or wants us to do), and therefore of certain outcomes of the anthropocentric attitudes on ecology and environmentalism which directly feed the sometimes arrogant and misguided policies of human societies.

    I also wanted to point out that the idea of nature as a cyclical, self-perpetuating, and self-regulating system is in fact also a highly contested, ideologically driven concept that arguably better, more self-critical science later disrupted. The documentary series ‘All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace’ tackles this interesting historical tidbit in its second episode, ‘The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts’, pointing out that some very odd applications of cybernetics, Freudian psychology, and electrical circuitry informed these ideas, often in highly unscientific ways. Again, the odd interplay of ideology and tested observation “strikes” again.


    DeRosa, E. (1983). Lightning and trees. Journal of arboriculture, 9(2).

    Taylor, A. (2011). Reconceptualizing the ‘nature’of childhood. Childhood, 18(4), 420-433.

    Watkins, C. (1994). How to kill a dragon: Aspects of Indo-European poetics. New York: Oxford University Press.


    • I appreciate your statement on how we acquire knowledge, and that the process of scientific observation has led to our understanding of mistakes in approach. I recently read an NPR article that addresses the same idea, making the assertion that our current situation may not be our fault; how we proceed from here, though, is entirely on us. To bring this ’round to CYC, it would seem that collectively we have gotten to a place in theory and in practice that is not wholly beneficial to the child. Adults’ conceptions of childhood have led to some practices that are perhaps limiting to children and childhood. And so, we say: this is not our fault. Look at the power systems and the structure in which we exist!, we exclaim. And yet: wherever we go from here, that’s on us. Where do we take the conversation, and how do we push for changes in practice?

      Liked by 1 person

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