Making Meaning Through Natural Metaphor

Sally McMillan was concerned about the 13-year-olds in her seventh-grade English class. She wrote:

“Most 21st-century adolescents have difficulty comprehending the numerous natural descriptions and metaphors they encounter (i.e., ‘a waxing, waning moon’) in, for example, Romantic poetry, transcendental essays, folkloric stories, or Shakespearean plays.”[1]

With their sparse direct interactions with nature, how could these young people even understand, much less value, the long traditions of poetry and other forms of literature that employ natural metaphors in the search for human meaning?

Art thou pale for weariness
Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth,
Wandering companionless
Among the stars that have a different birth,
And ever changing, like a Joyless eye
That finds no object worth its constancy?

From “To the Moon,” by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

For a young person who hasn’t had much skywatching experience—whether because light pollution has obscured our celestial birthright, because he spends too much time watching computer screens instead of the night sky, or just because he grew up in Seattle where clear nights are a rarity—how could he intuit that “ever changing,” for the moon, means going through the same cycle month after month? That constancy underlies those unending changes?

McMillan and her fellow researcher, math and science teacher Jennifer Wilhelm, asked their students to keep a “moon journal,” in which they observed the moon every day at the same time for five weeks, and wrote two sentences about their experience.[2] The kids’ other teachers helped out by having them read stories and legends, work math problems involving the moon, and build lists of nature-related words they encountered.

The students spontaneously started writing their own moon poetry. Emergent themes included awe; gratitude; hope.

That bears repeating.

Awe! Gratitude! Hope! From simply watching the moon. They paid attention.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention….

From “The Summer’s Day,” by Mary Oliver

 It was as if the students were creating their own new realm of spirituality. Without prompting, they began to see the moon as a protector and to find its rhythms a source of reassurance during this particularly turbulent time of life. One student wrote:

You’re the protector…
The fair moon,
a guide to many souls,
the lantern in the sky.

From another, to the moon:

I know that I will see you again…your promise endures forever.

It’s not only those of us beginning the difficult journey through adolescence who need natural metaphors. Some young friends in their early 20’s wrote recently of metaphors for this time in their lives, evoking mountains, forests, trees blowing in the wind. How will their chosen metaphor evolve, I wonder, as they grow older?

My grandfather wrote this poem, probably when he was about 50, in the prime of his career as one of the first osteopaths.

A little lisping rivulet
That trickled round a stone
Swept up the sands about it set
And drew them farther down.

 It swelled to be a rustling rill
That leaped and laughed along,
And rolled the pebbles ‘round until
The bars bent to its song.

To be a rushing brook it grew;
Around a cliff it wore.
It carved away the base and drew
The towering summit o’er.

Then grown to be a river wide,
It bore with stately ease
The hills dissolved within its tide
And swept them to the sea.

He who his soul’s commission keeps,
And labors with a song,
From power to vaster power sweeps,
And bears a world along.

Can you see the majestic river that’s grown vastly from its origins? Can you hear the tones of a man happy in the height of his powers? Glimpse his evolving sense of identity?

Middle Fork, Snoqualmie River

Finally, I talked with a friend in his mid-80’s about what might be a natural metaphor for this phase of his life. For him, it was a lovely image of mists clearing from a sunlit landscape, revealing the self he hadn’t realized he had always been.

Clearing mist

What natural metaphor speaks to you these days?


[1] McMillan, Sally and Jennifer Wilhelm. 2007. “Students’ Stories: Adolescents Constructing Multiple Literacies through Nature Journaling.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 50 (5): 370-377. http://search.proquest.com/docview/216921765?accountid=28598.

[2] McMillan’s and Wilhelm’s assignment derived from an earlier paper: Duckworth, E.R. (1996). “The having of wonderful ideas” & other essays on teaching and learning (2nd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.

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7 responses to “Making Meaning Through Natural Metaphor

  1. Trileigh,

    The moon has always had a magnetic presence in my life. I’d fall asleep looking at it from my window as a child, and now I often see it through the dome of my yurt on clear nights. Metaphors are a wonderful way to illuminate our relationship with the natural world, helping us realize we are not separate from it. Thank you for your post~

    Katie

  2. I love the idea of natural metaphor, especially for use with children and nature journaling. And that picture of clearing mist is just wonderful.

    A natural metaphor I’ve enjoyed using for my life lately is a rushing creek/river/stream, leading to something great, or maybe just continuing forever in its forward motion. But it’s the idea of forks that intrigues me, that a creek/river/stream continues constantly, until it reaches a fork (decisions in life). Sometimes we take them, sometimes we don’t. And the ones that we do take are our right path, the ones we don’t take melt away into the past. But we are ever continuing on our journey downstream.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Trileigh!

  3. oh, would it be possible to send me the first article you referenced? I don’t think my Seattle U account is active any longer… 🙂

  4. My beloved first grade teacher, Aki Kurose, had us all keep a moon journal. I remember how delighted I was to memorize the spelling of “gibbous”. Thanks for your post and reflections.

    • Maria, I’d love to hear more about your moon journal. What do you remember learning about the moon? Was the journal fun while you were doing it, or did you begin to appreciate it only later?

  5. Enjoyed this, Trileigh! I was just wondering if you knew about Mary Oliver when I got to the Mary Oliver quote. I was also looking at the Cornell Bird Lab website to try to ID a hawk and I saw, “Trileigh Tucker liked this” with the little fb “thumbs up” icon.

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