Monday, November 20, 2023

The Case Against Gilding Lilies

In his classic book
A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold, the man sometimes credited as the father of modern wildlife ecology, wrote, "It is the part of wisdom never to revisit a wilderness, for the more golden the lily, the more certain that someone has gilded it."

He was writing specifically about natural places, but he could have been talking about just about any perfect thing with which we humans come into contract. In our efforts to improve upon Mother Nature, Leopold bemoaned our urge to build roads into perfect places in order to make them more accessible; to manage the plants and animals in order to create a more desirable "balance"; to construct facilities to make the experience of wilderness more convenient. We gild natural places with fences and signs and bear-proof trash cans only to find that our love is suffocating. We can't seem to resist the urge, as Shakespeare put it, "(t)o gild refined gold, to paint the lily, to throw a perfume on the violet, to smooth the rice, or add another hue unto the rainbow . . ."

Even the lilies we purchase to decorate our homes have been gilded in their way, cultivated to produce over-sized blooms that come in a gaudy rainbow of colors never seen in nature. Not long ago, I found myself among wild growing lilies, pure white with yellow-tipped stamen and instantly felt the difference. These were the flowers that have inspired culture, art, and literature before they were made tawdry in our efforts to one-up Mother Nature.

We've done the same with children's play, which is to say the natural urge to educate ourselves. For some 300,000 years or so, our species, Homo sapiens, has evolved an extraordinary intelligence through the processes of curiosity-driven exploration, discovery, experiment, cooperation, and invention. Play stands among the perfect things, yet alongside that has emerged this human urge to gild the lily.

We see this gilding in the advent of modern playgrounds and the proliferation of manufactured toys. We see it whenever someone touts an innovation by labelling it "play with a purpose" (which renders it not-play) or by asserting, "They won't even know they are learning" (as if children must be tricked into it). We see it in our classroom management methods which seek to replace the sacred urge to play with rules and curricula that require the application of external motivations like grades, punishments, and rewards. 

Play is enough, especially in the early years. Everyone knows that this is when we are at our most capable as learners, when our brains and bodies are as facile as they will ever be. "They are like sponges" we enthuse and we are right, but it only works properly when self-motivation is the engine, which is to say, when we are playing. Play has evolved as a perfect mechanism for learning, yet sadly, too many of us cannot leave it alone: it's a lily we are too ready to gild.

When we build roads into a wilderness, we begin the process of rendering it less wild and therefore less perfect. Our intentions may be good, but a gilded lily will never live up to the ones that grow in natural places. Play is another perfection that is not improved by gilding.

When we resist the urge to gild and instead stand aside as our children play, we see a perfection in our imperfect world, and if we would keep it, we must resist the urge to gild it.


"This inspiring book is essential reading for every family choosing a preschool, every teacher working with young children, and every citizen who wonders how we can raise children who will make the world a better place." ~Dr. Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids

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