This Summer, the Lighthouse Cinema in Dublin are showing some of Studio Ghibli‘s most wonderful films. I recommend taking the chance to see My Neighbour Totoro on the big screen this Friday, 20th May, as I did last year on Culture Night.
My Neighbour Totoro is set in 1958, in a rural Japanese idyll. It was an era apparently free from “stranger danger” and a litigious public, where children could rove woods and rice paddies unsupervised and carefree. As my nephew (aged two) pointed out, “the girl fell down the tunnel!” Yet she emerged unharmed and all the wiser for having had the experience.
On the day of their arrival in this rural Japanese idyll, four-year-old Mei and her 11-year-old sister, Satsuki, playfully pushed and pulled the rotting wooden post of their new porch, giggling under a rain of soft splinters. Instead of purely sharing in their enjoyment, I caught myself fearing for their beautifully animated lives. I leaned over and whispered to my boyfriend the name of a disintegrating cliff-edge bar in Madagascar, where I used to sit at the landward edge of the table, fearing for our own lives. Mei spent a full morning entirely alone, exploring her new and unfamiliar surroundings. I watched with admiration, but also tiny flickers of uninvited worry, as she sent a cloud of tadpoles wriggling with her little hand. It was a shallow pool – but deep enough to drown a child! Her rusty old bucket made an excellent telescope, but won’t somebody please think of the tetanus!
I don’t know where these worries came from. I spent my own childhood splashing about with tadpoles and rusty buckets, enjoying and surviving every minute of it. How did I fall victim to the marketing campaigns of the big “cotton wool” corporations? What do we need to do to regain our sense of safety, or failing that, our sense of reckless abandon? Where did we lose it to begin with?
Empowerment of children through nature
This train of thought led me to discover Isaac Yuen, who has already written a far more in depth tribute to the empowerment of children through nature as portrayed in My Neighbour Totoro. Delving into Yuen’s blog, Ekostories, I felt I had discovered a kindred spirit. He describes his work as “taking notes at the intersection between nature, culture, and identity”.
Mei and Satsuki tested the power within themselves by shouting up a dark stairway at the soot gremlins. At that moment, a small voice in the cinema piped up, “Bad idea!”. I wondered how much time the children sitting around us get to spend carrying their own experiments through all the way to the results stage, uninterrupted by warnings. How do we enable children to discover for themselves without fear that what climbs up a tree must come down? Where can we let them run wild, find ways to translate pent up energy into creative action, and maintain their awareness of the connection between mind and body?
The OWLS Children’s Nature Charity provides just such opportunities to children in Dublin, in safe, but not restricted, environments. OWLS club members can build their own shelters, learning from trial and error about the physical properties of materials, spatial reasoning, construction, design, and teamwork. Pond dipping presents them with the stunning diversity of creatures beyond what they are taught at school (I’ll never forget how cheated I felt when I learnt in my twenties that there are 101 species of bee in Ireland, and at school we had learnt only two!). It is a chance to familiarise themselves with how water bodies work, how to stay safe around them, and how to face the things that make them squeamish. As a volunteer with the club, I have seen painfully shy children become confident experts and leaders in their chosen field, because nature has something to offer everyone. As soon as my nephew is old enough to join I will be bundling him off to meet real life Meis and Satsukis!