I ran through thickets and jumped over rocks lining the green pond to solve my problems as a child. When a boy I had a crush on called me four-eyes, I vented my rage and pain by swerving around the horse hoofprints in the mud. When my best friends gossipped about me, I caught and befriended frogs. When my father spoke cruelly to me, I walked up and down the causeway my mother had created for me between the pond and the river, pretending I was a wild horse.
I often tell people that I grew up in the woods. I lived on a dirt road on a river, surrounded by trees on every side. When I had friends over, we rarely played with dolls inside—instead, we made up stories as we ran through the horse and deer paths in the woods. My greatest memories are contained in those trees, at the top of the boulders, and within the rosy bramble.
When I met Mary Lennox in Frances Hodgeson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, I knew I had met a kindred spirit. My mother worked hard and raised me like the maid Martha Sowerby did for Mary, and my father was something akin to the gardener Ben Weatherstaff, though not nearly as friendly. Though I didn’t live in a great manor with hundreds of doors like Mary, I did live in seclusion. I learned early on how to play by myself, and I found great joy wandering my mother’s bright flower beds and befriending any animals that would listen to me.
The Secret Garden follows a fictional little girl who grew up in India with parents who barely took note of her and servants who hated her because of how rude and spoiled she had become. At the age of ten, the entire household dies from a disease, and she is sent to live with her uncle at his gloomy manor in Yorkshire.
At first, Mary sets out to continue to hate everyone and everything as she always did, but the maid Martha refuses to let Mary’s ways drive her away. Instead, she allows Mary’s fits and insults to roll off her back and raises Mary the way she was raised by her own beloved mother: She teaches her to dress herself and sends her outside to play in the fresh air. Though Mary at first sets out to despise playing outdoors, nature suddenly does a curious work in this girl.
In India, she barely played outside (or even inside) due to the exhausting heat, and because of that she never felt much hunger. When she appeared in Yorkshire, they all wondered at this skinny, sickly looking child. But as the wind whips around her face, the sun beats on her skin, and the play brings on hunger, she grows stronger and healthier. Her cheeks grow rosier and her limbs fatten. But her appearance isn’t the only part that changes—she begins to smile and have joy. She makes friends with the gardener and Martha, and even a boastful, flirty robin. As she grows to like these people (and creatures), and they return the sentiment, it changes her.
What really turns Mary around is discovering the Secret Garden. Ten years prior, her uncle lost his wife, and when he did, he locked up the garden because of how much it reminded him of her, and he even buried the key so no one could open it. Mary, however, finds both the key and the garden with the help of the robin, and she takes it upon herself to revive this gray piece of earth.
As she becomes captivated with something other than herself and invests her heart in creating something beautiful, her heart grows to see and care for the people around her too—such as Martha, her uncle, and her cousin she never knew existed in the house with her. Yet this change all began with stepping out of doors and breathing in the fresh air.
In her book Home Education, Charlotte Mason devotes an entire chapter to the importance of children playing and learning outside. She wrote, “Let them once get in touch with Nature, and a habit is formed which will be a source of delight through life. We were all meant to be naturalists, each in his degree, and it is inexcusable to live in a world so full of the marvels of plant and animal life and to care for none of these things.” Mason considered it a pitiable idea that a child may go his entire life and not be able to recognize a bumblebee.
She believed that in the warm months, children should spend six hours or more a day in the fresh air. She encouraged mothers to take their children on nature walks where they would draw various plants and identify them throughout the year to record how they grew and changed over the seasons. Mason directed mothers on how to guide their children in building memories of the scenery around them, to give them beautiful images that last a lifetime. She told them to stalk birds quietly and raise tadpoles to frogs. Mason desired for children to be able to identify all the vegetation that grew near their homes, but rather than learn about it through dry books and pictures, she wanted children to touch, see, and smell nature, so as to plant a stronger memory in their minds.
Mason not only believed in the great health benefits to being outside, but also that a life out of doors nourished “body and soul, heart and mind,” just as Burnett demonstrated through Mary in The Secret Garden. She believed that playing in fresh air led children to “enrich their lives with pure interests, absorbing pursuits, health, and good humour.” Isn’t this exactly what happens to poor Mary? The garden overcomes her self-centredness and fills her with a right pursuit of beauty and goodness, and recreates a foul personality to one of joy and kindness.
George MacDonald knew this too. He wrote in A Dish of Orts,
Even the careless curve of a frozen cloud across the blue will calm some troubled thoughts, may slay some selfish thoughts. And what shall be said of such gorgeous shows as the scarlet poppies in the green corn, the likest we have to those lilies of the field which spoke to the Saviour himself of the care of God, and rejoiced His eyes with the glory of their God-devised array? From such visions as these the imagination reaps the best fruits of the earth?
Nature uplifts our countenances and puts our worries in their rightful place. Consider the lilies when you fear, remember the tiny bird God feeds when you’re in want, watch the birthing doe when you doubt, and be instructed by the diligent ant—this is how God uses his creation to guide, comfort, and correct us. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge” (Ps. 19:1–2 ESV). We’re fools to reject such a gift as natural revelation that God bestowed graciously on creation.
Observing and being in nature naturally creates wonder and awe as well. Mason wrote,
“The flowers, it is true, are not new; but the children are; and it is the fault of their elders if every new flower they come upon is not to them a Piccola, a mystery of beauty to be watched from day to day with unspeakable awe and delight … All this is stale knowledge to older people, but one of the secrets of the educator is to present nothing as stale knowledge, but to put himself in the position of the child, and wonder and admire with him; for every common miracle which the child sees with his own eyes makes of him for the moment another Newton.”
Wonder is a necessary part of every believer. Wonder is what causes nature to draw us out of ourselves, to see our own smallness in light of all created order. This wonder captivated Mary, showing her that there was more to life than sulking in a bedroom all day making demands and hating every person who breathed. Wonder taught Mary to look to something greater than herself, which is where Charlotte Mason said all wonder should lead:
One other thing [a mother] will do, but very rarely, and with tender filial reverence … she will point to some lovely flower or gracious tree, not only as a beautiful work, but a beautiful thought of God, in which we may believe He finds continual pleasure, and which He is pleased to see his human child rejoice in. Such a seed of sympathy with the Divine thought sown in the heart of the child is worth many of the sermons the man may listen to hereafter, much of the ‘divinity’ he may read.
Nature is likewise vital to the imagination. MacDonald said that imagination is our imaging God; though we cannot be creative as he was (creating out of ex nihilo), we create from what he has already created. Our imaginations work under and are inspired by nature. “All that moves in the mind is symbolized in Nature,” MacDonald wrote. “Or, to use another more philosophical, and certainly not less poetic figure, the world is a sensuous analysis of humanity, and hence an inexhaustible wardrobe for the clothing of human thought.”
Yet without nature, our imagination disintegrates. Writing about a horrific murderer who denied his already proven crimes, MacDonald said that murderer had no imagination whatsoever. “Never seeking true or high things, caring only for appearances, and, therefore, for inventions, he had left his imagination all until it was nearly destroyed, and what remained of it was set on fire of hell.”
MacDonald believed that our imaginations are like our physical bodies, requiring nurturing and nutrition. An imagination is starved when it’s not exposed to nature, and is left to only fake, lowly, and wicked things to dwell and feed on, which in turn can only lead to its death. We must nurture our imaginations with a life out of doors.
MacDonald illustrated this again: “The imagination that might be devising how to make home blessed or to help the poor neighbour, will be absorbed in the invention of the new dress, or worse, in devising the means of procuring it. For, if she be not occupied with the beautiful, she will be occupied by the pleasant; that which goes not out to worship, will remain at home to be sensual.” When the imagination is not nurtured on the good, true, and beautiful, it can only turn to what is a passing shadow of those things. Again, this comes back to what Mason wrote: Our wonder must lead to awe of our Creator by setting itself on his creation.
After reading The Secret Garden, I desperately wanted to find my own secret garden to hide away in and cultivate without any prying eyes. Yet I missed a great theme of the story: the beauty of nature is better enjoyed with another.
When Mary first discovers the garden, she fears anyone discovering her secret. She says she will die if anyone should learn of it. Yet as she allows more and more people in on her secret in order to help her (or help them), her joy isn’t killed—it flourishes even more. Her eyes turn from her own pleasure of being in the garden to beholding the wonder dazzling in her friends’ faces. She watches for the way it heals the ailing as it did for her, and even begins to look forward to not just spending time in the garden, but spending it with her friends.
What I didn’t realize as a child was the joy I had already around me in sharing the wilderness that encased me with loved ones. Like the thrill of climbing a tall tree with my neighbor on the branch across from me, my best friend riding along on horseback behind me, swimming up the river for breakfast with high school classmates, or gathering autumn leaves with my mother holding my hand. This is how nature truly works a change in us; it draws us from our own desires, passions, and emotions, and turns us outside of ourselves. Scripture echoes this call as it directs our gaze to the ants, the lilies, the birds of the air, and the deer. We all need a secret garden, our own bit of nature that we can share with another.
Charlotte Mason, Home Education, 5th ed., vol. 1 (Living Book Press, 2017), 61.