Giants in my garden, or how to practice oral culture with young children

Giants in my garden, or how to practice oral culture with young children.

By Suzanne Major, Ph. D.

Anthropology of Early Childhood education

I usually have a garden every summer. This year because of the pandemic and worries about shortages, I planted everything I could get my hands on. I was not alone as my local supplier of seedlings sold out over a weekend last spring. I planted what I could and all through summer looked after rows of carrots, beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, snow peas and whatnot. One morning I realized that a few sunflower seeds had invited themselves into my garden. This was surprising because blue jays and blackbirds usually find every single seed so that if I want sunflowers, I must buy a sachet of seeds for the new season. This year was not to be the case as a few sunflowers were growing here and there in my garden. At first, I thought having sunflowers among my tomatoes was no problem and weeded around them for several weeks. Then came the rain. A lot of rain, every other day for a while. When I returned to my garden to tend to it, I just stood there in aw and disbelief. The sunflowers had invaded my garden and stood way over my head. The stems looked like trunks. The leaves were twenty inches across creating many overlapping umbrellas over my vegetables. The flowers were monstrous and vibrating with bees.  As I looked up at them, an eery feeling came over me. The large and heavy flowers were bowing … and looking down at me!

From afar, the garden looked beautiful with so many bright yellow flowers towering over it, but up close it was a forest of sunflower straight out of a child’s story book. You would think that Jack and the Beanstalk had something to do with all this!!  As I stood in the archway of my garden wondering what to do, thinking about my tomatoes, peppers and eggplants, I could sense the vitality of the sunflowers. I could feel their energy carried by the breeze. I got the impression … that they were worried about ME. Yes. Yes. Worried about what I was going to do. They were invading my garden. I needed my vegetables. They did stand like rough giants among my plants but then slowly their sunny disposition got the best of me. ‘’Sunflower sisters,’’ I told them, ‘’Lets make a deal! You can stay in my garden if you let me cut off some of your lower leaves to let the sunshine in.’’ And so, it was done. I cleared a pathway around my garden so that I could walk about as well as small areas where the light and the heat of the sun could reach my tomatoes and green peppers. There was no way I could have foreseen the catastrophic reactions sunflower sisters  would have. 

Discovering nature with young children, which is the storyline all through my blogs, can be done using a scientific approach based on exploration and discovery while referring to written or visual information. The first levels of knowledge[1] such as acquiring information, learning nomination, recognizing symbols, identifying facts and getting a sense of time and place are articulated over the period of early childhood by observing, listening, trying out and repeating. This settles the foundations of knowledge which in turn will allow the development of "conventions, representations, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation. "[2] These levels characterize written cultures such as our own.  It’s the modern way of doing things.

However, discovering nature with young children can also be done using levels of knowledge typical of oral cultures shared by First Nations across the world. The levels of knowledge are identified as concentric rings[3] that create a space and time within which the child comes into a dialogic rapport with things, people, events and experiences. Its like scaffolding but sideways. These rings are spaces of intersubjectivity where complex knowledge is encoded by the child; cognitive, affective, physical knowledge as well as social, artistic and mystic knowledge. Within these rings, in turn, the child also encodes on things, people, events and experiences as everything is interconnected. Learning is achieved by seeing and doing, by listening and imagining, by marking stages, time and space, by accepting unconscious imagery, by apprenticeship and by using creative synthesis. In other words, learning is achieved through " experiential learning, story telling, rituals and ceremonies, dreaming, tutoring and artistic creation "[4], a time immemorial way of acquiring knowledge in oral cultures. A far more complex way of knowing. Some say a postmodern way of doing things.

 My vegetable and flower gardens are surrounded by two acres of land mostly put to grass. This land is among miles and miles of farming land cuddled between mountains to the North and the Outaouais river to the South. This summer has been very warm and humid, and many storms have roared through the area. It does explain in part the size of my sunflowers; some reaching nine feet tall! In these northern parts summers are short so plants have no choice to grow fast and hard. This summer though was special. Cutting the lower leaves of my sunflower sisters proved to be a big mistake as it triggered them to grow another branch and flower head for each severed leaf. From each plant hung four, five or six flower heads with the mother flower towering above. The weight on each plant was visible. It was certain that my sunflower sisters would not withstand the strong winds that would come again. So, in earnest, I gathered them in groups and tied them with large strips of an old bed sheet to the garden fence hoping this would keep them standing. I bunched up the scratchy leaves along the trunks letting once again the heat and light of the sun reach my vegetables. Looking at my green tomatoes, I anticipated that there would be a lot of green ketchup this year! Summer is coming to an end now and I am harvesting, freezing and canning. One by one my sunflower sisters bowed out of the summer scene sprinkling my garden with their yellow petals and, as if to thank me for sharing my garden, they left behind pounds and pounds of seeds, enough to last me, my chickadees and blue jays all winter long. I wonder if they managed to smuggle a few for next summer.

I wish I had grandchild  (he or she might already be on the way!) how would have experienced the presence of  giants in my garden and have lived the events of their fabulous growth, the bursting of all those flower heads, the vibrating energy of the plants, the struggle to save the vegetables, the encounter with my sunflower sisters, the rush to secure them to the fence and the bright yellow hue hovering way up there over my garden.  The warmth and the humidity of the summer brought a lot of bugs, and in turn they brought a lot of different birds as well as frogs, toads, snakes and coyotes. What a fabulous summer it has been! And I have a story to tell from which will stem other stories, dances, enactments, music, songs, paintings, drawings, explorations, experiences, gardening, bird watching and relationships with sunflower sisters and the like. I can envision my grandchild standing in the archway of my garden about to step in the first concentric ring of knowledge.

The modern way of doing things to learn is but a small part of the postmodern way of doing things to learn, grow and live the life of a human being. Discovering oneself as a child, discovering the community to which he or she belongs, discovering the world he or she inhabits, as Gregory Cajete [5] explained, and discovering the fundamental  dialogic process of occurring concentric rings of knowledge through time and space represents the foundations of education.

SM/sm 15-08-20 August 2020, blog 7




[1] Legendre, J. (1993 : 1316). Dictionnaire actuel de l’éducation, Guérin. 

[2] Idem (1993: 1316)

[3] Cajete, G. (1994: 40, 176). Look to the mountain: An Ecology of Indigenous Education, Kivaki Press, 244 pages.

[4] Idem (1994 : 33)

[5] Idem (1994 : 40)