When the vegetables talk to one another

A shortcoming I have is that of peevishness. Breakfast fails to occur at 9 when I like it. The family is taking too long to gather in the living room for a conference or the day’s Bible reading.

Someone sits down at my desk to use the computer after I had stepped away for a moment. I speak loudly, too precisely, to be polite yet show I am irritated.

By David Tulis

I am unpleasant, for the world is not rotating around me and I want everyone to know it really does.C.S. Lewis in Screwtape Lettersdescribes this state of mind. The patient, the story character who is the subject of a correspondence between a senior and junior tempter, has fallen into a state of testiness as the devils have subtly misled him. “Now you will have noticed that nothing throws him into a passion so easily as to find a tract of time which he reckoned on as having at his own disposal unexpected taken from him. [Distractions] anger him because he regards his time as his own and feels that it is being stolen. *** The man can neither make, nor retain, one moment of time; it all comes to him by pure gift[.]”THE OBVIOUS ANTIDOTE to this breach is, of course, repentance.

Another is appreciating the common course of life and its little annoyances, and seeing how God animates seemingly dead, trivial or unexpected things. When I accept that great things are happening beyond my own experience, in the life of a son, in the small talk with an old crone, in the reading of an old book by a naturalist, I am made open to an inner disposition of sweetness that denies pride and self-importance and makes me more useful, certainly more approachable.

A sweet complacency of spirit are not a native species on my grounds, and so I have to water them, like a gardener her rows, lest I become parched and brittle.

The nurture of these graces I find in one seemingly trivial duty: Giving lessons of a son, 9, in the sun-bright front room at our residence where he does his readings, recites his catechism and draws volumes from his white plastic book bin to the right of the coffee table (if you are seated).

One old friend in this bin is a source of nourishment for both our souls. It is a 102-year-old book that takes small things and makes them great. You may wonder what the snippet below has to do with my sweetness of speech, but I assure you it does, and will try to explain. Buzz in for a moment at the start of chapter 2:

A fine young Working-bee left his hive, one lovely summer’s morning, to gather honey from the flowers. The sun shone so brightly, and the air felt so warm, that he flew a long, long distance, till he came to some gardens that were very beautiful and gay; and there having roamed about, in and out of the flowers, buzzing in great delight, til he had so loaded himself with treasures that he could carry no more, he bethought himself of returning home. But, just as he was beginning his journey, he accidentally flew through the open window of a country house, and found himself in a large dining-room.

So writes Margaret Gatty in her Parable’s of Nature. We have the 1910 edition of this author who was born in 1809 and died 1873. Mrs. Gatty led a very quiet and secluded life and never left the United Kingdom. Her father, the Rev. Alexander John Scott, retired from the navy after the battle of Trafalgar and became a minister. His wife died early, leaving him with two infant daughters. Margaret married the Rev. Alfred Gatty, vicar of Ecclesfield, Yorkshire, reared eight children and looked after the interests of her husband and neighbors.

Mrs. Gatty’s love for animals and plants is in evident in her works. She cultivated flowers and developed a “taste for natural history” in 1848 when she took an interest in seaweeds and zoophytes. A book on that subject, History of British Seaweeds, came out in 1862, 11 years after her first book, The Fairy Godmothers.

“A life of cultivated leisure, such as Mrs. Gatty led in her youth, does not seem possible  to those of this generation, who rush along through existence in the present hurry of the world,” reads the forward to Parables. “[B]ut it was during these quiet years that she accumulated the stores of knowledge and power to which she gave utterance in later life. Her writings will survive the fleeting records of many authors whose opportunities of education and travel far exceeded her own.”

I suppose you wonder how can a 21st century American family learn anything from a 19th century naturalist whose first books are about fairy godmothers and seaweed? To what extent does such a book earn a “science credit” in the parental accounting of lessons?

The answer comes from seeing value in big ideas in such books, and how they are attained by giving ourselves over to one such as Margaret Gatty.

Charlotte Mason, English educator

ONE OF MRS. GATTY’S fans was a teacherly contemporary, Charlotte Mason (1842-1923), whose name I first encountered as a bachelor living in Switzerland. In a visit to L’Abri, in Huemoz, I met Susan Schaeffer Macaulay and her husband, Ranald. Mrs. Macaulay is the daughter of the late Francis Schaeffer, who in 1955 founded L’Abri as a shelter and Christian study center. I was residing in Lausanne, about an hour’s trip away by train and bus, and stayed at L’Abri for nearly a week.

Macaulay’s book For the Children’s Sake is devoted to the work of Miss Mason. Mrs. Macaulay argues for what she calls living books, seeing them as the basis of individualized education, a sort of local economy for the soul. When I was courting, I gave a copy of For the Children’s Sake to my prospect, Jeannette, and said, “If we get married and have children, I would like to homeschool. Would you be willing to read this book to see what it’s all about?”

Miss Mason’s arguments, which the Macaulay book beautifully explores, draw on her Christian understanding about the personhood of the child:

➤ “We hold that the child’s mind is no mere sac to hold ideas but is rather, if the figure maybe allowed, a ‘spiritual organism’ with an appetite for all knowledge. This is its proper diet with which it is prepared to deal and what it is able to digest and assimilate as the body does foodstuffs.”

➤ Miss Mason’s system involves the “the presentation of living ideas,” living books and oral narration by the student to the group or class. She discusses how traditional teaching methods make a mess of a reader’s engagement with Robinson Crusoe. A teacher plays out a professional drama as regards the book, piling on other issues, other subjects and endless questions. “The children who are capable of and eager for a wide range of knowledge and literary expression are reduced to inanities; a lifelong ennui is set up; every approach to knowledge suggests avenues for boredom, and the children’s minds sicken and perish long before their school-days come to an end. *** As I have said elsewhere, the ideas required for the sustenance of children are found mainly in books of literary quality; given these the mind does for itself the sorting, arranging, selecting, rejecting, classifying ***.”

She attacks a German schooling theorist, Johann Friedrich Herbart, who “throws the whole burden of education on the teacher, which exalts the personality of the teacher as the chief agent in education, which affords ingenious, interesting, and more or less creative work to a vast number of highly intelligent and devoted persons **** ” in school systems. Her critique is that children receive much teaching but little knowledge.

➤ Narration and retelling is given after a single reading or hearing of a passage or chapter “because children have naturally great power of attention; but this force is dissipated by the re-reading of passages, and also by questioning, summarizing and the like. Acting upon these and some other points in the behavior of the mind, we find that the educability of children is enormously greater than has hitherto been supposed ***.” I have always despised the practice of asking questions of a novel or story, which seems to me akin to a death and dissection rather than a creative engagement with the author’s mind through the text.

Miss Mason taught in Ambleside, in the English lake district. That village’s name has been taken up by modern admirers. Amblesideonline.org, where my family draws materials, has proved useful to our educational delight. Schools follow her ideas. One is Ambleside School in Herndon, Va., which offers the following. Books such as Mrs. Gatty’s, it says,

are choice works by original thinkers that convey vital ideas. They have not been simplified or interpreted for students. Our teachers do not predigest the material and offer it to the students in a tidy lecture. Instead, our students are spending class time interacting with writers, scientists, artists and historians who are passionate about their work. They will read excellently written books that have timeless stories, important facts, and life lessons connected to their guiding ideas.

Jack Beckman, Covenant College enthusiast

Jack Beckman, a Covenant College education professor, teaches an increasingly popular course to Miss Mason. “She didn’t want parents or teachers to meddle in the mind life of the children,” Dr. Beckman says. “She talks about the notion of ‘masterly inactivity,’ so children can engage all the relations that they find themselves in contact with — books, ideas, plays, running, jumping and all the things that God made children able to do.”

I MENTION THE SIN OF PEEVISHNESS because it makes me unfit to be much of a teacher — or a student. Screwtape’s patient and I are kindred spirits. We are prone to not seeing God’s hand in small adversities and slight delights. Irascible, we imagine our lives belong to us, that our hours are ours and that we are important.

My duty in a boy’s lesson is not something that should frustrate me, but should rather bring me joy. This theme is one that fills the concept of local economy, where we make much of acquaintances and friends, and live through a web of personal commitments and familiar faces and names. I get many ideas for writing from interactions over such a book as Mrs. Gatty’s.

But until I catch myself, I am like the disgruntled cress in Parables who complains, prior to a wonderful rainfall, about the state of the world God has made.

“Do you hear them? oh! do you hear them?” whispered the Cress to her neighbor the Mustard ***; “do you hear how they all talk together of their growth, and their roots, and their bulbs, and size, and color and shape? It makes me quite unhappy, for I am doing nothing like that myself — nothing, nothing, though Iive in the same soil! What is to be done? What do you do? Do you grow great white solid balls, or long, orange tapering roots or thick red flesh, or bulbs with layer upon layer, and coat over coat? Some of them talked of just throwing out a few fibres as a mere amusement to pass away time; and this is all I ever do for business. There will never be a great future in store for me. Do speak to me, but whisper what you say, for I shame to be heard or thought of” (pp 216, 217).

Sources: Susan Schaeffer Macaulay, For the Children’s Sake; Foundations of Education for Home and School (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Books, 1984)
Margaret Gatty, Parables from Nature (London: G. Bell & Sons Ltd., 1910), pp v, vi, 6, 216, 217
C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters (New York: Mentor/Penguin, 1988), chapter 22, pp 82-85