An old New York Times article about Waldorf schools popped up in one of my social media feeds recently. The reticence of certain technology pioneers to educate their children with technology caused me to reflect on why my husband and I moved our family to the country, where we homeschooled them and postponed personal electronics until their teen years.
Nearly nine years ago, my husband and I uprooted our then-young family from a settled, suburban neighborhood to a small farm in a tiny town outside the big city. No matter where we’ve lived over the course of our nearly 30 years together—apartment, rent house, residential home—we’ve grown our own garden, even if it was simply tomato and pepper plants in pots on our balcony. We always felt a connection to nature most of our other friends didn’t.
Years before we realized we weren’t connecting to families in our neighborhood the way they connected to one another, we’d dreamed of moving to the country. In fact, toward the end of our suburban experience we actually came to realize we were “that” family—the weird ones constantly at school with their kids only to finally shun public education for homeschooling, as well as trading Big Pharma for better diets with natural medicines and choosing outside play over screen time.
The transition to country living wasn’t easy. The house was being remodeled around us as we tried to homeschool three kids, make new friends, and decide how to make use of our acreage. But those weren’t our only issues.
It took forever to get our daughter to actually enter the house because we had come out to visit before we moved in and found a large black rat snake slithering under the door jam. Although they may have read books about farms, snakes hadn’t made the lineup of expected loveable farm animals.
Ripping up the carpet and moving walls of a house that hadn’t seen human residence for nearly two years brought out all the inhuman residents in droves. Between the kitchen and living room was an area we dubbed the “scorpion highway” because nearly daily I’d be met by shrieks of fear as one of the kids encountered this very kid-unfriendly insect.
They, like the brown recluse spiders, seemed to pop up constantly and in the most unexpected places—like inside a mixing bowl in the cupboard, or climbing out of a bathroom vent and falling onto the tile floor in the bathroom while I watched in disbelief and dread.
Above all, there were those early, eerie, unfamiliar nights. Our new house was dark and quiet. Not the dark you get at night in the city when you don’t have a nightlight in the hall, but a dark so dark you couldn’t see a foot in front of you without some kind of illumination. Not the quiet you get in the city where, after you’ve turned off all the electronics and the kids are asleep you can still hear the traffic noise, or the neighbors, or the general hum of city, but a silence so thorough it was unnerving—like floating in space.
I remember several times startling awake to kids directly in my face whispering, “I’m scared. It’s too quiet in here,” followed by the inevitable whine of, “I wanna go home.”
It was true. Although you couldn’t hear the city noises to which we’d been programmed, you could hear brilliantly well the howl of a very nearby pack of coyotes, or the screeching hoot of an owl, or the bray of a donkey. Every little disturbance like this would keep us up for hours wondering what we’d gotten ourselves into moving away from our comfortable, noisy home in the ‘burbs.
Today, not only do we have the farm-requisite adopted dog pack and salvaged cats, we also raise chickens, ducks, and bees, the mother/daughter donkey duo Tinker and Josie, and my rescued paint horse, Daisy. We also have a very large garden, which provides me rest only during December and January.
It’s during the gardening portion of my day that I often listen to an Audible book. Recently I finished “Witness,” by Whitaker Chambers. It’s his story of the Alger Hiss trial conducted by the House Un-American Activities Committee beginning in 1948.
I was struck by the forward, titled, “Letter To My Children.” Here, Chambers not only reveals the epiphany that led to his Christian conversion as the reason he denounced himself and other prominent Americans as Communists to the U.S. government, he talks about the family’s move to the country, where he and his wife farmed and schooled their three children.
For nearly half an hour one day, I stopped picking blackberries to listen with all the focus I could muster to his description of the farm and its effect on his family during and following the trial years.
“The farm was your kingdom, and the world lay far beyond the protecting walls thrown up by work and love. It is true that comic strips were not encouraged, comic books were banned, the radio could be turned on only by permission (which was seldom given or asked), and you saw few movies,” he says, addressing his children. “But you grew in the presence of eternal wonders. There was the birth of lambs and calves…There was also the death of animals, sometimes violent, sometimes slow and painful – nothing is more constant on a farm than death.”
“Sometimes, of a spring evening, Papa would hear that distant honking that always makes his scalp tingle, and we would all rush out to see the wild geese, in lines of hundreds, steer up from the southwest, turn over the barn as over a landmark, and head into the north. Or on autumn nights of sudden cold that sent the ewes breeding in the orchard, Papa would call you out of the house to stand with him in the now celebrated pumpkin patch and watch the northern lights flicker in an electric clouds on the horizon, mount, die down, fade and mount again till they filled the whole northern sky with ghostly light in motion.”
“Thus, as children, you experienced two of the most important things men ever know – the wonder of life and the wonder of the universe, the wonder of life within the wonder of the universe. More important, you knew them not from books, not from lectures, but simply from living among them. Most important, you knew them with reverence and awe – that reverence and awe that has died out of the modern world and been replace by man’s monkeylike amazement at the cleverness of his own inventive brain.”
I was dumbstruck. In these three paragraphs, Chambers had provided words to the thoughts and feelings percolating through me since our move.
With the rise of technology, humans have finally lost the connection to nature—and themselves—they had prior to the Industrial Revolution. Today, constant access to continuous streams of content right from the palm of our hand keep us connected to everything but ourselves and the world right in front of our faces.
It’s easy to fear global warming without a firsthand knowledge of the weather cycles that influence the growing season, or demonize eating animals without seeing the brutality nature inflicts on its own. Yet it’s not necessary to move to a farm to obtain knowledge enough to learn about the world or understand different perspectives, it’s simply necessary to be deliberate about unplugging from technology to do so.
Without the opportunity to think deeply about ourselves and our place in the world and among humanity, there is little ability to square our beliefs with reality, consider how our experiences form our beliefs, and maybe most importantly, study the subjects and issues around which our belief systems arise. These are the things we really wanted our children to consider and the things we weren’t sure they could find in the city, in a public school filled with the technology to direct their thinking for them.
Today many Americans claim to be irreligious, but how can anyone be expected to hear God when they can’t even hear themselves over the cacophony coming from their own hand? Only in silence does this occur. Only in the silence do we hear the “still small voice,” and only in silence can we grow.